Sunday, July 17, 2016

Minimum Wage Redux

The first stage of the local minimum-wage hike has not created the disaster opponents predicted.

The petition-mandated ordinance called for an initial raise from New Mexico's $7.50 to $8.40, then in two more stages to $10.10. To soften the impact on businesses, the Las Cruces City Council stretched out the process, so that the minimum wage rises again in January 2017, then to $10.10 January 1, 2019. 

Whether that amendment was wise or unwise, it violated the City Charter, which required the council to pass the ordinance unchanged or let all citizens vote on it.

The Council also directed a July 2016 “interim report,” and received it Monday.

City figures tended to show growth in the GRT (independent of rate hikes) and building-permit values. The figures did not purport to be precise, or to separate out different causes and effects. Critics said that there was more growth in El Paso than here (implying that our higher minimum-wage hindered Las Cruces) and that $8.40 is below the $8.50 the business community proposed in a belated compromise effort during the petition/initiative process. Pic Quik owner Oscar Andrade predicted many small businesses will go under next year because of the minimum-wage hike.

The vast majority of those speaking to the council on Monday praised the hike and urged the Council to “stay the course.” The council heard sometimes moving testimony from low-income workers whose lives the wage hike has improved. One anonymous server, whose letter was read by a retired minister, said that since she's now getting a small weekly check to supplement her tip income, she can take her kids to the swimming pool and even buy each an ice cream cone.

I'm no economist. I thought the protestations in 2014 were exaggerated, and I hope they are now; but we shouldn't lose sight of the value local business owners create. Although they often get well rewarded for owning a business, they create jobs and provide some appealing features of local life. (Where would I be without Milagros, Spirit Winds, Toucan, the Mountainview Market Co+op, Coas, Caliches, Mascitelli's, Al's, The Big Picture, Habañeros, La Nueva Casita, Cafe de Mesilla, a host of Farmers' Market vendors, and other local businesses?) Further, when people are collecting donations on behalf of non-profits or causes, many visit local businesses, and some business-owners give generously.

Unfortunately, some local businesses also funded the vicious and misleading campaign to recall city councilors who tried to follow the city charter on minimum-wage. Those businesses deserved to face negative consequences; we are all, myself included, either too forgiving or too lazy for our own good; but then, it is a small community. We can hope some of the recall advocates learned from the defeat of that effort and the (admittedly narrow) success of progressive candidates in the 2016 election. Minimum-wage was a discussion point, and the candidates who were more enthusiastic about raising it tended to prevail.

I hope businesses will back off from supporting reactionary and divisive local candidates. (Another campaign as vicious as the recall effort would deepen the political chasm. Many of us would no longer be able to find a bridge to local businesses that supported such efforts.)

But I also hope those of us with more progressive views won't write off such local businesses prematurely.

For the moment, congratulations to CAFé and the volunteers who gathered signatures, and to the councilors who followed the City Charter. It's hard not to be moved by the expressions of gratitude we heard Monday. 
Together, I hope we can keep all the expressed fears from coming true.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 17 July 2016, and will appear presently on the KRWG-TV website.]

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