Senate committee nixes minimum-wage bump; Dems say hike too little

Note: This story is part of a package of news articles on the current session of the New Mexico Legislature that the Quay County Sun has obtained from the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper.

By Milan Simonich

The New Mexican

A state Senate committee rejected a bill Thursday night to raise New Mexico’s minimum wage by 50 cents, to $8 an hour.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans liked the measure, which was tabled on a 7-2 vote of the Public Affairs Committee.

Democrats said the bill was insubstantial, even a step backward, because it would exempt employers with 10 or fewer workers from paying the increase. The statewide minimum wage is $7.50, though Santa Fe and Albuquerque have laws of their own requiring higher pay.

Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, sponsored the bill because he said it was a realistic attempt to help low-income people make a bit more money.

Sanchez said he had come under attack for opposing a bill to raise the minimum wage through a constitutional amendment. This was his attempt to tackle the problem of underpaid workers through a statutory change, he said.

No one testified in favor of the bill, but clergy, labor and border groups opposed it.

Like the citizenry, committee members were unenthusiastic about Sanchez’s proposal.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said only 3 percent of the workforce makes minimum wage. He said teenagers already have a difficult time getting jobs, and a raise in the minimum wage would only hurt their chances of landing employment.

“The minimum wage was never intended to be a living wage. It’s a starting wage,” Brandt said.

He tried to amend the bill to keep 15- to 17-year-old workers at $7.50 an hour, but senators rejected that idea.

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, voted to keep Sanchez’s bill alive, even though she said it would have no impact in her part of the state.

Wal-Mart in Hobbs pays workers $15 an hour, Kernan said. But two-bedroom apartments run $1,200 a month or more, she said, so Sanchez’s bill would be irrelevant in an area where an oil boom has driven up wages and prices.

Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, voted against the bill because he said it contained too low an increase and too many exceptions. He said people in his district would support making the minimum wage at least $9 an hour.

State legislators last year approved a bill to raise the minimum wage statewide to $8.50. Democrats led that charge. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the bill.

This session, Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, is sponsoring a bill to raise the minimum wage to $10.10, and to continue increasing it based on changes in the U.S. Consumer Price Index.

Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, is proposing the constitutional amendment for an increase, tied to cost-of-living increases. Sen. Martinez said he went that route to avoid another veto by the governor. Voters decide on constitutional amendments if the Legislature places them on the ballot.

Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com. Follow his Ringside Seat blog at santafenewmexi

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