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Panel approves raising minimum wage to $10

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico hasn’t increased its $7.50-per-hour statewide minimum wage for a decade, but that could change this year due to a renewed push by advocates and a new state political landscape.

Juan Avila, a University of New Mexico student who says he holds four part-time jobs, argues in favor of a bill that would raise the minimum wage during a House committee meeting Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A bill seeking to bump up the minimum wage to $10 an hour – and even higher in coming years – cleared its first legislative hurdle on Tuesday on a 6-3 party-line vote, with majority Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

“Minimum wage workers are past-due for a raise,” said Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, one of the measure’s sponsors, at a news conference before Tuesday’s hearing in the House Labor, Veterans’ and Military Affairs Committee.

“We’ve got the votes to make it happen in the House and Senate,” he added.

But critics said a large jump in the minimum wage might have unintended consequences.

“I think we need to raise the minimum wage – but this might be a little much,” said Rep. Tim Lewis, R-Rio Rancho.

And representatives of the state’s restaurant industry expressed concern Tuesday that eliminating an existing lower base wage level for tipped employees – as proposed by the bill – could be damaging for businesses and lead to workers actually pocketing less money.

“Frankly, I am terrified,” said George Gundrey, owner of the historic Tomasita’s restaurant in Santa Fe. “I’ve done the math on this, and it would decimate my restaurant if we don’t make big changes.”

Specifically, he said, the restaurant would have to convert to a self-service model or raise prices drastically to absorb the impact of the proposed minimum wage hike.

Currently, there are seven states – Washington, Oregon, Montana, California, Michigan, Nevada and Alaska – that require employers to pay their workers the full state minimum wage before tips, according to U.S. Department of Labor data.

The bill debated Tuesday, House Bill 31, calls for New Mexico’s minimum wage to increase to $10 an hour starting in July. It would then go up to $11 per hour in July 2020 and again to $12 per hour in July 2021. Starting in July 2022, annual increases would be tied to federal inflation rates.

State Department of Workforce Solutions data show that under the proposed legislation, more than 110,000 New Mexico workers – most of them women – would get pay raises starting in July.

Bill McCamley, a former state lawmaker whom Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham picked to head the department, said the bill endorsed Tuesday aligns closely with the governor’s agenda.

“The governor believes no one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty,” McCamley testified.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, was sworn into office on Jan. 1 and called for a minimum wage increase in her State of the State address last week. Her predecessor, former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, vetoed several proposed minimum wage bills during her eight years in office.

Some New Mexico cities have already enacted higher municipal minimum wages. Santa Fe’s minimum wage recently went up to $11.40 per hour, Las Cruces has a $10.10-per-hour minimum wage, and Albuquerque’s is $9.20 – with a lower base wage for tipped employees and those who get certain benefits.

The bill approved Tuesday would not pre-empt the local ordinances whose minimum wages are higher than the new state wage, meaning no employees’ wages would be reduced under a statewide wage hike.

A coalition of immigrants’ rights advocacy groups is the driving force behind the bill, Garcia said, and their members showed up in force to testify Tuesday. That led to complaints from some opponents of the wage hike who showed up late for Tuesday’s hearing and were not allowed into the packed Roundhouse committee room.

One worker who spoke in support, University of New Mexico student Juan Avila, said he currently holds four part-time jobs to make ends meet.

At least two of New Mexico’s neighboring states recently approved ballot measures to increase their minimum wage levels.

Colorado now has a $11.10 hourly minimum wage, and Arizona’s minimum wage is $11 an hour, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Texas, Utah and Oklahoma all have minimum wage levels of $7.25 an hour, which is also the national minimum wage.

A different minimum wage bill proposed this year by Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, but not yet debated, would increase the state’s base wage rate by even more – to $15 per hour.

Meanwhile, the bill that was endorsed now moves on to the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee.

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