Minimum wage bill moving through Legislature

By Deborah Baker

SANTA FE — A minimum wage hike to $7.50 an hour easily passed a House committee on Thursday and even its opponents acknowledged some increase appears inevitable this year.

The House Labor and Human Resources Committee voted 5-2 along party lines — Democrats for and Republicans against — for a bill that would raise the hourly wage from the current $5.15 as of Jan. 1, 2007.

The measure, which also builds in annual increases pegged to inflation, would have to clear another committee before it reached the full House for a vote.

“There are far too many people who are struggling to make ends meet,” House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, the bill’s sponsor, told the committee.

Opponents said it would drive up prices and be too tough on employers, especially small companies and those in rural areas.

“We are encouraging economic development for the states of Texas and Arizona because businesses will not be coming in to this area,” said Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, a Roswell Republican who voted against it.

Backed by a coalition of labor, church, community and anti-poverty groups, Lujan’s is the simplest and most dramatic of at least three pending proposals.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, proposes to increase the wage floor to $7.50 next year but allow small employers to take tax credits for three years to help offset it.

Senate President Pro Tem Ben Altamirano, D-Silver City — whose bill mirrors Gov. Bill Richardson’s proposal — would phase in an increase to $7.50 over three years.

Although some businesses oppose an increase in the minimum wage, Richardson’s proposal has the support of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re realists,” said president Terri Cole, acknowledging that since Congress hasn’t raised the minimum wage since 1997, the state is poised to do so.

The governor’s proposal does not include inflation adjustments, and it bars communities from raising their minimum wages above the $7.50 floor for at least five years, although Santa Fe — which currently has a $9.50-an-hour wage — would remain untouched.

Cole urged Lujan to alter his bill to incorporate the governor’s proposals.

About 123,000 New Mexicans would get a raise under Lujan’s legislation. Most of them are adults — average age 31 — and have been in the workforce more than a dozen years, the speaker told the committee during a 3 1/2-hour hearing.

The measure would “put food in the mouths of babes, shoes on the feet of our children and a roof over the heads of our families,” said Rev. Holly Beaumont of the New Mexico Conference of Churches, part of a coalition supporting the increase.

House Republican Leader Ted Hobbs of Albuquerque called it “a frightening piece of legislation” that would result in job cuts and create unemployment among the least skilled.

The increase would force the chili industry “out of state, out of the country, or out of business,” said lobbyist Charlie Marquez. He said a study had shown that an hourly wage of $6.70 is “the point at which they will go broke.”

Child care provider Sabrina Marshall of Alamogordo said she pays her employees $6 an hour and the proposed increase could force her out of business. As her costs rose so would her charges, and parents couldn’t afford it, she said. And the increase could knock parents off programs that subsidize child care, she contended.

Santa Fe residents clashed over whether the capital city’s wage floor for its largest employers — which could go to $10.50 in 2008 if city council gives the go-ahead — has benefited that community.

Supporters said jobs had increased, unemployment had decreased, and the ordinance had become a model for the nation.

Santa Fe City Councilor David Pfeffer disagreed, saying it was too early to tell.