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N.M. House rushes to pass bills

By BARRY MASSEY and JERI CLAUSING
Associated Press

SANTA FE – New Mexico legislators rushed Friday to wrap up their work on major issues, including proposals to increase the minimum wage, establish a state-run health insurance exchange and shore up the solvency of a pension plan for educators.

The proposals cleared the House on Friday and would go to Republican Gov. Susana Martinez if senators agree to them. The 60-day legislative sessions ends today.

New Mexico’s minimum wage would increase to $8.50 an hour – the fourth highest rate in the nation – but the legislative proposal is opposed by Martinez.

The state minimum wage has been $7.50 an hour since 2009, and supporters said the proposed increase would help workers cope with rising costs of food and other essentials.

“This is about the people,” said Rep. Carl Trujillo, a Santa Fe Democrat. “This is about an extra $40 in the pocket every single week.”

Opponents warned that the wage increase could hurt businesses and cause them to reduce jobs.

Only three states – Washington, Oregon and Vermont – have minimum wages higher than $8.50 an hour. Washington has the highest state wage rate in the nation at $9.19 an hour.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Employers must pay the higher rate when there is a difference between the federal wage and state or local requirements.

The House rejected an effort by Republicans to trim the proposed increase to $7.80, which would have matched New Mexico with the minimum wage in neighboring Arizona.

A Martinez spokesman said the governor opposed $8.50 but would accept $7.80.

The House approved the wage rate increase on a 37-32 vote. The House and Senate must agree on the same version of a bill before it goes to the governor to be signed or vetoed. The House-passed measure included a different wage provision for trainees than what senators had endorsed earlier in the session.

The proposed health exchange is supported by the governor and would serve as an online marketplace for the uninsured to shop for medical coverage. A federal health care overhaul law allows states to run an exchange or leave it to the federal government.

The legislation would create an exchange governed by a 13-member board and operated by the New Mexico Health Insurance Alliance, a nonprofit corporation established in 1994.

Opponents complained that the proposed governing board lacked the power to control the quality and cost of health plans that will be offered through the exchange.

“It doesn’t provide consumer protections for New Mexicans. It leaves low-income New Mexicans really out in the cold,” said Rep. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat.

The pension bill requires teachers and other educators to pay more into their retirement system if they earn more than $20,000 a year. It also would change benefits for educators hired in the future, including imposing a minimum retirement age of 55.

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