Except for the numbers, nothing changes in the angry debates about raising the minimum wage.

Santa Fe was the nation’s most ferocious battleground on this issue 16 years ago. What happened then should provide some perspective on today’s furor across New Mexico.

Most city councilors believed Santa Fe’s lowest-paid workers needed a raise. Hometown business owners, most notably restaurateurs, warned the councilors that government dictates on wages would endanger companies and their employees.

The councilors forged ahead. They voted to raise Santa Fe’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour. That decision increased the pay of thousands of workers by more than $3 an hour. The federally mandated minimum wage at the time was $5.15 an hour.

What happened at City Hall was just the beginning of a protracted fight. Two restaurateurs sued the city to stop the wage increase.

“I have 128 employees, and all of their well-beings are compromised by this,” said one of the plaintiffs.

The first round of the lawsuit dragged on for a year. The city won.

Then a few restaurateurs and other groups, including the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, appealed to a higher court. They lost again.

Workers scratching out a living in an expensive city had a little more money in their paycheck.

Santa Fe’s law on the minimum wage seldom causes a ripple of controversy these days. The city announced Thursday it is increasing from $11.40 an hour to $11.80 on March 1.

But today all of New Mexico is ensnared in a debate over what the lowest-paid workers should make.

Many Democrats in the House of Representatives are supporting House Bill 31. It would raise the state minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $10 in July, then hike it by another $2 during the next two years. The state minimum wage has not increased since 2009.

Most restaurant owners and some of their servers object to another section of the bill they call a job killer. It would eliminate the lower base wage of $2.13 an hour for workers who make a living mostly on tips. Restaurateurs can pay that amount provided that employees make at least the regular minimum wage when their tips are added in.

Several restaurateurs emailed or called me after I wrote a column criticizing their industry for creating a climate of fear by spreading misinformation about the federal law guaranteeing workers full control over their tips.

They said all is right with New Mexico’s existing system.

“Tipped employees are the best paid in the industry,” George Gundrey, owner and manager of Tomasita’s Restaurant in Santa Fe, wrote me in an email. “With the [tip] credit, 100 percent of that money goes to them. This is a solution in search of a problem. Perhaps some of our fear is due to the fact that this makes absolutely no sense and hurts the people it purports to help. It’s really crazy.”

James Campbell Caruso, chef and owner of La Boca restaurant in Santa Fe, says most workers in his industry are content.

“The only servers I have heard from who are in favor of HB 31 are people who are being abused by restaurant owners that practice illegal activities involving wage theft and discrimination,” Caruso wrote in an email.

His servers, he said, “regularly earn $35-$50 per hour.”

“There are very few high-paying jobs in Santa Fe that offer on-the-job training and room for advancement in a positive, friendly work environment,” Caruso wrote. “Our industry provides these jobs to people who do not necessarily have special skills or formal education. My question to you is why you would want to change this when it is working for 100s of workers currently.”

I’ve also heard from many restaurant workers who say they support the bill. Some are afraid of being fired or stuck on the least desirable shifts because of their stand.

Jose Antonio Valencia Caballero, who works for tips in Albuquerque, wants a higher base wage for a simple reason: He doesn’t make anywhere close to $50 an hour in tips.

“Everyday I try to excel at my job and provide the client with a good experience,” Caballero said through a workers’ advocacy group. “However, in the back of my mind, I can’t help but wonder if they will leave a tip — a tip I depend on to make ends meet. Tipped workers deserve to be paid what other minimum-wage workers make and receive a living wage that can help them further contribute to our economy while also giving them the opportunity for a brighter future.”

Another worker in the hospitality industry supports keeping a separate wage for tipped workers but raising it to $5 an hour from $2.13.

In a letter to Simon Brackley, president and CEO of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, this same worker criticized the New Mexico Restaurant Association for establishing a social media site encouraging customers to “support your server” with a texting campaign in favor of the tip credit.

“They’re inserting themselves with my customers on a public policy issue,” the worker said in an interview. “Wages are not tips. There’s no downside to any worker getting a raise.”

Those are familiar fighting words in a wintertime rerun of what happened in Santa Fe all those years ago.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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