Fight marches on over minimum wage

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By Sherry Robinson

The last time New Mexico raised its minimum wage, in 2007, then Governor Bill Richardson had just announced his candidacy for president. Getting a bill to his desk still wasn’t guaranteed; the House and Senate leadership deadlocked on a bill the year before and were again eyeball to eyeball. Gov. Bill Richardson told them to stop “dillydallying” and elbowed them into a compromise.
He made it clear he wanted that bill. Christine Trujillo, of the American Federation of Teachers-New Mexico, said: “There must be certain groups of people who are children of a lesser God. How can we justify dooming children to poverty?”
When it passed, raising the minimum from $5.15 to $7.50 an hour over two years, New Mexico jumped to ninth place nationally. But it wasn’t as drastic as a rival bill, which would have built in a cost-of-living increase indexed to inflation.
Six short years later, we have another governor with her eye (or her political consultant’s eye) on national office, and Christine Trujillo is a freshman legislator. This year’s proposal, to raise the minimum from $7.50 to $8.50 an hour would have made New Mexico’s minimum fourth highest in the nation, which was not acceptable to Gov. Susana Martinez.
This bill wasn’t as drastic as another, a House Joint Memorial, which revived the indexing idea for minimum wages and cemented it into a constitutional amendment, which would have circumvented the governor’s promised veto. It died in committee with Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces, joining Republicans. Garcia didn’t think the wage belonged in the Constitution. However, 10 states, including Arizona and Colorado, increase their minimum wages annually for inflation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Other than that, we heard all the same arguments we have heard before, which are also the same arguments raised for and against minimums proposed in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. And now we have another national debate to raise the wage above the current $7.25. So the minimum wage discussion will be with us for a while.
In 2007, Republicans said raising the wage would hurt small businesses and force them to choose between higher wages and offering health care to workers. Ah, the heady days before the Great Recession. This year’s arguments were more emotional and filled with dire consequences for workers and the economy.
The Dems hung their hat on a raise as part of their jobs package. It would put more money in workers’ pockets and stimulate the economy, they said. The governor called it a job killer.
Republicans attempted a compromise at $7.80 an hour, which is what Arizona offers. Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, quoted a “dicho” that translated, the crumbs are for the chicks. “We’re trying to throw crumbs at them,” he said. The compromise failed on a tie vote.
There was a time when the wage was just a wage. This year, as the election demonstrated, we’re painfully aware of the ever-widening chasm between rich and poor and the eroding foothold of the middle class. I once learned from some expert that it’s a prescription for political instability. We’ve also been through a long period of appalling behavior by many CEOs, who have convinced themselves and their boards of directors that they really are worth more than 300 times the salary of their workers. Business people should be worried about this.
I say this as a friend: When their lobbyists and supporters complain that nobody in the Roundhouse cares what they think, they’re not far from wrong. The minimum wage effort was simply an attempt to keep the poorest of the poor from falling through the net altogether. Employers need to be part of the solution.