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House votes to raise minimum wage

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Following hours of debate and discussion, legislation to raise the minimum wage for the first time in a decade passed the New Mexico House of Representatives Wednesday, despite warnings from Republicans that the bill would adversely affect the state’s economy.

House Bill 31 (HB 31) passed the House by a vote of 44 to 26. All House Republicans were joined by two Democrats to oppose the bill. It now heads to the Senate for consideration.

HB 31 would hike New Mexico’s $7.50 an hour minimum wage to $12 an hour through a series of tiered increases. The wage would rise July 1, 2019 to $10 an hour, $11 in 2020 and $12 in 2021.

Increases in the wage during subsequent years would be tied to the consumer price index and would rise based on the cost of living. HB 31 does not include limits as to how much the minimum wage would automatically rise or allow for it to decrease when the cost of living drops.

State Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, and state Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, introduced the bill. He said many minimum wage workers in the state are 25 years or older and work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

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HB 31 would allow the earnings of minimum wage workers to keep pace with the cost of living and help stimulate the state’s economy.

“Increasing the minimum wage allows minimum wage workers to keep pace with the general price level in the economy, allowing for increased spending power of the minimum wage, leading to the greater consumption of goods and services,” Garcia said.

A provision that was to end the lower wage rate for tipped workers was amended so that the $2.13 an hour sub-minimum wage for tipped workers would not be eliminated in July 2019, but instead partially phased out.

The amendment adopted by a vote of the House would raise the sub-minimum wage for workers to $5 an hour starting in July 2019, $7.50 an hour in 2020 and $10 an hour in 2021. The sub-minimum wage would then equal the prevailing minimum wage. Tipped workers would then be able to make the prevailing minimum wage and keep their tips.

Garcia said he decided to include the amendment after hearing concerns from both tipped workers and people in the restaurant industry. House Republicans, though, said the increase would still put a strain on restaurant owners, who already operate on tight margins. They said they heard concerns from restaurant owners who warned requiring an increase in wages and doing away with sub-minimum wage would force them to pass the cost onto consumers in the form of higher prices on food.

“Unfortunately, we are not keeping it affordable where people can dine out,” state Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell said.

Ezzell and other Republican critics of the bill raised worries restaurant owners might have to also pare back on hours and employees or do away with the use of wait staff altogether.

State Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, whose district includes portions of Chaves and Lincoln counties, said during debate that he knows a restaurant owner who was thinking of expanding his business to include a gift shop. However, the owner decided against incorporating a gift shop due to HB 31.

Nibert added that the minimum wage is not intended as a vehicle for a living wage, but aimed at young people and entry-level employees with fewer skills. Wages of those employees then inch up as they acquire more experience.

Raising the minimum wage would most likely result in employers culling those less-skilled employees from the workforce to pay the more experienced ones.

“And I don’t think that is an unusual situation, especially in our part of the state,” Nibert said in reference to his district.

Becky Hicks, supervising senior account with the city of Roswell, said at a meeting of the Roswell City Finance Committee on Feb. 7 that by 2020, the minimum wage increase would cost the city an estimated additional $36,000 per year in the cost of salaries. However, that amount would not include employee benefits.

Other lawmakers Wednesday night said a higher wage would drive business out of New Mexico into Texas where the minimum wage is lower.

Right now, 28 states along with the District of Columbia, Virgin Islands and Guam have wages higher than New Mexico, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

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