Minimum wage bills spark fierce debate

Jan. 24—SANTA FE — The debate over New Mexico's minimum wage is far from settled.

Just weeks after the state's minimum wage increased to $12 an hour under the final step-up mandated by a 2019 bill, two new proposals calling for future increases generated heated debate Tuesday at the Roundhouse.

After more than three hours of discussion that ranged from enchilada prices to poverty rates around New Mexico, the House Labor, Veterans' and Military Affairs Committee advanced one bill dealing with the minimum wage, but held off on voting on another until later this week.

The approved measure, House Bill 28, is sponsored by Rep. Miguel P. Garcia, D-Albuquerque, and would require annual increases to the minimum wage tied to inflation.

The approach is "essentially a win-win solution for both our workers and our businesses," Garcia claimed during Tuesday's hearing, saying it would benefit workers, while also providing certainty for employers by avoiding big wage spikes mandated by lawmakers.

Under an amended version of the proposal, the inflation-related adjustments would take effect every January, starting next year, and could boost the minimum wage to $15.55 per hour by 2034, according to a legislative analysis of the bill.

The measure was approved on a party-line 7-4 vote, with Democratic committee members voting in favor and Republicans voting in opposition.

Garcia said the indexing provision was initially included in the 2019 bill, but was ultimately removed as part of a final-hour compromise during that year's legislative session.

As for the other bill, it would have boosted the minimum wage to $16 per hour — with additional future increases tied to inflation — starting next year under its initial version.

But Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, agreed to revise it after both Democrats and Republicans expressed concern about the size of the proposed jump, which would have made New Mexico's minimum wage among the nation's highest.

Under the amended bill, House Bill 25, the minimum wage would jump to $13.50 per hour starting in 2024, then again to $15.50 an hour in 2025, with future increases tied to inflation.

Chandler said the proposal was based on New Mexico cost-of-living data and aimed at updating the minimum wage amid a labor market that's changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I think we need to turn the switch in our head and acknowledge we're not living in the same world we were then," Chandler said during Tuesday's hearing, while adding that ominous predictions about the impact of the 2019 legislation have not proven accurate.

However, lobbyists from the New Mexico Chile Association, the New Mexico Restaurant Association and the state's Cattle Growers' Association all testified against the legislation, saying it would place an additional burden on employers and lead to higher prices for consumers.

Some of the comments were pointed, with George Gundrey, owner of the Tomasita's restaurants in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, calling it an "attack on our family-owned businesses" that would ensure New Mexico remains a high-poverty state.

Republican lawmakers, for their part, assailed the bill as misguided.

"To me, this is actually a tax hike and it's going to raise the cost of food," said Rep. Andrea Reeb, R-Clovis.

On the other side, several labor union leaders and representatives from groups that advocate for workers and immigrants spoke in favor of the bills, describing them as essential to ensure low-income workers and families can afford to pay their bills.

New Mexico's minimum wage had been set at $7.50 per hour for roughly a decade before the 2019 law took effect. Under that law, the minimum wage level was raised gradually over the past three years.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who signed the 2019 bill, has not said specifically whether she would support additional minimum wage hikes; as a spokeswoman said last month, the Democratic governor would balance supporting workers with creating a "business-friendly climate" in the state.

New Mexico's minimum wage law previously allowed for a lower training wage — of $8.50 an hour — for high school-age workers, but that was eliminated under 2021 legislation.

The approved minimum wage bill now advances to its second assigned committee, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, while the other measure is expected to be brought back for debate on Thursday.