Minimum wage increase divides gov candidates

Among the economic differences between Republican incumbent Susana Martinez and Democratic challenger Gary King: raising the minimum wage.

According to the state’s Department of Workforce Solutions, New Mexico requires employers statewide to pay at least $7.50 per hour, a rate set on Jan. 1, 2009, 25 cents an hour higher than the national minimum wage.

Some cities in the state have established their own minimum wages. Albuquerque this year raised its wage to $8.60 an hour and in Santa Fe, workers get a minimum of $10.66.

New Mexico has a high percentage of people living below the poverty line. U.S. Census Bureau data shows 19.5 percent of New Mexicans live below the line, compared to 14.9 percent nationally. New Mexico also has a higher number than its four bordering states. Texas has 17.4 percent, Arizona has 17.2 percent, Colorado has 12.9 percent and Oklahoma has 16.6 percent.

For years, raising the minimum wage has been a hot topic nationally, and New Mexico is no different.

Where the candidates weigh in

Martinez, speaking at the Oct. 19 debate broadcast on KOAT in Albuquerque, said she aims to keep New Mexico’s minimum wage at a rate competitive with the surrounding states. She said she was willing to compromise with an increase to $8 when the state Legislature addressed the issue in 2013.

“That would make us competitive with Arizona, Colorado and Texas,” Martinez said during the debate. “But if we do not remain competitive, then our small businesses are going to leave New Mexico and we will be overlooked by other companies and businesses, and we’ll never be viewed as somewhere that they want to relocate to.”

Colorado’s minimum wage is $8 an hour, while Arizona pays $7.90. Workers in Oklahoma and Texas earn the federal minimum wage, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

King, meanwhile said he wants to raise the state’s minimum wage at least to Albuquerque’s rate, though he does favor a $10.10 rate.

President Barack Obama called for that same $10.10 minimum wage during this year’s State of the Union address, and this year Seattle approved to gradually raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour.

“Those people, if they make another dollar an hour will certainly go and spend that in the community, so it will impact and it will make our economy more robust because it has that rollover effect,” King said at the KOAT debate.

Where New Mexicans weigh in

A Research & Polling Inc. commissioned and published by the Albuquerque Journal on Sept. 15 revealed a significant number of voters feel the state should raise the minimum wage.

According to the poll, 68 percent said they support an increase, 27 opposed it and 5 percent didn’t know.

“New Mexico is still struggling economically,” pollster Brian Sanderoff told the Journal. “It has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, and I suspect that’s contributing to strong levels of support for increasing the wage.”

More specifically, the poll states 13 percent of voters feel the wage should be between $8 and $8.99, 16 percent are for $9 to $9.99, 24 percent support $10, and 12 percent say the wage should be more than $10.
The poll sampled 500 registered likely voters and has a margin of error plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

One student worker, Dalan Abreu, knows the struggles of working a minimum wage job. He said he feels the current minimum wage in New Mexico is too low, and the issue could be a factor in how he votes this election.

Abreu, who works for the North Domingo Baca Multigenerational Center, said worrying about money causes him a good deal of stress.

“I have to pay rent, after I pay rent I have to pay bills, after that I have to help with payments on phone, car, everything,” he said. “So I don’t have any money left over to actually pay for my college so student loans becomes a factor and that’s what is a heavy burden on my shoulders that stresses me the most for sure.”

Another student worker at the multigenerational center, Domonic Sena, said he does not feel Albuquerque’s minimum wage is too low, but he would not have a problem with a raise to $9.

“Just working minimum wage, it’s kind of hard,” he said.

Where employers weigh in

Those opposed to raising the government-set minimum wage say an increase could lead to higher prices for goods and services, fewer hours for workers or layoffs – or a combination of all three.

Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, falls into that camp. She said raising the minimum wage has an inflationary effect, meaning that as the minimum wage goes up, prices for goods and services also rise.

The minimum wage in some cities has already affected prices in restaurants, she said, although she cannot say specifically how much on average because restaurants in cities that have mandated wage increases deal with it differently, including raising prices only on drinks or on certain food items.

“Economically, raising the minimum wage is not smart because it raises prices,” she said, “so those people who pay the minimum wage will eventually — and it will take some time — they will eventually be paying more for all the good and services that they pay for now.”

Hector Rodriguez owns Still Smoking Smoke Shop and has six employees. When Albuquerque raised its minimum wage, he said it had a minimal affect on his business and he did not have to let anyone go. Another wage increase could have other repercussions, he said.

“I definitely will have to let go of a few employees (with another increase), and I will have to start doing a lot of the labor on my own, besides having to do all the paperwork for my business,” he said. “So it’s going to be kind of rough.”

Martha Ruiz, administrative manager for Jim’s Super Market, said employee hours at the store were cut as well. She does not believe the business could handle an increase to $10.10 an hour.

“I guess the economy, it’s been affecting also our business,” she said. So right now we’re in pretty…in bad shape. So that will really, really, really be hard for the store, for the business.”

Graphic by J.R. Oppenheim / NM News Port