Wage law passed: Waiting governor’s signature

The Associated Press

SANTA FE — Lawmakers moved quickly to help the state, cities and counties avoid millions of dollars in overtime pay for police, firefighters and some other workers.

The Legislature is sending Gov. Bill Richardson a bill that’s to fix a problem that occurred last year when the state enacted a higher minimum wage.

The measure cleared its final legislative hurdle Thursday when it was unanimously approved by the House. The bill passed the Senate on Wednesday.

Lawmakers fast-tracked the bill to get it enacted as soon as possible to help local governments. The measure will take effect immediately upon being signed into law by the governor.

“The governor has his pen nice and warm and ready to sign it,” Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, told House members.
The legislation will allow:

—Fire protection, law enforcement and correctional employees to work longer shifts and not be subject to overtime pay. That flexible scheduling had been allowed previously without overtime, but the provision was eliminated last year when a state minimum wage change was enacted.

—State and local governments to offer compensatory time rather than cash for working overtime. Unless the bill is enacted, the Legislature and state agencies will have to pay overtime rather than “comp time” for some staff.

Cities would need to spend $25 million to comply with the overtime pay requirement unless the legislation is passed, according to the New Mexico Municipal League. Counties would have to pay $10 million a year.

Federal law provides exceptions, such as for law enforcement, from a requirement that employees working more than 40 hours a week be paid time and a half their regular rates of pay.

The legislation would make clear that federal exceptions apply to state and local government employees. Those exceptions were left out of legislation last year that increased the state minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.50 an hour effective Jan. 1.

During debate Wednesday, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, warned that local governments might have to lay off workers to cover the higher wage costs unless corrective legislation was approved.

“It’s going to create a lot of havoc in our communities because of the amount of money that they’re either going to have to come up somewhere — either raise the taxes to maintain the levels of service that are in those communities or they’re going to have to lower the number of individuals they are paying,” said Jennings.

The city of Albuquerque has estimated it would have to pay $12 million a year in overtime.

Senate GOP Whip Leonard Lee Rawson of Las Cruces opposed the bill, saying the current overtime provision helped boost pay for law enforcement and could help in recruiting and retaining police in some areas of the state.

“By lowering this how do you expect to attract the type of folks we need in law enforcement and we can’t fill them now. In essence when we pass this we’re lowering the wage for law enforcement,” said Rawson.

If the legislation is enacted, Jennings said, governments still could enter into labor agreements with their police or firefighters to pay overtime.

Supporters of the bill stressed that it dealt only with overtime provisions and did not exempt state and local governments from the state’s new minimum wage rate.

The state minimum wage will increase to $7.50 starting in January 2009. The federal minimum wage rose to $5.85 an hour in July and goes up to $6.55 an hour on July 24, 2008, and to $7.25 an hour starting July 24, 2009.

Employers must pay whichever minimum wage is higher, the federal or the state rate, according to the Labor Department.
The bill passed the Senate 37-2. Rawson and Sen. Clinton Harden, R-Clovis, voted against it.

• The minimum wage bill is SB66.

On the Net:
Legislature: www.legis.state.nm.us