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Campaign donors influencing minimum wage debate

Sara Niccoli of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State said elected officials have been “bought by big business” and are “being paid not to do” what the majority of voters are in favor of. Advocates for a wage hike say campaign contributions from businesses opposing a raise in minimum wage are responsible for the Senate not passing the legislation. Photo by Alli Sofer.
June 18, 2012
Supporters of raising the minimum wage say large campaign contributions to senators by organizations that oppose a wage hike are responsible for the measure not passing the Senate.

"New Yorkers will never be sure that their priorities are being addressed by their elected officials until those elected officials are able to run campaigns without being subjected to the corrosive influence of CEO campaign cash," said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York.

Advocates for a wage hike say publicly financed fair elections would limit the influence of "big money" in politics. They are calling on the Legislature to establish a system that would match donor contributions with public money while lowering contribution limits.

"We think that this year we're seeing the effects of [campaign contributions] even worse as we're getting closer to an election," said Scharff. "We're getting closer to an election where the Senate Republicans are eager to maintain the Senate majority; they seem to be more influenced than before by what their campaign donors want."

According to Scharff, campaign contributions from 10 donors lobbying against a wage hike total about $400,000 statewide since January 2010.

Those donors include the New York Association of Convenience Stores, the Retail Council of New York State, Wal-Mart and McDonald's. The list of top 10 donors was compiled from a New York World article in May that listed organizations and companies which lobbied the Senate on a proposed minimum wage hike, said Charlie Albanetti, spokesperson for Citizens Action of New York.

"While there's not much we can do to stop the CEO campaign contributions, there is something we can do to counter it and that's public funding of elections by allowing small donors to have their funds matched," said Scharff. "We would allow average people's voices to be heard and elevated."

Scharff said 71 percent of the $399,436.87 contributed by the 10 donors was received by Republican senators, including Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie; John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse; and Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, received $17,500.

"Senate Republicans have consistently opposed fair elections and a minimum wage increase," said Scharff. "We can't have a democracy when CEO campaign contributors get to determine what's on the table and what's off the table every legislative session."

Colin Donnaruma of Occupy Albany said the minimum wage issue is an example of why the Occupy movement began. "What we have here," said Donnaruma, "is a small group of extremely wealthy elite who are holding hostage a bill that would benefit hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who are in desperate need."

Democratic senators are also listed as recipients of significant donations, including Minority Leader John Sampson, D-Brooklyn; Neil Breslin, D-Albany; Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan; and all four members of the Independent Democratic Conference — including Jeffrey Klein, D-Morris Park, who sponsors legislation (S.6413) to raise the state's minimum wage. The state's Democratic Senate Campaign Committee is also listed as a recipient of these donations.

When questioned about donations given to Senate Democrats and Democrat Committees, Scharff reinforced her position that there is a "strong relationship" between the campaign funding and Republican opposition to a wage hike.

"[Minimum wage] is a glaring example," said Scharff. "We have an issue where 78 percent of New Yorkers across the political spectrum support it and in an election year the Senate won't even discuss it. There's really no other explanation."

A Siena Research Institute poll released June 11 shows 77 percent, down from last month's 78 percent, of New York state voters surveyed support an increase in the minimum wage.

"Public support for raising the minimum wage has remained strong over the course of the 2012 legislative session and it remains a priority of the Assembly majority," said Silver. "We must end middle class erosion and reduce poverty in New York."

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