When the New Mexico Legislature last raised the minimum wage in 2007, it had been a full decade since those on the very bottom of the wage scale had been given a mandatory bump, and workers in New Mexico at that time lagged behind those in other states where their Legislatures had acted.
As it turned out, the federal government moved that same year to increase the minimum wage. The two were phased in at different intervals until now, when the $7.50 minimum wage in New Mexico is 25 cents an hour more than the federal minimum.
Now, two state legislators, including newly elected Sen. William Soules of Las Cruces, have proposed an additional $1-an-hour increase in the minimum wage that would again put our state our of kilter with the rest of the nation. But this time, instead of lagging behind their peers, minimum-wage workers in New Mexico would make far more than those elsewhere and businesses that rely on those workers would see their expenses skyrocket.
The proposed change would make our minimum wage the fourth-highest in the nation behind Washington, Oregon and Vermont, three states we have little in common with economically.
This is being proposed at a time when New Mexico is losing jobs while all around us are gaining them. The top priority of the Legislature this year should be to kick start the economy and make us more competitive with neighboring states. This would do just the opposite. Texas has no state minimum wage. Arizona's is set at $7.80 and Colorado's at $7.78.
It may make sense for a city like Santa Fe, with its higher cost of living, for the voters there to decide to increase its minimum wage. But what the local economy will bear in Santa Fe is very different than what it will bear in smaller, poorer communities where the cost of living is much lower. The proposed increase would mean an additional $2,000 a year for someone making the minimum wage, Soules said. And, he argues that extra money would be poured back into the economy.
But, while the impact on the individual worker is easy to calculate, the larger impact on the state's overall economy is more difficult to predict. How many small businesses will have to lay off a worker or two to make up the difference? How many companies thinking of locating to New Mexico will decide to look elsewhere, where the business climate is more accommodating?
The goal of our legislators should be to bring more high-skilled, high-paying jobs to our state, then ensure that our workers have the training and education necessary to fill those jobs. That will be a lot more difficult than just artificially raising the minimum wage. But we'll be a lot better off in the long run.