March 4, 2017

House votes to hike statewide minimum wage

The state House of Representatives voted Friday night to raise the hourly minimum wage to $9.25 from $7.50 in 2018.

The 37-30 vote, just days after the state Senate overwhelmingly passed a slightly smaller increase to $9, signals that a raise in the statewide minimum wage is increasingly likely as the legislative session enters its final weeks. The issue has been a priority for Democrats, who promised a raise during last year’s election, but it also has won some support from Republicans.

The House vote on HB 442 was not strictly along party lines. Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, broke with her party to vote in favor of the bill, while Rep. Candy Sweetser, D-Deming, voted against it.

As the bill heads to the Senate, it is unclear how high lawmakers will agree to go with a wage increase and whether Gov. Susana Martinez will approve it.

The Governor’s Office said last week that Martinez could support a raise, but it has not commented on any particular bill. “The governor supports raising the minimum wage so long that it’s in line with neighboring states and doesn’t hurt small businesses,” spokesman Chris Sanchez said in an email.

Republicans generally depicted HB 442 as a burden on businesses that would ultimately backfire on employees by leading companies to hire fewer staff.

Democrats have argued that the measure will improve the quality of life for the lowest-paid New Mexicans, who have not seen an increase in the minimum wage since 2009.

“It’s appalling when hardworking New Mexicans can’t put food on the table despite working full-time,” the bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, said in a statement. “Too many families are only one crisis away from a complete economic breakdown.”

Democrats voted down a last-minute proposal by House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, to change the bill, lowering the increase to $8.45. Gentry said the amount is the average of minimum wages in neighboring states. A minimum wage of $9.25 would, for example, still fall below Arizona’s rate of $10 and Colorado’s rate of $9.30. But it would be higher than the federal rate of $7.25 in Texas, Utah and Oklahoma.

“We need to remain competitive,” Gentry argued.

Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, offered Santa Fe as an example of what he argued are the negative effects of raising the minimum wage. Scott pointed to what he described as the flight of national retailers from the City Different’s shopping malls as proof that such policies drive away employers.

“If you like what you see with the current minimum wage in this city, then vote for this legislation,” Scott said.

HB 442 would increase the hourly minimum wage to $9.25 on Jan. 1, 2018. The hourly wage for tipped employees, such as waitresses and baristas, would increase from $2.13 to 40 percent of the new statewide minimum wage, a total of $3.70.

But the bill also would prohibit local governments from imposing certain labor regulations, such as policies curbing flexible scheduling decried by workers rights groups as leaving low-wage laborers with uncertainty about the number of hours they might work in a week. Some lawmakers also raised concerns that the provision would block local governments from requiring businesses provide paid sick leave for employees, as has been proposed in Albuquerque.

And unlike a few other proposals this year for raising the minimum, HB 442 would not adjust the minimum wage annually based on the cost of living.

A few local governments across New Mexico have already raised minimum wages above the state’s rate. Tied to the cost of living, the minimum wage in Santa Fe has climbed to $11.09. The lowest-paid workers in Albuquerque could see a boost from the bill passed Friday night, however, with the minimum wage there currently set at $8.80. Workers also could enjoy a slight bump in Las Cruces, where the minimum wage currently sits at $9.20 per hour, though it will rise to $10.10 in 2019.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.