Council leader hopeful on wage hike

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By Erik Siemers
Albuquerque Tribune, Apr 4 2006
But a year later, with a new council and a different political climate, his luck could change.

"I'm cautiously optimistic we're going to be able to pass something," Heinrich said. He introduced a bill Monday that would increase the city's minimum wage to $6.75 an hour on Jan. 1. That would rise to $7.15 a year later and finally $7.50 by 2009.

The state and federal minimum wage now is $5.15 an hour. The proposal comes after a month of negotiations with members of the city's business community, including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. As a result, Heinrich has drafted a proposal that omits several sticking points included in earlier, failed attempts.

The wage under his proposal won't rise with inflation, a proposal that some felt could cripple small businesses.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) last week ended a petition drive to put a $7.50-an-hour wage on a special election ballot this summer to support Heinrich's efforts. The group's proposal would have allowed for a regular increase from inflation. "Given the circumstances we're facing with the alternatives, such as the bill proposed by ACORN, we've taken a position of not opposing this bill that's been introduced," said Jacqueline DuBose Christensen, vice president of business advocacy and government relations for the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.

Several versions of a wage increase arose at the state Legislature earlier this year, but none survived the 30-day session. The chamber played a role in helping defeat an ACORN-led measure on Oct. 4. But for wage backers it was a narrow loss, falling by just 1,500 votes.

An earlier effort by Heinrich to pass a wage hike on the nine-member council failed in June 5-4. At least five councilors have voiced some measure of support for raising the wage. Councilors Brad Winter, Michael Cadigan, Sally Mayer, Craig Loy and Tina Cummins opposed the measure last year. Of those, only Winter, Mayer and Loy remained critical. "One of my biggest concerns is what it does to senior citizens," said Mayer, who believes businesses would be forced to raise prices to absorb higher wages. "Nobody reimburses them for the increase in goods and services." Cadigan, without seeing Heinrich's latest proposal, said he's "inching toward favoring it."

Cummins is no longer on the council. Her replacement, Don Harris, is philosophically opposed to a locally imposed minimum wage, but said, "realistically, I think we have to do something."

The rest of the council - Heinrich, Isaac Benton, Debbie O'Malley and Ken Sanchez - all voiced support for a wage increase. "I think it's a really good balance," Sanchez said of Heinrich's proposal. "From the beginning, I said I would support the minimum wage as long as it was phased." Heinrich said the narrow losses of the past year has made much of the opposition realize that a wage hike is going to come. "We would never get past the posturing (before) and discuss the details," Heinrich said. "They're willing to talk details now."