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Minimum wage bill passes committee

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Legislation that would boost New Mexico’s minimum wage for the first time in a decade was approved Tuesday by a key committee in the state Legislature.

House Bill 31 (HB 31) passed the House Labor, Veterans’ and Military Affairs Committee, according to a press release issued after the vote. The legislation is sponsored by state Reps. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, and Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces.

Shaya Torres, press secretary for Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, later said in an email the proposed legislation passed committee by a vote of 6 to 3. The proposal now goes to the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee for a vote, according to a press release issued by House Democrats.

“It’s important to understand that raising the minimum wage will enhance the quality of life for our minimum wage workers, and in doing so, we ease the tension of our minimum wage workers having to work two or three jobs to make ends meet,” Garcia said in the release.

Ferrary said in the release that higher wages mean more consumer spending that strengthens the state economy and helps address the problem of youth leaving New Mexico for states with higher wages.

As written, HB 31 would gradually hike the state’s $7.50 an hour minimum wage to $12 an hour, through a set of small annual increases. If passed by the Legislature and signed into the law, the minimum wage would increase to $10 in July 2019, $11 in 2020 and $12 in 2021.

Future increases would automatically happen each year and be tied to the consumer price index for all urban communities, according to the text of the legislation. HB 31 does not include limits on how much wages can be increased or for the minimum wage to be decreased when the cost of living falls.

An exemption in the existing minimum wage law that allows employers to pay workers a lower hourly minimum wage if they routinely receive tips would also end.

New Mexico’s state minimum wage was last raised in 2009, and is just slightly more than the national minimum wage of $7.25. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 28 other states along with the Virgin Islands, Guam and the District of Columbia have a higher minimum wage than New Mexico.

Some Republicans say the higher minimum wage will only burden employers and the low-wage workers it is supposed to assist, forcing smaller employers to trim their workforce and pass on the increased expenses in the form of higher prices for customers.

“Those small businesses across New Mexico can’t afford that,” House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said Wednesday in a phone interview.

He added that the minimum wage was never intended to be a living wage, but as a starting wage for young people and other people entering the workforce. As they acquire more skills, they will climb up the economic ladder and make more.

State Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said a minimum wage increase so large could adversely affect young people, seasonal workers and other people entering the workforce.

It might also force employers to raise the pay not only of those people making $7.50 an hour, but also workers that make less than $12, he said.

“You would have to bring all those up to comply with that if this bill passes,” Nibert said.

State Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said a $12 minimum wage would mean that in some businesses, high school students would be making as much as longtime employees, and that the cost of the higher wages would make it harder to fairly compensate a longtime employee.

Single moms who work minimum wage jobs might no longer qualify for the low-cost childcare they need because they will be making too much money, she added.

Rather then concentrate on minimum wage jobs, Nibert said lawmakers ought to do what they can to make New Mexico a more appealing place for large employers who pay good wages that will help people emerge from poverty.

“So I would hope we would concentrate on issues that could bring prosperity and opportunity to the state and not just raise the cost of living, or raise the bar for companies to come to New Mexico,” Nibert said.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.