Biden inserts himself into NM minimum wage debate, but to no avail


SAYING NO TO JOE: New Mexico state Rep. Sandra Jeff, a Democrat from the little town of Crownpoint, received a phone call from Vice President Biden, urging her to vote for an increase in the state’s minimum wage but the measure still failed.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. – The Obama administration is intently focused on raising the minimum wage, and it’s reaching out to lawmakers across the country.

Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden called a state representative, who is little-known outside of New Mexico. Biden was trying to get her to vote for a resolution in the New Mexico Legislature that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $8.40 an hour and tie the rate to the Consumer Price Index.

The state rep skipped the vote, however, and the resolution came up three votes short in the New Mexico House of Representatives.

Speaking on background Wednesday afternoon, White House officials said Biden called Rep. Sandra Jeff, a Native American and Democrat in the New Mexico House who has a reputation for sometimes siding with Republicans on crucial votes.

Neither White House officials nor Jeff would disclose the specifics of the conversation, but the Obama administration has made no secret raising the minimum wage is one of its top political priorities in 2014.

President Obama has called for raising the nation’s minimum wage, from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, and Biden’s call to Jeff indicates the White House is willing to expend some political capital on a state-by-state basis.

After first telling New Mexico Watchdog she hadn’t talked with Biden, Jeff acknowledged she got a call from the vice president, after White House officials confirmed the exchange.

“I did receive a call from Vice President Joe Biden urging me to support the minimum wage increase,” Jeff said in a text message to New Mexico Watchdog after the resolution received just 33 of the 36 votes needed to send the resolution to the state’s voters in the upcoming November ballot.

“I explained to (Biden) that I support raising the minimum wage and I have voted do so in the past, but believe it should be done in a bill, not as a constitutional amendment,” said Jeff, who is from the town of Crownpoint, N.M., and represents a district largely populated by members of the Navajo Nation.

New Mexico Democrats in the House and the Senate made a tactical decision to reject any bills that would raise the state’s minimum wage — $7.50 an hour since 2009 — and instead tried to raise the rate through a constitutional amendment to bypass Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

Martinez has said she was in favor of raising the minimum wage, but only to a rate comparable to neighboring states such as Arizona, which is $7.90 an hour.

Instead, New Mexico Democrats refused to back a bill introduced by one of their own members calling for an $8 an hour minimum wage and hung their hopes on getting $8.40 an hour plus CPI increases through a constitutional amendment.

But Wednesday — on the eve of the end of the 30-day legislative session — they finished three votes shy.

Jeff was absent for the vote and another Democrat, Rep. Dona Irwin, voted with Republicans, saying she too didn’t think the measure should be passed in a constitutional amendment.

Asked why she skipped the vote, Jeff didn’t answer directly. “My focus is about my constituents and a balanced budget for the state of New Mexico … (Raising the minimum wage) should not be in a constitutional amendment because we can’t change it from year to year.”

“Raising the minimum wage is about reducing income inequality,” resolution co-sponsor Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, said, vowing to bring the resolution back next year.

“The Democrats today rejected a compromise to raise the minimum wage to $8 per hour, choosing instead to play politics by attempting to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot for the upcoming election,” said Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell. “It’s understandable they are embarrassed that their tactic backfired today, but they have no one to blame for failing to raise the minimum wage but themselves.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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