News Column

NM Senate Passes Bill Raising Minimum Wage

March 5, 2013

Steve Terrell

Lincoln dollar coin

Most minimum wage workers in New Mexico, with some exceptions, would get a $1 an hour pay raise if a bill passed Monday evening by the Senate becomes law.

In a 25-17 party-line vote -- with Democrats voting in favor -- the Senate passed Senate Bill 416, sponsored by Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Espanola. The bill would raise the statewide minimum wage to $8.50 an hour from $7.50 an hour.

Martinez said after the vote that he believes the state minimum wage should be increased to $10 an hour, "but $8.50 is a good step."

But even if SB 416 goes on to pass the Democrat-controlled House, it could run into trouble with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who would have to sign the bill before it could become law.

"The legislature needs to focus on making New Mexico more competitive and the governor is concerned about a situation where New Mexico would have the highest minimum wage in the region, while simultaneously having the highest job-killing business tax rate and how that could drive job growth to surrounding states," said Enrique Knell, a spokesman for the governor. "The governor is committed to working with the legislature to enact legislation that will help small businesses grow and create more jobs."

The bill would not apply to all minimum wage earners. Businesses with fewer than 11 workers would be exempt. That accounts for about 17 percent of all employees in the state, according to a fiscal impact report by the Legislative Finance Committee.

Also excluded from the increase are farm and ranch workers, employees under 18 and those receiving a "training wage" during their first year of employment.

The state minimum wage has not been increased since 2009.

Opponents argued that the increase will mean higher prices, which will hurt senior citizens on fixed incomes. Some said businesses would have to turn some full-time jobs into part-time. Sen. Sue Wilson-Beffort, R-Sandia Park, said the bill was well-intentioned but it would be bad for businesses and could backfire on the employees the bill seeks to help.

But Sen. Martinez said that opponents' fears that raising the minimum wage will hurt business are overstated. Referring to an expensive restaurant in his district, the senator said, "People have no problem paying $8.50 for a margarita or $11 for a martini and $18 for an enchilada." But the people who are cooking expensive meals "are making peanuts," he said.

Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, introduced an amendment that would have raised minimum wage to $42,000. He argued, tongue-in-cheek, that this is what some consider a "living wage" so the Senate should pass that to eliminate poverty. The amendment was voted down unanimously, with Sharer voting against his own measure.

This prompted Sen. Martinez to say, "We get paid a per diem of $154 a day to make laws and make fun of poor people." He challenged his fellow senators to try to live on $7.50 an hour.

Sen. John Arthur Smith also introduced an unsuccessful amendment, which, he admitted, was only to make a point. His amendment would have forced the cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque -- which already have minimum wages higher than the rest of the state -- to raise their minimum wages by an additional 13 percent. "If the rest of the state has to raise it by 13 percent, those cities should too," he said.

Santa Fe's minimum wage went up to $10.51 an hour March 1.

But the fiscally conservative Smith voted in favor of the bill, even though he later said he has misgivings about it.

Several Democrats made impassioned and emotional pleas to pass the bill. Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, said he initially was opposed to the bill, but after visiting the grave of his father over the weekend, he knew his father would want him to "do the right thing" and vote for it.

And Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said it is a moral imperative to try to help working poor people. "There are some people who can't get out of poverty," he said. "They work as hard as they can every day of their life but they can't. ... We should not have hunger in this state or any other state. If $40 a week helps, it is our duty to it.'

One employer that would be affected by an increase in the minimum wage would be the state government.

According to the fiscal impact report, there are currently 666 executive, legislative and judicial employees who earn less than $8.50 per hour. The cost to the state to bring those employees to the $8.50 minimum would be $1.1 million if benefits were included.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Employers must pay the higher rate when there is a difference between the federal wage and state or local requirements.

Source: (c)2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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