Published: 2:28 pm, Thu. Mar. 2nd, 2017Updated: 2:27 pm
A Democrat-led push to raise New Mexico’s minimum wage for the first time since 2009 cleared the state Senate on Wednesday, with limited resistance from Republican lawmakers.
The Senate-approved bill would raise the pay floor from $7.50 an hour to $9. In a compromise between labor and business interests, the proposal includes an $8 hourly training wage for the first two months of employment and leave out any future adjustments for inflation.
The increase would be felt most acutely in rural, low-income areas. The state’s three largest urban areas — Santa Fe, Las Cruces and Albuquerque — already have local minimums. The highest is $11.09 in Santa Fe.
The minimum wage bill now moves to the House, where a separate bill awaits action that would set the wage floor at $9.25 and restrict local policies that would curb flexible scheduling by employers. Both bills also include minimum wage increases for tipped employees such as restaurant staff.
With the federal minimum wage frozen at $7.25 since 2009, states are increasingly setting their own marks for base pay. Nineteen states began the year with higher minimum wages through automated adjustments, new laws or ballot initiatives, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Conference Policy Associate Jackson Brainerd counted 30 minimum wage increase enacted by legislative action or ballot initiatives since 2014, with New York and Oregon building in slower increases in rural areas.
Public-employee union representative Carter Bundy said the current House and Senate proposals are the best organized labor can hope for under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who emphasized efforts to improve the state’s business climate.
“We wish the dollar amount were higher, we wish they were indexed (to inflation), that there was not a training wage,” said Bundy, political director American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees in New Mexico. “But given the current governor, we’d rather see people’s wages increase and try and fix those other problems later.”
Prominent endorsements from employers included the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. Albuquerque’s minimum wage is $8.80, or $7.80 under employers that provide health care.
On a 24-6 vote, state lawmakers from rural districts fell in line behind the bill — including Senate minority leader Stuart Ingle, a rancher from Portales.
He cautioned that farmers and ranchers are at the mercy of international commodities markets as they meet payroll obligations, but said provisions for a lower training wage would help many small businesses, including fast food franchises with worker-retention problems.
The Senate bill was amended at the start of deliberations Wednesday to increase the minimum wage in two steps, starting at $8.25 in October and $9 in April 2018. Senate bill Sponsor Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, said the new amendment responds to concerns from the agricultural sector.
Discussion on the Senate floor delved into whether minimum wage employees would still qualify for public benefits after pay raises. Under the current $7.50 minimum wage, individuals can qualify for low- or no-cost health care under New Mexico’s Medicaid program — which was expanded in 2014 under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said the bill simply ensures that people who work full time don’t’ live in poverty. “Today if you are living on $7.50, you are living in severe poverty,” he said.
Democrats, who retook majority control of the Legislature in November elections, placed a minimum wage increase at the forefront of their economic development platform for the legislative session.
Lawmakers and the state’s second-term governor are searching for ways to expand and diversify a state economy, with little money at their disposal for new initiatives amid a budget crisis linked to downturn in the oil and natural gas sectors.
New Mexico’s 6.6 percent unemployment rate is the second highest in the nation behind Alaska. The national rate is 4.8 percent.