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Late-night deal reached on minimum wage

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By Robert Nott
The New Mexican

The state's lowest-paid workers are likely to get a raise of $1.50 an hour effective Jan. 1, and their wages will rise each year until 2023.

After weeks of debate and disagreement over competing bills to raise the statewide minimum wage of $7.50 an hour, the Senate and House of Representatives were on course Thursday night to settle on a wage scale. A conference committee of three senators and three representatives reached an agreement in what appeared to be a well-orchestrated presentation.

As late as Thursday afternoon, Democrats in the House and Senate were at odds over the minimum wage. But the icy dispute thawed after key legislators met with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, also a Democrat.

Lujan Grisham campaigned on raising the statewide minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2021. With their proposed compromise, legislators would authorize that amount but more slowly.

They are proposing a hybrid of the competing bills.

After minimum wage rose from $7.50 to $9 next year, it would increase on this schedule:

*$10.50 an hour on Jan. 1, 2021.

* $11.50 an hour on Jan. 1, 2022.

* And finally $12 an hour on Jan. 1, 2023.

Democrats in the House previously approved a bill with an escalator provision, so the minimum wage would continue to increase based on inflation. But that section of the bill was eliminated in the compromise.

The compromise bill also includes a lower minimum wage of $8.50 for high school students. It would begin next January, but the bill provides for no further raises for them.

Both the full 42-member Senate and the 70-member House still would have to approve the compromise bill to send it to Lujan Grisham so she could sign it into law.

An attempt by Democrats in the House to eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers also was scuttled.

Instead, those who work primarily for tips will see their base minimum wage rise from $2.13 to $2.35 in January. Then they would receive three small raises each year until they reach $3 an hour in January 2023.

Still, both sides expressed relief at the final agreement.

Rep. Miguel Garcia, a Democrat from Albuquerque and sponsor of the House bill, called it "a decent compromise."

But that compromise only came after nearly a week of conflict between the two legislative chambers.

The more modest proposal that cleared the Senate was the work of Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants. He came under fire early Thursday afternoon from another Democrat, Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque.

On the Senate floor, Ortiz y Pino accused Sanchez of refusing to compromise with the House.

"The entire Senate has been put in a real bind by the sponsor," Ortiz y Pino said. "He has refused to cooperate."

He also said Sanchez reneged on a promise to amend his bill after a committee hearing. Ortiz y Pino said this led the committee to endorse a version of the bill that ended up being drastically different.

Sanchez simmered.

"I'm surprised by the comments," he said. "I have been negotiating. It's very personal.... when you start attacking a senator personal. I find that quite appalling."

But hours later, after the compromise was struck, Ortiz y Pino thanked Sanchez for working out the agreement in an "admirable way.

Unclear was what role the governor played in the negotiations. But she had expressed optimism, even after the clash between Sanchez and Ortiz y Pino.

"I think we have a substantially real shot at moving that [minimum wage bill] across the finish line," Lujan Grisham said.