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Minimum wage on agenda at Legislature

SANTA FE – The debate over whether to increase New Mexico’s minimum wage – and by how much – will hit the Roundhouse again during the coming 60-day session.

Two bills have been pre-filed this week by Democratic lawmakers, both seeking a hike in the state’s current $7.50-per-hour minimum wage – one of them to $8.30 an hour and the other to $10.10.

“It’s time for us to revisit the issue,” said Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, who is sponsoring one of the measures. “You just can’t live off the minimum wage.”

However, caution flags might be up with Republicans set to take over control of the House for the first time in 60 years – they will hold a 37-33 majority in the chamber – and GOP Gov. Susana Martinez about to begin a second term.

House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, an Albuquerque Republican, said he is open to legislation that raises the minimum wage – but only to a certain point.

“There’s certainly a willingness on our side to raise the minimum wage so long as we remain competitive with surrounding states,” Gentry said Thursday.

Gentry said the smaller proposed increase could be reasonable, adding, “It’s something we’ll take a look at.”

New Mexico’s minimum wage is lower than those of two of its neighboring states – Arizona and Colorado, where the rates are $7.90 and $8 an hour, respectively, but will go up starting next month.

The state’s base wage is higher than the minimum wages of Texas, Utah and Oklahoma, all of which are at $7.25 an hour.

Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, who will carry the $8.30-per-hour bill, said his proposal does not include an inflation-driven trigger for future years. It would also allow a “training” rate of $7.50 to be paid to employees during their first six months on the job.

Sanchez, who sponsored an $8-per-hour minimum wage bill that stalled in the session early this year after getting little support from fellow Democrats, said he’s trying to strike a balance.

“There are two sides on this issue, and I’m trying to meet in the middle on a bill that wouldn’t affect small businesses so much,” Sanchez told the Journal. “I’m trying to do something to help the working class while being reasonable.”

Meanwhile, Varela, lead sponsor of the $10.10-per-hour bill – the same level that President Barack Obama has pushed for on a national level – that calls for future wage rate increases to be tied to a national inflation index, acknowledged that passing the legislation will be tough, given the current political makeup of the Legislature.

“We’ll fight to see if we can get something heard,” said Varela, who suggested a minimum wage increase could end up being part of a compromise measure with Republican-backed legislation.

New Mexico Democrats have made raising the minimum wage a top priority in recent years but have been unsuccessful in getting a wage hike enacted. The issue was also a point of contention in this year’s gubernatorial race, as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gary King made it a centerpiece of his unsuccessful campaign.

Gov. Martinez vetoed a 2013 bill that would have increased New Mexico’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour, saying at the time that the bill would “kill New Mexico jobs.”

However, the Republican governor has indicated she would support a smaller increase in base wage levels to at least $7.80 and potentially $8 per hour.

Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said Thursday that the Republican governor still supports such an approach.

“The fact remains that Democrat leaders rejected bipartisan compromises in the last couple years that would have raised the minimum wage, and we would have a higher minimum wage today if they hadn’t played politics with the issue,” Knell said.

Proponents of increasing the minimum wage say it would help cash-strapped workers and their families to make ends meet while adding more money into the economy. Critics claim it would hurt businesses and lead to cost increases for consumers.

Some New Mexico cities already have minimum wages that are higher than the state’s. Albuquerque’s minimum wage is $8.60 with no health benefits and $7.60 with such benefits, while Santa Fe’s so-called living wage – one of the highest in the country – is set at $10.66 an hour regardless of whether benefits are offered.

A recent Journal Poll found that 68 percent of New Mexico voters supported an increase in the minimum wage, while 27 percent said they opposed any hike.

More than half of voters surveyed for the poll said the new wage should be between $8 and $10.

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