Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Panel of Businessfolk to Help on Minimum Wage?

I was glad the Las Cruces City Council didn't pass the measure creating an 18-member advisory panel on the minimum-wage issue.

The advisory panel would have included two persons from each of: the Catholic Diocese, Communidades en Accion de Fe (CAFE), Community of Hope, the Restaurant Workers Union, the Progressive Voters Alliance, and the County Democratic Party.

I didn't understand the need for a panel – particularly panel dominated by folks on one side of the issue.

We elect city councilors to make decisions. They're meant to make even controversial decisions that may make a large minority (or a majority) of city voters angry. Comes with the territory. You don't get to punt.

Councilors would rightly point out that even with the panel, they'd retain decision-making powers. Routine citizen input includes oral statements meetings and work-sessions, letters, and even more complex written submissions. What could the panel say that such input couldn't? Nothing.

If they want a panel, why not a panel panel of economists, social scientists, political scientists, and business and labor leaders, along with a judge or lawyer?

By the way, I got that list of proposed panelists in the second paragraph wrong. Of those groups, only CAFE was on the list. The proposed members also included builders, six business owners, the three chambers of commerce, business professors, and the “Hotel, Restaurant and Tourist Industry.”

Plenty of business people on the panel, including three business profs; but no economists or social scientists.

In short, the proposed panel is stacked.

Greg Smith and Miguel Silva are smart fellows. They must have noticed the proposed panel's business orientation.

Apparently the panel's purpose was not merely to help reach a conclusion, but to create a process in which both sides would necessarily talk to each other. A collaborative process that might help citizens find some common ground. “The last time we brought this up, we divided the community. This approach provides an opportunity for collaboration rather than division,” Silva said.

Businesspersons on the panel, in their investigation and information-gathering, would necessarily hear directly from minimum-wage workers. The process of creating a reasonable basis for the panel's advice would require different segments of the community to talk to each other. (A more balanced panel would help.)

Does that purpose makes the panel worthwhile? I still think it's cumbersome and probably adds little to other forms of discussion. However, it failed on a 3-3 vote, in Mayor Miyagashima's absence, and he'll likely favor it, so we'll see.

On the merits of raising the minimum wage locally? On balance, I tend to favor it, but I'll listen to the discussion with interest.

Economic studies tend to suggest it'd be a wise move.

But I've been thinking about what I heard from a lady who called the radio show recently. She runs a small, local day-care center. New and untrained workers she pays less than the proposed minimum wage. Labor is her business's main expense. If the minimum wage went up, so would her rates, which might price her services out of range for a lot of working parents.

Do we raise the minimum wage and by how much are not the only issues. Should the ordinance include a cost-of-living or other automatic annual increase? Should the hike take effect immediately, at some later date, or gradually? Councilor Silva spoke highly of Albuquerque's ordinance as particularly well thought out.

In any case, this is an issue we'll hear a lot about this year – during the next month in Santa Fe, most of the year in Washington, and for at least several months in Las Cruces. At the most recent Municipal League meeting in Seattle, city officials from around the country listed it as a major issue they'd be working on in 2014.

We should keep in mind that while raising the minimum wage would almost certainly be a good step toward helping more working families surmount the poverty level, (1) it will likely cause some problems initially and (2) it won't really address the terrible economic inequality in our country.

Our economic inequality now resembles third-world countries. ere, CEO's make about 350 times the salary of the rank-and-file worker in their companies. That ratio is about 200 in Canada, 147 om Germany, and between 58 and 93 in several other major countries I looked at. It's also way higher than in the U.S. a few decades ago. Locally, 30% of families in this county are said to live in poverty.

Why should we care? This extreme leaves poor folks less healthy and more in debt; it makes for more crime and less democracy; and it impedes economic growth.

I'm glad Las Cruces is looking at the issue carefully rather than just jumping in; but they don't need a special panel of businessfolk, each of whom could step up to the microphone with the rest of us. If they want such a panel, use it to help counsel small businesses on how best to survive the impact of the change.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 2 February, 2014.  I think we're also scheduled to discuss the issue on our radio show, "Speak Up, Las Cruces!", on Wednesday, 5 February, at 8:00 a.m.   The show airs 8-10 each weekday morning on KOBE-AM 1450.  Miguel Silva will be there, and I'm hoping also for a leading businessperson.]

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