After three previous attempts failed, City Council President Martin Heinrich crafted a compromise minimum wage bill debated at an April 20 special Council meeting. The current bill phases in the $7.50 wage over three years, includes all employers and limits legal actions against employers. A deal was struck between the Council and city administration before the meeting, but all sides restated their arguments, however solid or shaky.
On the Solid Side
Several people said studies show no economic harm from higher minimum wages. New Mexico Secretary of Labor Conroy Chino emphasized the state's good financial condition. Carter Bundy of the AFSCME said over half the American population lives in states where minimum wages are higher than the federal minimum, and employment was actually better in those states.
Gerry Bradley, an economist with New Mexico Voices for Children, said Santa Fe's higher minimum wage resulted in job growth of 3 percent last year, a 4 percent unemployment rate and significantly smaller social welfare rolls, while expenses rose across the rest of the state.
But other speakers cited the burden a new minimum wage could place on small businesses. Benjamin Lovato listed business expenses that have increased in recent years—water, fuel, garbage collection, property taxes, impact fees and natural gas—and said he wouldn't be able to start a business today in Albuquerque. Juan Delgadillo, president of Asociación de Comerciantes Latinos de Nuevo Mexico, said his association was not against people making more money but was concerned with the impact on small businesses. Pat Hafner, owner of Outback Steakhouse, said people currently earning more than the minimum wage would also want a raise.
One speaker protested that the Council's action nullified their vote against the bill. Councilor Sally Mayer picked up the point, saying her constituents were angry their votes were ignored and how sorry she was the Council was not taking the issue back to the voters. But Mayer previously voted against putting the minimum wage on the ballot, calling the effort an "outrageous get-out-the-vote gimmick" that just made her sick. Bob Anderson, TVI Political Science teacher, said our national income profile is changing from the traditional bell curve into a barbell, with the very poor and the very rich clustered at each end.
On the Shaky Side
Several opponents argued the bill would (a) drive businesses and jobs out of the city, and (b) draw workers in from nearby towns to compete for the higher-paying jobs. It seems like you can argue either of these premises, but not both simultaneously. No hotel or upscale restaurant is going to move to, say, Moriarty so it can keep paying its maids and dishwashers $5.15 an hour.
State GOP Sen. Kent Cravens of Preserving Albuquerque's Vibrant Economy (PAVE), a coalition of business alliances, said if the higher minimum wage had been in place, "Eclipse [Aviation] would have scratched Albuquerque off its list" as being unfriendly to business. Councilor Debbie O'Malley slammed back, "We have subsidized Eclipse for millions and millions of dollars. They're here because they got a good deal." Heinrich piled on, telling Cravens that Eclipse said they opposed the previous bill only because of an access clause.
Another concern was rising prices of consumer items. Councilor Craig Loy said, "What do we tell seniors who are living on Social Security when prices go up?" Heinrich said a study showed that raising the minimum wage by a dollar, spread across all industries, made prices rise by .19 percent, and spread across the restaurant industry alone raised prices by 2 percent. By that measure, Albuquerque's bill would boost a $25 item to $25.11 in three years, while a fast-food meal would rise from $3.79 to $3.97 over three years.
The most convoluted argument came from those who said they hated a minimum wage hike but were supporting Heinrich's bill because they feared voters would pass a more generous bill. Then there were those saying, "We really, really support a higher minimum wage, but we should wait until it is done at the state/federal/galactic level." But the elephant in the room that no one dared mention was the effect of illegal immigrant labor on the issue.
Wrapping up, Heinrich said, "It's not a silver bullet, but it's a start. Compromise is important in and of itself." He thanked all of the organizations that worked toward the compromise. Councilor Michael Cadigan read his amendment to the bill, which quashed Mayor Martin Chavez' veto threat. The amendment allows businesses paying $2,500 or more per worker per year in health and childcare benefits to pay workers a dollar under the minimum wage. The amendment passed, and the bill itself passed 6-3, Mayer, Loy and Brad Winter opposed.