House OKs wage increase

By Deborah Baker: The Associated Press

SANTA FE — A proposal to raise the state minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.50 an hour over the next two years cleared the House on Monday.

With 10 days left in the annual legislative session, the measure headed to the state Senate, where an alternative proposal — $7.50 phased in over three years — is pending.

The House bill would increase the state’s current $5.15 minimum — same as the federal minimum — to $6.75 in 2007 and to $7.50 in 2008.

Employers could pay a “training wage” of $5.15 for the first 60 days a worker was on the job. And, in a concession to chile producers, food processors could apply to the state Department of Labor for exemptions.

The bill passed on a vote of 38-30 after three hours of debate.

In a surprise twist, Democrats went along with a Republican amendment that would bring state and local governments under the minimum wage law. Currently, they’re exempt. Supporters said there would be minimal budget impact on state government.

House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, the bill’s sponsor, said the higher wage is “fundamentally a matter of human dignity and fairness.”

He described the bill as a compromise because of the concessions. But critics said it was still anti-business — and would be particularly tough on small companies and those near the state line.

“This is a misguided attempt to try to help people,” said House Republican Leader Ted Hobbs of Albuquerque.

Under the legislation, the $7.50 minimum wage would be adjusted for inflation beginning in 2009. Cities and counties would be barred from enacting a minimum wage higher than the state’s until 2011.

Santa Fe’s city ordinance — which currently requires the largest employers to pay $9.50 an hour — would not be touched by the new law.

Congress has not raised the minimum wage since 1997, and supporters of the bill said doing so is a matter of economic justice and fairness. Seventeen other states and the District of Columbia have hiked their minimum wage rates above the federal minimum.

“This is a step in the right direction,” Lujan said.

About 123,000 New Mexicans make less than $7.50 an hour, according to the state Department of Labor.

“I think it’s a noble cause,” said Rep. Dan Foley, R-Roswell. But he said it was “out of whack” for one of the poorest states in the nation to enact what would be one of the nation’s highest minimum wage rates.

Rep. Terry Marquardt, R-Alamogordo, said the state should focus instead on improving education and job training.
“We need to raise our graduation rates from high school,” Marquardt said.

In the Senate, the Corporations and Transportation Committee endorsed a proposal backed by Gov. Bill Richardson: an increase to $7.50 phased in over three years.

The bill had been gutted in a previous committee, reduced to a rate of $6.15 phased in over two years. The corporations panel restored it to its original form before sending it along on a 5-4 vote to the Senate Finance Committee.