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House-approved minimum wage bill derailed in Senate

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A Senate committee late Tuesday blocked a House-approved proposal to increase New Mexico’s minimum wage to $12 per hour in 2021 – with future increases tied to inflation – and instead advanced a more modest wage hike plan backed by some business groups.

The Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee’s vote came despite a push from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration for the larger minimum wage increase.

“The governor believes strongly that no one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty,” state Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley testified Tuesday.

But critics of the more aggressive minimum wage bill – passed last month by the House – said it would hurt businesses statewide, but especially in rural New Mexico.

“The increases we’re looking at are catastrophic to our local economies,” said Walter Bradley, a former lieutenant governor who now owns a Clovis restaurant.

While some cities have enacted higher local minimum wage ordinances, New Mexico’s statewide $7.50 per hour minimum wage has not been adjusted since 2009.

Lujan Grisham’s predecessor, former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, vetoed several wage hike bills during her eight years in office.

In contrast, Lujan Grisham has called repeatedly on lawmakers to increase the minimum wage, arguing that such an action would bolster the state’s economy.

The two bills that have moved to the forefront during the ongoing 60-day session both call for significant increases in the minimum wage. But they also feature key differences.

The bill that advanced Tuesday, Senate Bill 437, would in its current form gradually ramp up the minimum wage – to $9.25 per hour in October, then to $10 per hour in April 2020 and eventually to $11 per hour in January 2022.

It would also allow for a lower training wage for high school-aged workers and would not call for any additional increases after 2022.

Representatives from several business groups, including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said they were on board with such an approach.

In contrast, the other proposal, House Bill 31, would gradually increase the minimum wage to $12 hourly by July 2021, with future increases pegged to a federal inflation index.

But that measure failed to advance Tuesday on a 4-4 vote, with Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, voting with the committee’s three Republican members to block it.

Both bills have undergone changes as they have moved through the Roundhouse, with legislative sponsors trying to balance concerns of restaurants and business groups with the calls from immigrant advocacy groups and labor unions to boost worker pay in the face of rising consumer costs.

“I think both of us do want the minimum wage to go up,” said Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, sponsor of the Senate proposal.

The House-approved bill, sponsored by Rep. Miguel P. Garcia, D-Albuquerque, initially called for the removal of a lower minimum wage for tipped employees.

But the legislation was ultimately amended after an outcry from New Mexico restaurant owners and some workers, and in its current form would set the minimum wage for tipped employees at 30 percent of the minimum wage level.

That would make it similar to the Senate bill, which would raise the minimum wage for tipped employees from $2.13 per hour to $3 per hour. The lower wage for tipped employees can be paid as long as they get the minimum wage when tips are included.

As for the New Mexico cities that have already enacted higher municipal minimum wages, Santa Fe’s minimum wage recently went up to $11.40 per hour and is currently the highest in the state. 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 that advanced 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.

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