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Wage Fight Going To Public

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The fight over Albuquerque’s minimum wage is moving out of the courtroom and into the living room.

Voters can expect canvassers on their doorsteps, fliers in their mailboxes and plenty of advertising.

They can expect to hear from groups identifying themselves as “Raise the Wage” and the “Committee to Keep Albuquerque Working.”

On one side are supporters of an increased minimum wage: a coalition that includes left-leaning groups OLÉ, New Mexico Voices for Children and municipal-employee unions. They circulated petitions this summer to get the proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot.

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“Our plan at this point is to do get-out-the-vote work — lots of canvassing and face-to-face conversation,” OLÉ President Mary Lee Ortega said Friday.

Their “Raise the Wage” committee has about $25,000 to spend so far, according to reports filed with the city clerk.

On the other side are business-friendly heavy hitters, such as the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the New Mexico Restaurant Association.

Opponents announced a “Committee to Keep Albuquerque Working” on Friday, headed by businessman Hector Pimentel, who works in real estate. They’ve raised $800 so far, according to their first campaign-disclosure report.

The National Restaurant Association might get involved, too, in addition to the local groups.

“It’s going to be quiet for the next couple of weeks, because we’re raising funds,” said Carol Wight of the New Mexico Restaurant Association. “This is all happening late in the game.”

But, she said, voters will see prominent ads if the committee’s fundraising efforts succeed.

The debate could bring a few more voters to the polls, said Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc. But that effect, if there is one, is likely to be dampened by the fact that presidential election years already attract a high turnout.

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Younger voters, in particular, might take interest in the issue given that so many teenagers make the minimum wage.

“This issue on the ballot could inspire them to vote when ordinarily they might not have,” Sanderoff said. “If the people who support this minimum wage were to do a good job and get their message out and mobilize some people, it could bring out some new voters to the polls.”

Opponents, however, say teens would lose jobs, or find them harder to get in the first place, under a higher minimum wage.

$8.50 an hour

The proposed ordinance calls for a new minimum wage of $8.50 an hour, raising it from $7.50, starting Jan. 1. Employers who provide a certain level of health and child-care benefits to workers could pay $1 less.

There would be new rules, too, for employees who earn tips. They now receive a minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, supporters say, though Wight says they average about $12 an hour, once tips are included.

The proposal would increase the minimum for tipped employees to $3.83, starting Jan. 1. The rate would climb to 60 percent of whatever the main minimum wage is the following year, or $5.10 if the wage is still $8.50.

There would be automatic increases, too. The proposal calls for annual cost-of-living adjustments to the basic minimum wage each Jan. 1, based on percentage increases in the Consumer Price Index.

Each side already has plenty to say about the idea.

Opponents argue that the wage hike will increase prices, reduce jobs and make Albuquerque a less-competitive environment for businesses.

Wight said small businesses will be hit hardest. Some restaurants say the new wage could cost them $75,000 to $150,000 a year. “They’ll raise their prices, they’ll do the things they need to do to stay on top of this, but some of them won’t make it,” she said.

Restaurants will hire fewer people, especially teenagers who could use the entry-level job training, Wight said.

Supporters, meanwhile, say the increase will put money in the hands of low-income workers likely to spend it. A $1 increase would add about $2,000 to the annual pay of someone making the minimum.

“It’s going to jump-start the economy,” Ortega said.

She also said the increase would put more money in the hands of Albuquerque’s minimum-wage workers rather than as profits for large out-of-state corporations. Millions of dollars “will stay here in the city of Albuquerque vs. sending it out of state,” Ortega said.

Santa Fe hike

Albuquerque’s neighbor to the north is quite familiar with debates over a minimum wage.

The city of Santa Fe has the highest minimum wage in the nation at $10.29 an hour. There was “no evidence of adverse effects” because of the wage hike in Santa Fe, said Jeff Mitchell, senior research scientist at the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

But that doesn’t mean those results will necessarily translate to Albuquerque, he said. Santa Fe’s economy relies more heavily on tourism, which is less sensitive to price changes.

There “are good reasons to believe the impact varies from place to place, depending on any number of conditions, including: How close is another rival economy that has a lower minimum wage?” Mitchell said.

The debate over wage increases tends to be “politically loaded,” he said.

“The argument that it costs jobs seems to be more theoretical than empirically documented,” Mitchell said. “On the other hand, while it doesn’t seem to have much of a negative impact in terms of jobs, it doesn’t necessarily have a big impact in terms of widespread alleviation of poverty.”

Melissa Binder, an associate professor and labor economist at UNM, said the “loss in jobs is very, very small relative to the gain in income of the people” affected.

“On net,” she said, “it looks like small changes in the minimum wage are not harmful to economies and are not harmful to most minimum wage workers” because of job losses. Binder said the relevant research indicates that prices go up slightly.

As for Santa Fe specifically, businesses there say the wage hike “had a ‘strong negative’ effect on their economy,” said Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.

“The best way to judge the effect of raising the wage in Santa Fe is to ask the people the mandate has affected. And that is exactly what we did,” Cole said. “… It has negatively affected small business — forget the loss of jobs — they have simply closed their business. This number won’t be found in that employment data, but it’s been a reality of this mandate.”

She said the higher wage also resulted in less money from businesses being donated to charity, hour cuts for employees and price increases.

And, “we’re told the increase in wages encouraged students to drop out of high school,” Cole said.

2005 defeat

The debate isn’t new to Albuquerque. In 2005, voters narrowly defeated plans to increase the minimum wage.

Much of the debate, then, focused on a tangential issue — a provision that would have provided public access to non-work areas of businesses to inform employees of their rights under the ordinance.

The proposal failed at the polls by a margin of less than 2 percentage points.

The following year, however, the City Council enacted a wage ordinance that resulted in today’s $7.50 minimum within city limits. It doesn’t have the access language of the 2005 proposal, and this year’s proposal wouldn’t make any changes on that point.

But this year’s initiative has its own controversy — aside from the wage hike itself. The petitions signed by voters and the proposition that will appear on the ballot both contain a mistake in wording: They make it sound like the employers of tipped employees would have to pay themselves, not the employees, the new minimum wage.

Supporters, though, say no one who signed the petitions or reads the ballot summary is likely to be materially confused.

State District Judge Nan Nash said the confusing language wasn’t reason to strike it from the ballot, but she did declare the proposition an invalid question on other grounds, saying it combines too many separate proposals into one vote. The Supreme Court, however, didn’t seem convinced by that argument and ordered the proposal onto the ballot.

All of which is to say: If passed, the initiative could end up in court again.

“I think, inevitably, there will be legal problems,” Wight said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal


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