SANTA FE — They called it troubling, horrible and maybe even unconstitutional.
But state senators agreed Wednesday to support the last-minute push to adopt a multistate compact that would allow nurses licensed elsewhere to continue practicing in New Mexico.
The proposal, Senate Bill 1, passed 39-0 and now heads to the House
New Mexico must sign onto the compact by 11:59 p.m. Friday or risk losing nurses licensed in the 26 states that have already adopted the agreement.
Supporters say approval of the compact is critical because nurses working under the multistate agreement fill as much as 80 percent of the workforce at some hospitals, especially in rural and border areas.
“If this isn’t done Friday, we’re in a health care crisis in this state,” Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, said after the Senate vote. “We want to get it over the finish line and done.”
Senate approval wasn’t easy. It came after lawmakers in the Senate Judiciary Committee amended the compact legislation Wednesday morning — over the objection of the bill sponsors who said the change could jeopardize New Mexico’s standing as a member of the compact.
“I think we’re putting this at risk,” Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said of the amendment.
But she and a fellow sponsor, Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, won approval on the Senate floor to rescind the committee amendments, on a 34-6 vote.
They said New Mexico must accept the compact without changes and that it wasn’t clear whether the committee amendments would have been acceptable to the multistate commission.
The vote came as 400 nurses and nursing students from throughout the state filled the Roundhouse — many sitting in the gallery to watch the debate.
“Our nurses need to be able to use this compact,” Gloria Doherty of the New Mexico Nurses Association said.
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, sponsored the amendments passed in committee. He said they would change state law, not the compact itself.
His amendments, he said, would have made it clear that any rules affecting the practice of nursing that are approved by the multistate nursing commission must also go through New Mexico’s rule-making process for approval before taking effect.
“It’s simply a protection that this national body is not going to supersede our ability to regulate the practice of nursing,” Ivey-Soto said.
He also won approval in committee for a change aimed at making the commission’s work subject to the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act.
But the Ivey-Soto amendments were removed during the floor debate. Supporters of leaving the bill unamended said the proposed changes might have been interpreted as a backdoor way of changing how the compact works.
The amendments may still resurface as a separate bill, which some senators said would to make it more clear that they weren’t intended to change the compact.
Despite the 39-0 vote in favor of the bill, some senators said they feared handing over so much authority to a multistate commission. It could weaken employment protections for LGBT nurses, for example, because rules written in state law won’t apply, they said.
And some senators said it was unwise to take up the bill so quickly without enough time to consider the unintended consequences that might be created by signing onto the compact.
“I want to know how we got in this dilemma,” Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said. “Surely somebody had to have known this was coming our way.
Supporters of the bill have said that neither the administration nor the Legislature is to blame for the deadline. Medical leaders didn’t expect the new compact, which replaces the old one, to go into effect until the end of this year.
But the compact has a provision that moves up the effective date if 26 states sign on to it earlier. And the 26th state signed the agreement in July, triggering a six-month deadline for others to agree by the end of the day Friday.
New Mexico has been part of a previous compact that allowed traveling nurses to practice in the state, but that compact will be replaced by the new one, starting Friday.
Gov. Susana Martinez has asked lawmakers to send her the bill in time to meet the deadline.
The measure could hit the House floor as early as this morning.