by Andrew Oxford, Santa Fe New Mexican
January 26, 2017

Lawmakers took a step Wednesday toward raising New Mexico’s minimum wage.

Members of the House Labor and Economic Development committee voted 6-5 along party lines to advance a bill sponsored by Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, that would increase the state minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from $7.50 over the next three years. Tipped employees would have to be paid at least 40 percent of the minimum wage, a boost from the $2.13 per hour they’re now paid. And starting in 2021, the minimum wage would be adjusted annually based on the cost of living.

Business groups have fiercely opposed such legislation. But one of the state’s most influential industry organizations signaled it is open to negotiating a smaller increase, softening its longtime position and suggesting a hike might be inevitable.

“We are very willing and interested in being at the table to try to negotiate something,” said Terri Cole, president of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.

Gerry Bradley, an analyst from the advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children, told committee members about 112,000 workers around the state are paid the state minimum wage of $7.50, and that at least half of those workers are older than 50. He also said those at the bottom of the pay scale increasingly have a formal education.

“We’re seeing more and more better-educated [people] at or near the minimum wage. That’s a concern,” Bradley said.

Garcia’s bill would fall short of the $15-per-hour minimum wage that some Democrats and labor unions have proposed. It also would leave the statewide minimum wage below Santa Fe’s minimum, which is projected to increase to $11.08 an hour in March.

Critics of the bill said it calls for wages higher than many businesses and nonprofit organizations can afford.

Republicans on the committee raised concerns that hiking the minimum wage would backfire on the low-wage workers the policy is intended to help by squeezing teenagers out of the job market. Another drawback, they said, is that a higher wage would prompt businesses to raise prices.

“I’m really concerned the small towns would pay the biggest price,” said Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington.

Business groups spoke against the bill, and so did an organization representing child care providers, a sector in which employees often are paid minimum wage.

Cole said the Albuquerque chamber would rather be part of discussions in raising the minimum wage than take a hard-line position against any increase, then see a larger hike pass the Democrat-controlled Legislature. But, she said, it is too early in the session to say how big an increase in the minimum wage her organization might accept.

Cole’s comments demonstrated the recent shifts in state politics. Democrats, who campaigned heavily on raising the minimum wage, now control both chambers of the Legislature, and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez will leave office at the end of next year.

Garcia’s bill is one of three that Democrats have proposed to raise the minimum wage.

Another by Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, proposes raising the state minimum wage to $15 an hour in January 2018.

Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, is seeking a far smaller increase, to $8.45 an hour, followed by annual adjustments based on the cost of living.

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