SANTA FE, N.M. — A proposal that would let voters decide whether to boost the state's minimum wage beginning next year failed to garner enough support despite hours of debate Wednesday night that centered on New Mexico's working poor.
The proposed constitutional amendment needed the support of 36 House members to make it onto the ballot next November. The vote came up short at 33-29, with lawmakers voting mostly along party lines.
The measure was a top priority for Democrats during this 30-day session, which ends Thursday. They said a wage hike would help tens of thousands of workers and would move New Mexico another step toward closing the income-equality gap and improving the outcome for children.
"We don't want families to have to go get food stamps. We don't want families to have to get on welfare," said Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park. "If we pay them a living wage and make sure that wage raises itself every year to balance out the cost of inflation, we are rewarding those people who want to go get a job."
Opponents said the state constitution was not the right place to address the minimum wage and that Democrats were politicizing the issue by pursuing an amendment rather than legislation that would not require voters to weigh in.
Opponents were also concerned that a higher wage could force businesses to trim their workforce and could lead to higher prices for goods and services.
Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Farmington, said raising the minimum wage might make a difference to a teenager, but the vast majority of adults who rely on minimum wage jobs to raise families could end up compromising their eligibility for government assistance.
"It's just a difficult thing to figure out," Taylor said of addressing New Mexico's high poverty rates. "That's the huge problem with minimum wage. It doesn't bring anybody out of poverty."
New Mexico's minimum wage has been $7.50 an hour since 2009. The proposed constitutional amendment would have adjusted the minimum wage for inflation since 2009 — setting it at an estimated $8.40 starting in July 2015.
Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, said the proposal would have affected about 91,000 workers. That does not include workers in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, where higher minimum wages are already in effect.
Under the constitutional amendment, the statewide minimum wage would have increase annually for inflation, which happens now in neighboring Arizona, Colorado and eight other states. But the rate of increase would have been limited to no more than 4 percent a year.