Senate Panel Favors Smaller Minimum Wage Hike

by Reporter / Mar 08, 2019 / 0 comments

Senate Panel Favors Smaller Minimum Wage Hike

By ANDREW OXFORD
aoxford@sfnewmexican.com

A Senate committee on Tuesday snubbed Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's call to raise New Mexico's minimum wage to $12 an hour over the next several years, advancing instead a more modest bill backed by business groups.

Dueling proposals for increasing the wages of New Mexico's lowest-paid workers collided in a packed hearing of the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee. After a flurry of changes, the committee ultimately advanced a measure that would raise the wage over time, topping out at all $11 an hour in 2021.

While not far off from a minimum wage increase backed by the governor and approved by the state House of Representatives, the proposal omits a key provision to adjust the minimum wage annually in the future based on the rising cost of living. And the committee's vote, in turn, reflected resistance in the Legislature's upper chamber to some of the newly elected governor's agenda.

The committee deadlocked on House Bill 31, which would have raised the statewide minimum wage to $10 an hour on July 1, with the wage going up one dollar a year, reaching $12 in 2021. The state would then adjust the wage each year based on inflation starting in 2022.

Those are rates straight out of the new governor's campaign platform. Moreover, the bill would have changed the minimum wage for tipped workers from $2.13 to 30 percent of the prevailing minimum wage. Under current law, employers can pay workers the lower wage as long as they receive enough money in tips to reach the higher rate, a provision that is key to the restaurant industry.

The House bill's sponsor, Rep. Miguel Garcia, a Democrat from Albuquerque, proposed changes to delay the increases by half a year as well as cap annual increases after 2021 at 3 percent.

But the committee shot down those suggested changes.

In a bizarre round of votes, the committee deadlocked on whether to advance Garcia's bill, with Democratic Sen. Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces joining Republicans to block it with little discussion.

Republican Sen. Bill Sharer of Farmington ended up suggesting the committee advance a bill sponsored by its chairman, Sen. Clemente Sanchez of Grants, without a recommendation. Everyone on the committee -- Republicans and Democrats -- agreed.

Sanchez's proposal would raise the minimum wage to $9.25 an hour in October. It would rise again to $10 in April 2020, then $10.50 in 2021. The new minimum wage would top out at $11 in 2022.

Unlike Garcia's proposal, the minimum wage would not change annually based on inflation.

And Sanchez's bill would allow employers to pay $8.50 an hour to high school students.

Department of Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley did not endorse Sanchez's proposal but instead told the committee the governor still supports reaching $12 an hour as well as ensuring annual adjustments based on inflation.

Keeping the minimum wage in line with inflation is crucial for workers facing rising costs of living, he argued.

"If the minimum wage doesn't go up but costs do, they make less and less money," McCamley told the committee.

But business owners came out in support for Sanchez's bill, arguing that annual changes would create uncertainty and that the increases proposed by Garcia would be too big, too fast and unaffordable for smaller companies.

Some restaurant owners said the proposed change would put them out of business, prompt layoffs or at the very least drastically jack up the cost of a burger and fries in Clovis.

The Association of Commerce and Industry as well as the New Mexico Restaurant Association argued for Sanchez's bill.

"I think both of us do want the minimum wage to go up and it's long overdue," Sanchez said. "We just need to work on something that benefits the citizens and the state of New Mexico."

The senator said his proposal was "fluid," suggesting it could change.

But as it stands, the bills would mean little for workers in Santa Fe. The city and county have adopted a higher minimum wage of $11.80 an hour, which is adjusted annually based on inflation. Santa Fe County has a higher base wage for tipped workers, too.

Perhaps more significant, then, was what the vote signaled about the politics of the legislative session set to end March 16.

Tuesday marked a second day in a row in which Democrats in the Senate snubbed a governor from their own party who won an overwhelming victory last year and is arguable wielding more political capital now than she ever will.

The day before the Senate committee's hearing, Papen and Sanchez joined with Republicans on another committee to block a proposed constitutional amendment on early childhood education that was backed by the new governor.

While Lujan Grisham is unlikely to turn down an increase in the minimum wage even if it is not the proposal she favored, the votes portend what could turn into a political clash that will define the remaining days of the session.

Sanchez's bill goes next to a vote on the Senate floor. If it passes, the bill would go to the House of Representatives.

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