Senate approves proposal for higher minimum wage

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Voters would decide whether to raise the state's minimum wage to about $8.30 an hour next year under a proposal approved by the state Senate on Friday.

The measure, which also would automatically increase the wage rate each year for inflation, is one of the top legislative priorities of many Democrats in the 30-day session that ends next week.

New Mexico's minimum wage has been $7.50 an hour since 2009.

"I don't see who can live on $7.50 an hour," said Sen. Richard Martinez, an Espanola Democrat who sponsored the proposal. "Let's have our working people make a decent living."

About 91,000 workers receive the minimum wage, he said.

The proposed constitutional amendment was approved on a 24-17 vote and goes to the Democrat-controlled House for consideration.

One Democrat, Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming, joined Republicans in opposing the measure.

If approved by lawmakers, the wage proposal would be placed on the November general election ballot for voters to decide. It would bypass Republican Gov. Susana Martinez because a constitutional amendment doesn't go to the governor to be signed or vetoed.

The proposal would adjust the state's minimum wage for inflation since 2009, setting it at an estimated $8.30 next year, according to a Legislative Finance Committee analysis.

The minimum wage would then increase each year for inflation, but it couldn't rise more than 4 percent annually. It's estimated the wage rate would reach $8.40 in July 2016 and $8.60 in 2017, according to the LFC analysis.

Opponents said the higher wage would hurt businesses and cost jobs in rural areas, particularly for low-wage workers and teenagers trying to break into the job market. They suggested a better approach is to let cities and counties set the minimum wage locally rather than doing it statewide.

"If you increase the minimum wage, the cost of goods and services goes up. There is no net gain whatsoever because ... the people that you're trying to help in the minimum wage field are unable to afford the goods and services because they've raised in price," said William Burt, R-Alamogordo.

But supporters dismissed arguments against a higher wage.

Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat, pointed out that the city had a "living wage" requirement, which is $10.51 an hour and will increase to $10.66 next month.

"Our economy is doing well. It's doing well with a wage that is a real living wage," said Wirth. "All the same arguments about this being a huge job killer were made right here."

The governor vetoed a measure last year that would have raised the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour but expressed support for an increase to $7.80.

Several senators objected to placing the wage issue into the state constitution. Currently, the minimum wage is a statutory provision.

Senate GOP Leader Stuart Ingle, of Portales, said the proposal would make it harder for New Mexico to attract new businesses.

"This may be one that tips the scale not in our favor," Ingle said.

Neighboring Arizona and Colorado are among 10 states that automatically adjust their minimum wages to inflation each year. The hourly wage floor is $7.90 in Arizona and $8 in Colorado.

Washington state has the highest minimum wage in the nation at $9.32 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

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Follow Barry Massey at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP .

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