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A raise for Durangoans?

Minimum-wage debate gains interest with proposed state bill
Jimmy Crespo of Target Rental, left, works with Tony McReynolds to cover the business’ future driveway from rain Monday morning as they prepare to pour concrete on the area. Target general manager Lonnie Scholten is at right. Target Rental was among 20 La Plata County businesses awarded as a “Living Wage Certified Employer” by La Plata County Thrive! Living Wage Coalition.

Durango could be a prime candidate to raise its minimum wage if lawmakers remove a roadblock in state law.

A law enacted in 1999 prevents local governments in Colorado from raising the minimum wage. Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, is working on a bill to change that.

Local advocates long have argued Colorado’s minimum wage – $8 an hour, rising to $8.23 on Jan. 1 – is inadequate to meet Durango’s high cost of living.

“Local governments have no power to raise that minimum,” said Mia Carrasco-Songer with La Plata County Thrive! Living Wage Coalition. “That’s really important in a community like Durango that has such a higher cost of living than the surrounding communities.”

Durango’s relatively liberal voter base could make the city a likely candidate to raise the minimum wage if state law changes. However, the prospects of Moreno’s bill are uncertain as the GOP takes control of the state Senate in January.

The local coalition, a nonprofit group, worked with the Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado to determine what constitutes a “living wage” in Durango. They came up with $12.40 an hour.

“The bottom line is our community members are worth more than $8 an hour,” Carrasco-Songer said. “And when they get raised up, the rest of our community members will benefit, as well.”

Colorado’s current minimum wage equates to an annual salary of $16,640, rising to $17,118 in 2015. Thrive’s living wage would equal $25,792 annually.

For tipped employees, Colorado’s minimum wage rises Jan. 1 to $5.21 an hour, up from $4.98.

Newly elected state Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, said he’s skeptical of the minimum wage – to say nothing of raising it.

“I don’t agree with the minimum wage at all, especially for young people,” he said.

Moreno’s proposal would “create more problems than it would solve,” Brown said.

Brown said Colorado should look at lowering the minimum wage for teenagers, potentially boosting hiring. Brown said jobs he had when he was young “really helped me. It helped me to learn to save money, and it was just a good thing.”

Nationally, 50 percent of minimum-wage earners are ages 16 to 24, the Pew Research Center said in a study released in September. Most – 64 percent – are employed part-time, Pew said.

Colorado’s minimum wage is higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and is tied to inflation.

Efforts to raise the minimum wage keep popping up across the country.

New Mexico lawmakers are considering boosting that state’s minimum wage, which currently sits at $7.50 per hour. One proposal would increase it to $8.30 an hour; another would boost it to $10.10, the Albuquerque Journal reported Dec. 19.

In June, Seattle’s City Council voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in steps over the next several years. And in November, San Francisco voters approved raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour in steps by 2018.

Absent a change in state law, the Living Wage Coalition is focusing on recognizing employers who pay good wages. Earlier this year, the coalition certified 20 local business and nonprofit organizations. The businesses that have been recognized pay each of their employees at least $12.40 an hour. Carrasco-Songer is reviewing a second batch of certifications.

Carrasco-Songer said Durango would be likely to raise its minimum wage if the state allows it.

“There is overwhelming support that we’ve gotten,” she said.

cslothower@durangoherald.com

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