House panel stops proposed constitutional amendment; Democratic Rep. Mary Helen Garcia casts deciding vote
One attempt to raise New Mexico’s minimum wage failed Tuesday, derailed by a bipartisan group of legislators.
Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, right, D-Las Cruces, joined with five Republicans on the House Voters and Elections Committee to defeat the proposed constitutional amendment.
Garcia said a formulaic system to increase the minimum wage did not belong in the Constitution. She said any attempt to raise it should be handled by legislation, not an amendment that would be sent to voters and then become embedded in the Constitution if approved.
Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, sponsored the proposed amendment. It would have increased the state’s base minimum wage of $7.50 an hour based on yearly inflation.
For instance, if inflation was 3 percent, the minimum wage would have increased by a like amount. Under that example, a worker making minimum wage would have seen his pay rise by a quarter, to $7.75 an hour.
House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, sponsored an amendment that would have capped increases at 4 percent a year. This would enable businesses to plan and meet higher payroll costs, Martinez said.
Members of business organizations, including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry, opposed an increase in the minimum wage.
Matthew Gonzales of the association said Miguel Garcia’s idea would be bad for companies trying to survive a recession.
“Businesses are trying to keep their doors open,” Gonzales said.
He also said increases in the minimum wage would drive teenagers out of work. Employers forced to pay more for entry-level employees would hire more experienced people, Gonzales said.
Counterpoints came from Bill Jordan of New Mexico Voices for Children and the Rev. Holly Beaumont of Interfaith Worker Justice in Santa Fe.
Jordan said Miguel Garcia’s attempt to help people in poverty was a modest one.
“They’re not going to get a raise. They’re going to keep up with inflation,” Jordan said.
Beaumont said businesses have gotten the better of minimum wage political debates since the 1960s. A reasonable minimum wage would exceed $10 an hour, she said.
Santa Fe’s minimum wage, one of the highest in the country, is $10.51 an hour. Voters authorized it, and proponents say it has helped businesses by reducing turnover and training expenses.
Albuquerque voters recently raised their city’s minimum wage to $8.50, a law that one restaurateur is refusing to comply with.
Rep. Ed Sandoval, D-Albuquerque, said a person making minimum wage takes home about $270 a week, a pittance to live on. He urged committee members to “open your hearts and your minds” to the wisdom of a pay raise for those in or near poverty levels.
Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, said the minimum wage should be the province of the federal government. States and cities should not set different rates, he said.
But it was the argument against placing a minimum wage law in the state Constitution that carried the day.
Rep. Monica Youngblood, right, R-Albuquerque, said Miguel Garcia had an obvious motive for trying to take the issue to voters as a constitutional amendment. That maneuver would avoid a potential veto of his minimum wage proposal by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, Youngblood said.
Miguel Garcia’s hope was to get his proposal through the Legislature so it could be presented to voters in November 2014.
Even with the defeat of his bill, the minimum wage debate is not over in New Mexico.
Another bill by Sens. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, and Richard Martinez, D-Espanola, would increase the state minimum wage from $7.50 to $8.50 an hour.
Their proposal, Senate Bill 416, was scheduled to be heard by the Senate Public Affairs Committee as soon as Tuesday evening.