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NM Democratic Party leaders to push $10 minimum wage

Leaders of the Democratic Party of New Mexico say their party’s priorities for the 2014 legislative session include raising the state minimum wage to at least $10 an hour and increasing distributions from the state’s land grant permanent fund to pay for expanded early childhood education.

Similar efforts failed when considered last year. Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed legislation that would have increased the statewide minimum wage to $8.50 an hour. A proposed constitutional amendment to increase use of permanent funds for early childhood programs passed the House but stalled in the Senate Finance Committee.

Party Chairman Sam Bregman said Thursday that the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate this year are looking to pass a minimum wage hike as a constitutional amendment. That move, if adopted by the Legislature, would circumvent the governor’s veto pen and send the question directly to voters to ratify in the 2014 general election.

“No one who works for an hour in the state of New Mexico, whether it’s digging a ditch, answering a phone or working on a computer screen, should be paid less than $10 per hour,” Bregman said Thursday. “… That will help spur the economy as well because it puts more money in people’s pockets. They spend more money.”

Martinez said the $8.50 minimum wage proposal in 2013 would have forced employers to cut back their workforces to afford the pay hikes. The governor proposed instead increasing the minimum wage to $7.80 per hour, a rate that matches those of neighboring states.

Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell criticized the party’s latest minimum wage proposal.

“Using the Constitution to set wage rates is highly irresponsible,” Knell said. “Particularly when the governor has proposed raising the minimum wage to a rate that ensures we remain competitive with our surrounding states.”

On the early childhood education disbursement from the state permanent fund, Bregman said the increased funding is critical to turning around the state’s poor performance in child well-being. A 2013 survey by the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked New Mexico last in the nation on that score.

“It is unfathomable that we would sit by knowing how bad our educational system has become … that we would sit by and not tap that fund and fully fund early childhood education,” Bregman said.

But not all legislative Democrats are on board with the party’s priorities.

The early childhood proposal has drawn opposition from Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who contends the increased distributions would permanently damage the state’s fund.

Smith also has voiced opposition to a statewide minimum wage increase, saying the move would have a disproportionate impact on the economy of rural communities.

Smith said the party’s legislative priorities suggest there’s no room for fiscally responsible Democrats within the state party ranks.

“It’s a little bit disappointing when the chairman of the state party says we’re tired of being fiscally responsible,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Whip Tim Keller, D-Albuquerque, said Thursday that he hopes several other issues can pass muster on the 30-day legislative session’s subject-matter limits and be considered by lawmakers.

Keller, in an interview with Journal editors Thursday, said those issues include water policy, state procurement – particularly in connection with the Downs at Albuquerque lease – the state’s behavioral health system and education policies that go beyond the scope of mandatory retention of third-graders who struggle with reading.

“We need to have discussions about issues that are important to the state,” Keller said.

In another development Thursday, Rules Committee Chairwoman Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said the panel wants to question current and former State Fair commissioners about the 2011 lease awarded to the Downs at Albuquerque.

Knell, the governor’s spokesman, said the planned hearing would be a “petty, political circus.”