Minimum wage debates this year may eliminate the need to heat the state capitol.
Albuquerque voters just voted to increase the minimum wage despite a vigorous campaign against it, and the minimum in Santa Fe is above $10. There Republicans count businesses that have closed or departed and Democrats count increased job creation.
Before I put on my hip waders, let me first admit that I always have mixed feelings on the minimum wage. On one hand, in a battered economy, I wonder what mythical pot of gold these new wages are supposed to come from. On the other hand, there are moms and dads working two jobs to pay the rent, and their paltry wages make possible the low prices we enjoy in stores and restaurants. Personally, I'd rather pay more for my burger and know that the server is herself served.
Let's also recognize that an increased minimum doesn't have a universal impact. Astute business people already pay better wages to hang on to their good employees. The law falls on others who for various reasons don't. We have this fight with each increase, state or national. Proponents and opponents draw their pistols and fire data at one another, and eventually the new minimum is accepted.
Wading deeper, we're not really arguing about wages, we're arguing about message, and a mandated wage increase sounds hostile to job creators, while Republican proposals to reduce corporate income taxes sound friendlier. In reality, most businesses don't pay corporate income taxes, and
Wading still deeper, it's all about fear. More diplomatic observers call it "uncertainty."
In November I listened to Federal Reserve economists talk about how they were holding interest rates at rock bottom to encourage business borrowing. This has hurt savers, retirees, nonprofits, and small banks, they admitted, and yet businesses still weren't borrowing. Last week I heard a New Mexico banking lobbyist say business borrowing is low. Look at all those dreary confidence-level surveys of employers.
Businesses are afraid to hire, to expand, to move until the fuzzy images of Obamacare, tax policy, and regulation and other potential dangers become clear. And the Great Recession took a toll on households and business that will take time to mend.
So when we talk about this tax cut or that incentive or an increased minimum wage or a raft of public works projects, it all amounts to PR. Nothing the governor or Legislature can do will "jumpstart the economy," a political clich that deserves to die. All they can do is make business people a little more comfortable. Call it Dumbo's feather.
And in New Mexico, we don't even do that very well. Last week I got an email from a Los Alamos entrepreneur: "The problem is simple. Small companies that start in New Mexico tell their politicians what they need. The politicians do not listen and propose what they have proposed for decades. The companies move elsewhere."
He's right. They don't listen; in fact, certain Dems seem to regard business as the enemy. In the political House of Mirrors, all business is evil, and all Democrats are anti-business, and neither is true. Yes, blackguards in finance (who have never been punished) put us here, but I often wonder if the lawyers killing business bills ever think about who their clients will be if when they slit the throat of the last golden goose.
What lawmakers and the governor can do is give Dumbo his feather. Pass a minimum wage increase AND a corporate tax break, provided both line up with rates in surrounding states. Listen to employees AND employers. Maybe Dumbo will fly.
Sherry Robinson is a New Mexico journalist who began her career in 1976 and has served as assistant business editor and columnist with the Albuquerque Journal, editor of New Mexico Business Weekly and business editor of the Albuquerque Tribune. She is also the author of two books: "El Malpais, Mt. Taylor and the Zuni Mountains" and "Apache Voices."