By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Legislative efforts to again increase the state’s minimum wage took a blow Monday after opponents effectively killed a bill to raise wage rates.
Members of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee voted 6-4 to table House Bill 28, which would have raised the minimum wage based on the consumer price index, which measures inflation rates.
“It’s dead, the committee tabled it,” Rep. Miguel García, D-Albuquerque, sponsor of HB 28, said after the vote.
Two Democrats joined four Republicans to table the bill after about two hours of discussion.
The committee’s move to table HB 28 may not bode well for House Bill 25, which would not only increase the minimum wage annually based on cost of living increases, but bump the current $12 hourly minimum wage to $13.50 by Jan. 1, 2024, and then to $15.50 by Jan. 1, 2025.
Before the committee voted on García’s bill, Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, asked the committee to push back consideration of HB 25 until later this week. Chandler is one of five sponsors, all Democrats, of HB 25.
Chandler said in an interview she wants time to refashion the bill after speaking with members of the committee.
“I still think we need to increase the minimum wage and apply the CPI (consumer price index),” Chandler said following the committee meeting.
She said she still feels “pretty good” about the bill’s chances.
The reluctance of most of the committee members to go for García’s bill speaks to a number of concerns raised by lawmakers as the nation struggles with inflation and the needs of the workforce.
Some said raising the minimum wage could lead small businesses to raise the price of goods.
The vote to table the bill also may reflect a feeling the state Legislature has been aggressive in increasing the minimum wage following a 2019 initiative that has moved the base rate from $7.50 to $12 an hour this year.
The pressures the COVID-19 pandemic placed on businesses around the state means the push to raise the minimum wage now may be “too soon … while these businesses are hanging by a thread,” said Rep. Joshua Hernandez, R-Rio Rancho.
“This is just one more thing that they are going to have to face that I do not think they will overcome,” he said.
Other lawmakers on the committee questioned whether they should force wage increases on businesses.
“Minimum wage shouldn’t be determined by a legislative body,” said Rep. Linda Serrato, D-Santa Fe.
Other lawmakers said if minimum-wage workers get a boost in pay, so should every other employee.
García argued raising the minimum wage is one way to honor workers who play just as vital a role in the success of a company as a leading executive.
“We cannot take our lower-paid workforce for granted,” he told the committee. “The value of work for a janitor or dishwasher or hotel maid is just as important as that of a CEO of a major corporation.”
HB 28 also would have raised the minimum wage for tipped employees.
Allison Smith, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Restaurant Association, spoke in favor of HB 28 at the committee hearing, calling it a “reasonable” approach to raising the salaries of the state’s lowest-paid workers.
But lobbyists and representatives from other state business groups and chambers of commerce were less enthused about the proposal. One cited a 2021 Harvard Business Review study that said for every $1 increase in minimum wage salaries “the percentage of workers working more than 20 hours per week (making them eligible for retirement benefits) decreased by 23.0 percent.”
Rep. Mark Duncan, R-Farmington, said he could see that happening in New Mexico if HB 28 became law.
He said he could envision employers saying to their employees, “I’ll give you a raise, I’ll give you a cost-of-living (bump) but I can only afford to keep you here 25 hours.”