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Minimum wage debate’s focus: How much more?

Lynda Deuel is employed at a gas station, but even with the steady job she has difficulty making ends meet. The gas station, which is located in unincorporated Bernalillo County, pays her the county’s minimum wage of $8.70 per hour – more than a dollar above the state’s minimum of $7.50 an hour. It’s enough for her to survive, according to Deuel, but only just barely.

“A higher minimum wage would mean I could stop worrying about having enough money to buy food,” Deuel said. “That happens a lot.”

The New Mexico business community has long resisted minimum wage increases, saying such policy changes would harm the state’s already depressed economic environment. But this year, 19 states are raising wages for their lowest-paid workers, including Massachusetts and Washington, where the minimum is $11. That momentum has energized the now Democratically controlled Roundhouse, where lawmakers have filed two minimum wage increase proposals in advance of the regular session that begins Jan. 17.

And Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and some business groups now appear open to the idea of a small increase of some type.

One of the proposals raises the minimum to $8.45 an hour, the other to $15 an hour. Both proposals still permit counties and cities to have their own minimums above that of the state.

The national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Sen. William Soules of Las Cruces, who sponsored the $8.45 an hour proposal, said he believed his proposal has a reasonable chance of succeeding this year. In 2013, Soules sponsored an $8.50-an-hour minimum wage bill that passed the Legislature before being vetoed by Martinez, who argued it would compel businesses to relocate and expand in neighboring states instead of New Mexico. That argument carries less weight now that Arizona and Colorado have passed ballot measures that would raise the minimum wage incrementally to $12 an hour by 2020. Previously, the minimum wage was $8.05 an hour in Arizona and $8.31 an hour in Colorado.

“I know I’ll get pushback from some of the progressives in my party, who say we should be legislating a living wage and not a minimum wage,” Soules said. “But I think it’s helpful to put in a floor statewide that gives New Mexicans some guaranteed buying power, and then allow local entities to determine what the living wage is in their area.”

In an email, a spokesman said Gov. Martinez would consider a proposal to increase the minimum wage “in a way that makes (New Mexico) competitive with neighboring states and doesn’t hurt small businesses.”

Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero of Albuquerque, the sponsor of the $15-an-hour bill, is one of the lawmakers arguing that a slight increase doesn’t go far enough. A $15 minimum wage would give New Mexico the highest state minimum in the country, though Roybal Caballero said such a minimum is necessary to improve the lives of workers at the bottom of the economic ladder.

“It is unconscionable to me that we expect people in this state to live on the equivalent of $15,000 and often much less,” she said. “That’s an insult. I hope we have the foresight and the courage to get out of this constant cycle of poverty.”

Jason Espinoza, president of the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry, said a large minimum wage increase could be especially detrimental for the state’s small businesses and possibly eliminate thousands of jobs. Espinoza also said the Legislature needs to reconsider the minimum wage “patchwork effect” that occurs when cities and counties create their own minimums.

“Consistency is crucial to businesses,” Espinoza said. “The minimum wage discussion has to include employment law uniformity if we want our economy to head in the right direction.”

Both Soules’ and Caballero’s proposals allow local entities to create wage floors above the state’s minimum.

Agreeing that a large increase in the minimum wage would have a detrimental effect on the state’s small businesses, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce would strongly oppose any increase in the $12 to $15 range, according to president Terri Cole.

Experts disagree on the economic impact of minimum wage increases. The U.S. Department of Labor website cites a 2014 letter from the nonpartisan but left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, which was signed by more than 600 economists, stating that “research suggests that a minimum-wage increase could have a small stimulative effect on the economy as low-wage workers spend their additional earnings, raising demand and job growth, and providing some help on the jobs front.” Other studies not referenced in the letter have had inconclusive or contradictory findings.

Back at the gas station, Deuel said the thought of a minimum wage increase excited her, though she felt it was unlikely lawmakers would approve a major jump.

“Fifteen dollars is never going to happen,” she said. “But just a little bit more and I could pay some of my bills.”