NM debate over minimum wage gets political

MINIMUM WAGE, MAXIMUM POLITICS: The debate over raising the minimum wage may put New Mexico Republicans on the defensive.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico lawmakers will resurrect a debate over whether raising the minimum wage helps or hurts the economy, but as a political issue.

Democrats think it’s a sure-fire winner, and most Republicans acknowledge as much.

“This is just political gamesmanship to make some people look bad,” said Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington.

“I don’t know about the politics of the bill,” said Sen. Richard Martinez, D-EspaƱola, who has introduced a joint resolution that would place raising the state’s minimum wage on the November ballot. “All I know is, it’s the right thing to do.”

Democrats across the country are pushing similar bills. A national review by the Associated Press shows lawmakers in at least 30 states are pushing bills to raise the minimum wage.

“It’s a no-brainer for any Democrat,” Neil Sroka, a strategist for liberal groups who is communications director at the Howard Dean-founded Democracy for America, told the AP. “Congress is failing. They can take real action right in the states and have a demonstrable impact right here at home. For politics and policy, it’s a winning strategy.”

A Quinnipiac poll released this month showed 71 percent of Americans in favor of raising the minimum wage — including 52 percent of Republicans surveyed.

In his State of the Union speech this Tuesday, President Obama is expected to call for Congress to raise the national minimum wage, from $7.25 to $10.10.

In New Mexico, Martinez sponsored a bill last year, which passed the House and Senate, that would have raised New Mexico’s minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $8.50. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez said she was willing to go to $7.80, matching Arizona and exceeding the $7.25 rate in Texas and Utah.

But the Senate bill held firm at $8.50 an hour, and the governor vetoed it.

This year, Senator Martinez introduced another bill — Senate Joint Resolution 13 — that bypasses the governor. If a joint resolution passes both chambers it goes straight to voters as a constitutional amendment.

“I just figured, we’ll do it another way and let the voters decide,” Senator Martinez said.

SJR 13 would link the state’s minimum wage to the cost of living, starting from 2009. Senator Martinez said it would set the hourly minimum wage at about $8.50 an hour.

But Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said he would like to have the debate start at $10 an hour.

“I’ve always liked going for a little bit more,” Sanchez told reporters last week.

“New Mexico’s job growth has been stagnant for the last five or six years,” said Sen. Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque. “Raising the cost of businesses will probably effect that negatively. But that’s not what the argument is going to be in Santa Fe. It’s going to be about ‘fairness,’ about somebody has something that somebody else needs.”

Both sides can point to studies to back up their policy arguments.

The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, released a study claiming that boosting the national minimum wage to $10.10 would help the U.S. economy grow by about $22 billion.

“Modest raises to the minimum wage does not hurt jobs,” state Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, said in the Democratic response to the State of the State address by Governor Martinez last week. “Basic economics tells us when money moves, the economy improves.”

But opponents can point to a 2010 study from Cornell and American University that claimed “the evidence suggests that minimum wage increases have thus far provided little more than symbolic support” to help the economic fate of the working poor.

“This whole thing is a bogus wedge issue,” Sharer said. “This is based on the idea that business owners have a secret stash of money that they’re hoarding. And that’s not true, especially for small business owners. They put their money back into their business, either by hiring more people or investing in equipment or doing repairs on their shop.”

“I feel it’s impossible to live on $7.50 an hour,” Senator Martinez said. “I talk to a lot of merchants in my district and they tell me if the minimum wage is 10 bucks, they’re not going to have a problem with me introducing legislation or a constitutional amendment raising it to $8.50 an hour.”

“You’re not going to destroy Walmart with this,” said Sharer, a small business owner. “What you will do is destroy another mom and pop New Mexico-owned business.”

“I don’t really believe that,” Senator Martinez said. “I think it will increase business, and if you’re paying a little better, if you shuffle the money, it will spread throughout the community. There will be economic development and the more you have, the more you spend.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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