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New Las Cruces minimum pay raises confusion

LAS CRUCES – The City Council on Monday voted to hike the minimum wage to the second-highest level in the state – confusing the status of a smaller, previously approved increase and likely opening the door to legal challenges.

The city now has two ordinances on the books raising the minimum wage.

One that was passed this summer would lift the hourly wage to $8.50 in a phased-in process that would begin in July 2015. The latest ordinance, brought to the council through a public petition, increases the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and raises wages for tipped workers in three annual steps beginning in January 2015.

The two ordinances will have to be “reconciled,” according to City Attorney Harry “Pete” Connelly.

What that means, exactly, is unclear, given the highly unusual nature of the vote.

The three councilors and Mayor Ken Miyagishima who voted in favor of the $10.10 proposal expressed opposition to the increase during Monday’s meeting and on previous occasions – a “yes” vote that simultaneously served as a “no” vote against a public ballot. Had the council voted down the $10.10 initiative, the issue would have gone to the polls – a move those who oppose the increase, including business owners, wanted to avoid.

Meanwhile, the three councilors who supported the higher wage increase voted against the measure. They wanted to see the issue go to the polls.

Miyagishima said he is calling for a mid-October work session to “look through both ordinances and find out what’s similar and what isn’t and change around the implementation of it.”

“So it may still have the same result,” he said. “We just may do the $10.10 over 10 or 15 years.”

For the organization that sponsored the $10.10 initiative – which echoes a national minimum wage drive by the Obama administration – “winning feels a lot like losing,” said Sarah Nolan, executive director of CAFé, a nonprofit that collected some 6,000 signatures to get the higher wage increase in front of the City Council.

“Most elected leaders are afraid when a lot of people get involved in democracy,” she said. “This is about power.”

Randy Van Vleck, general counsel of the New Mexico Municipal Leage, said that “when you have ambiguous or competing legislation you try to harmonize them together.” However, if the City Council tries to bring the increase back down to $8.50, “I can tell you what will happen,” Van Vleck said. “They’ll see another ballot initiative.”

Connelly said that if the council doesn’t act to rectify the competing ordinances, “they are probably going to get sued by somebody asking for a declaratory judgement” so as not to be in violation of city wage rules.

The uncertainty has made some business owners wary.

Oscar Andrade, owner of the Pic Quik chain of convenience stores, said he is taking the new ordinance “very seriously.”

“I’m already making plans to raise prices or sell my company,” he said after the council meeting.

Albuquerque voters in 2012 raised the city’s minimum wage to $8.50 and tied it to cost of living increases. The current rate is $8.60 per hour. Santa Fe, at $10.66 per hour, has the highest minimum wage of any U.S. city besides San Francisco.

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