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Legislature needs to get serious about minimum wage

With less than a week left in the 2017 legislative session, it looks like New Mexico’s working families may again be left to fight for crumbs. Despite the introduction of two living wage bills that would raise the minimum wage to at least $10.10 an hour or more, New Mexico’s poorest workers will likely have to settle for much less. More troubling, a deal for a slight increase in the minimum wage may come at the expense of local governments being prohibited from increasing working conditions at the local level in the future.

A 2014 poll commissioned by the Albuquerque Journal showed 68 percent of New Mexicans support a minimum wage increase, with 36 percent supporting an increase to $10/hour or more. Two current bills would do just that: HB 27 sponsored by Rep. Patricia Roybal-Caballero, D-Albuquerque, would raise it to $15/hour; and another, HB 67 sponsored by Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, would raise it to $10.10. Both bills would index the wage for inflation, providing yearly increases to reflect the cost of living. Unfortunately, it looks like neither of these two bills will even be heard.

At $15 an hour, a full-time minimum wage worker would be paid $31,200 a year. While that is $14,000 below the $45,382 median household income in New Mexico in 2015, it is what most experts believe is reasonable for a family of four to stay above the real poverty level. The other minimum wage bill, HB 67, once fully implemented in 2020, would pay a minimum wage worker $21,008 annually, still $3,292 below the 2015 poverty level of $24,300 for a family of four.

The two other minimum wage bills that do have some momentum going into the last few days of the session are problematic. HB 442, sponsored by several Democratic legislators including Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, and House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, would raise the minimum wage to $9.25 an hour beginning in 2018 but would also prohibit cities and counties from passing laws requiring employers to give advance notice to employees of their work schedules. This pre-emption language, which is based on national model language from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), is part of a growing effort to take away the authority local governments have to improve wages and conditions of work at the local level.

Another minimum wage proposal that has strong momentum is SB 386, sponsored by Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants. It would raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour over the next year, but allow a loophole for an $8-an-hour training wage. Both of these bills are inadequate if the goal is lifting families out of poverty. HB 442 would pay a minimum-wage worker $19,240 annually, or $5,000 below the poverty level for a family of four. SB 386 would pay $18,720 annually, or $5,580 below the poverty level for a family of four.

While some might argue any increase is better than nothing, these proposals fall far short of what is desperately needed for the state’s children and families. The myth that the minimum wage is an entry wage paid mostly to teenagers is not confirmed by the data. In fact, only 21.4 percent of workers at or below minimum wage are age 16-19, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Moreover, today’s minimum wage purchasing power is about what it was in the 1980s, meaning it has not kept pace with the cost of living increases in the last three decades.

The new Democratically led Legislature has an opportunity to pass a statewide minimum wage increase that will allow hard-working New Mexico families to stay out of poverty without compromising the ability of cities and counties to raise local standards. That is only possible with a significant increase in the minimum wage, to at least $10.10 an hour, indexed to inflation, without a loophole for a training wage and without any pre-emption provisions that open the door for cities and counties to be prohibited from responding to local concerns about wages or working conditions.

We call on our state legislators to be courageous and pass a real minimum wage increase proposal. If Gov. Susana Martinez chooses to veto a real increase without conditions, it is she and the Republicans who will have to explain to the overwhelming majority of New Mexicans who support an increase why our working families are not worth at least $10.10 an hour.

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