Minimum wage increase clears Senate

Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, is congratulated by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, is congratulated by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bill that would increase New Mexico’s minimum wage for the first time since 2009 is headed to the House after cruising through the Senate on Wednesday with bipartisan support.

The Senate voted 24-6 to pass the measure, which would – over the next year – increase the state’s minimum wage from $7.50 to $9 an hour.

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It would primarily affect rural parts of the state, as Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces have enacted higher municipal base wages and would be largely unaffected. Santa Fe’s minimum wage is the state’s highest – it’s now at $11.08 per hour.

Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, sponsor of Senate Bill 386, said he worked closely with businesses, including fast-food restaurants, to craft legislation that they would be comfortable supporting, or at least able to absorb.

“The truth is that working people really need a livable wage,” Sanchez said during Wednesday’s debate. “I think this is reasonable.”

However, it’s unclear whether Gov. Susana Martinez would sign the bill if it’s sent to her desk before the Legislature adjourns March 18.

The two-term Republican governor vetoed a 2013 bill that called for an $8.50-per-hour minimum wage, and a spokesman was noncommittal Wednesday about the latest proposal.

“The governor supports raising the minimum wage as long as it’s in line with neighboring states and doesn’t hurt small businesses,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said.

Both Arizona and Colorado currently have minimum wages in excess of $9 per hour, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, the minimum wages of Texas, Oklahoma and Utah are all set at the federal minimum – $7.25 per hour.

Under a last-minute change to the New Mexico bill, the minimum wage increase would have a staggered implementation – it would increase to $8.25 an hour in October, then go up to $9 in April 2018. The legislation would not mandate any future increases tied to inflation.

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The measure would also provide an increase of 50 cents an hour for tipped employees, primarily waiters and waitresses, and would allow employers to pay a lower, $8-an-hour training wage to workers during their first two months of employment.

But some senators expressed concern it could still end up having negative effects on the state’s business sector.

“I’m concerned employers will lay off people and reduce hours … because they have to pay more in wages,” said Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo.

However, various business groups around the state have formally backed the legislation, including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and chambers in Angel Fire, Ruidoso and Silver City.

The bill approved and sent to the House is one of several minimum wage bills pending in the Legislature, but it has found traction at the Roundhouse while others have stalled.

At least one of the other proposals calls for a $15-an-hour state minimum wage, which would make New Mexico’s base wage the nation’s highest.

Meanwhile, the legislation approved Wednesday could affect more than just business owners.

Currently, there are 385 state workers who earn less than $9 an hour, and an increase in the minimum wage for those employees would cost the state more than $958,000 a year with benefits factored in, according to a legislative analysis of the bill.

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A New Mexico employee making $7.50 an hour and working a normal 40-hour workweek currently makes $15,600 per year, not counting benefits.

That income level could qualify a single adult for low-cost or no-cost health care under Medicaid and for food stamps, formally known as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

There was debate Wednesday about whether increasing the minimum wage to $9 an hour would mean such individuals would no longer be eligible for government-assistance programs

While GOP senators were split on the measure, Democrats voted uniformly in favor. The Republicans who voted in favor of it included Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales and Senate Minority Whip Bill Payne of Albuquerque.

“The truth is $7.50 (per hour) is not even enough to buy cereal and milk,” said Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, who described his district as one of the state’s poorest.

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