ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A day before the governor officially outlines his priorities for the year, about 75 people rallied Tuesday on the steps of New York's Capitol to call for a $10 minimum wage, pushing big money out of politics, and increasing funding for hunger prevention and affordable housing.
In an effort to rivet attention to the poor and those who lack a loud political voice, the coalition of activists, labor and community groups presented a 12-item "litmus test" for good government and accountability in the state ahead of Wednesday, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo presents his State of the State speech to outline his legislative priorities for 2013.
A major issue shared by the groups and Cuomo is increasing the state's minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour.
"When should we have had it? Years ago. When do we need it? Now," said Robb Smith of Interfaith Impact, getting cheers in response. "We live in a moral society, and it is not moral to exploit low-wage workers."
Those workers keep the wheels of the economy spinning, but it grinds slower and slower when wages drop too low, Smith said. The coalition's litmus test says the legal minimum should be raised to at least $10 an hour and indexed annually to inflation "to make sure that work pays."
Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last year proposed increasing the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour. Cuomo also supports raising the minimum, but the Senate's Republicans previously blocked the bill, calling it a job killer.
Mark Dunlea, executive director of Hunger Action Network, said New York also needs Cuomo to propose at least a $10 million funding increase for emergency food programs.
Daniel Morrissey of Occupy Albany called for protecting clean air and water in New York and therefore banning the deep drilling process for natural gas called fracking, a practice currently under review by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Other items on the litmus test included putting low-income communities first in rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy, which damaged parts of New York City and Long Island. Another is requiring stricter gun control with a more comprehensive ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, two measures Cuomo has also called for. Cuomo began talks after the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Silver said Tuesday that negotiations on a gun control package with the Senate Republicans are "meaningful," but he also accused them of lying. Silver denied he is blocking stiffer penalties for gun crimes, as claimed by Republicans.
Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos is focused on illegal guns in a stronger version of Kendra's Law, authorizing longer court-ordered mental health treatment for individuals who won't seek help but are deemed to be a safety threat. On Wednesday, Silver agreed Kendra's Law is part of the package being negotiated behind closed doors.
Skelos spokeswoman Kelly Cummings said Monday that Assembly Democrats were jeopardizing an agreement. She said, "Their refusal to even consider putting in place tougher penalties, including mandatory minimum sentences for individuals who commit crimes with guns, illegally possess or sell guns, or to strengthen Kendra's Law, is unconscionable."
On Tuesday, Silver called that "an outright lie," but said good-faith talks can continue because "they are lying to the press. That's not a crime."
Senate Republicans had no comment.
The coalition backed improving immigrants' access to quality health care and education, restoring cuts to public education, requiring the wealthy to pay higher taxes, extending labor rights to farmworkers, removing sweatshops from state apparel suppliers' purchasing, and enacting single-payer health care, with universal care funded by a single insurance pool run by the state.
Securing billions of dollars in federal aid for post-storm rebuilding and creating jobs and boosting the economy are among the administration's other priorities.
AP Writer Michael Gormley contributed to this report from Albany.