SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Democratic lawmakers are pushing to increase New Mexico's minimum wage to $8.50 an hour, one of the highest rates in the country, and allow voters to decide whether the rate should be adjusted annually for inflation.
The proposals are part of the Democratic agenda for the 60-day legislative session, but the measures face strong opposition from business groups.
"For too long, the debate seems to have been we either have social justice or you have economic development," said Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. "You can have both. You can have social justice and a strong economy."
The state's minimum wage went to $7.50 an hour in 2009. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Employers must pay the higher rate when there is a difference between the federal rate and requirements imposed by a state or local government, according to the state Department of Workforce Solutions.
A proposal by Sens. Richard Martinez, of Espanola, and William Soules, of Las Cruces, would increase the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour, which would provide an annual salary of $17,680 for a full-time job.
Only three states — Washington, Oregon and Vermont — have higher minimum wages. Washington tops the nation at $9.19 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
"This would increase the amount of money in a family budget by about $40 a week to buy groceries," Soules said of his proposal. ""This is a bill that supports families. It helps raise people up out of poverty, which we know is a major contributor to poor education outcomes."
A separate proposal by Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, would provide automatic cost-of-living increases in the state's minimum wage based on the consumer price index published by the Labor Department. The rate could increase but not decrease because of the annual adjustments.
New Mexico's current hourly minimum wage rate would need to be $8.03 if it was adjusted for inflation since 2009, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator.
The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce opposes the wage proposals.
"We believe that increasing the minimum wage only hurts the people that the legislators are trying to help," said Terri Cole, the business group's president and CEO.
She contends that a higher pay requirement by the state will cause businesses to eliminate jobs or benefits and potentially increase the costs of their products.
But John Chavez, a Santa Fe restaurant owner, said businesses can thrive with a higher minimum wage. He pays his five employees an average of $11.25 an hour. Santa Fe has a "living wage" requirement of $10.29 an hour, but it doesn't apply to his small business.
"Employees are more productive when they are getting paid more," Chavez said.
Albuquerque voters in November approved raising the city's minimum wage to $8.50 an hour — a $1 increase — and requiring cost-of-living adjustments.
Garcia's proposal is a constitutional amendment that would be placed on the 2014 general election ballot if it's approved by the Legislature. Lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Legislature can bypass Republican Gov. Susana Martinez because a proposed constitutional amendment doesn't require the signature of the governor.
The legislation to raise the wage rate to $8.50 would require the signature of the governor to become law if it's approved by lawmakers.
The governor's office declined to say whether it opposes the increase.
"During these uncertain and difficult economic times, we need to make sure that anything that passes through the Legislature makes New Mexico more competitive. The governor would have to take a look at anything that passes," said spokesman Enrique Knell.
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