Senate panel OKs proposal for minimum wage

By Barry Massey

SANTA FE — Gov. Bill Richardson opposes a proposal heading to the Senate that would boost the state minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6 in 2007 and then phase in additional increases for some experienced workers.

Under a measure approved Monday by the Senate Finance Committee, a worker who had been with the same employer for at least two years as of January 2009 would earn a minimum wage of $7.50.

The committee’s proposal differs from two competing wage measures that have been moving through the Legislature and would phase in increases in the wage floor to $7.50 regardless of a worker’s job experience.

Richardson advocates an increase to $7.50 over three years. A House-passed bill, backed by House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, calls for a two-year increase to $7.50 and then annually adjusts the wage rate for inflation.

With the Legislature set to adjourn on Thursday, it remains uncertain whether lawmakers can resolve their differences on the minimum wage before the 30-day session ends.
Richardson said the committee-approved measure was “unacceptable” but he expressed hope that an agreement will be reached on a bill.

“There’s still room for compromise, and they’re (legislators) are moving forward,” Richardson said at a news conference.

Business and agricultural interests, including a trade group representing restaurants, helped developed the bill approved by the Finance Committee on a party-line 5-4 vote. Republicans opposed the measure.

Under the proposal:

—The minimum wage would increase to $6 on Jan. 1, 2007.

—Workers must be paid $6.75 an hour start in January 2008 if they have been with the same employer at least a year. The wage floor would remain at $6 for other workers.

—Workers would receive $7.50 an hour starting in January 2009 if they have been with the same employers at least two years.

—Food and chili processors in the state would be exempt from the minimum wage. An exemption also would be granted to dairy workers — a provision that’s not in either the governor’s proposal or the House-passed bill.

—Cities and counties would be barred from imposing a local minimum wage higher than the state’s wage floor.

—Santa Fe’s city living wage ordinance would be frozen at its current requirement for the largest employers to pay $9.50 an hour. Under the ordinance, the wage requirement is to go to $10.50 in 2008 if the city council gives the go-ahead.

Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, said the committee-passed proposal was “more business friendly” that other measures and would protect agricultural employers.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, expressed reservations about boosting the state wage floor to $7.50, saying it would hurt rural areas of the state. Parts of his border-area district in southern New Mexico have high unemployment.

“Minimum wage jobs in my part of the state are good jobs,” said Smith.