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Reworked bill would change state labor laws

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – It’s been tabled, reworked, revived and reborn.

But a bill that would make sweeping changes to New Mexico’s collective bargaining laws is still alive at the Roundhouse with just three days left in this year’s 30-day session.

“I am always optimistic until noon on Thursday,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said Monday, referring to the session’s end.

The labor legislation, Senate Bill 110, is aimed at updating New Mexico’s 2003 Public Employees Bargaining Act by eliminating some local labor boards, among other changes.

It was initially tabled in the Senate Judiciary Committee but was brought back and passed by that committee after being scaled back. The latest version reflected negotiations between labor union officials and groups representing city and county governments.

Just as it appeared the Senate would vote on the bill, however, it was sent to the Senate Finance Committee for further scrutiny.

That prompted the next move, the introduction of an identical House bill, House Bill 364, via a “dummy bill” process that allows legislation to be brought forward after the bill filing deadline through the use of generic, placeholder bills.

That bill quickly cleared its only assigned House committee and was awaiting final approval on the House floor late Monday.

Backers of the bills say they would update New Mexico’s labor laws by balancing the power between employers and unions.

In part, that would be done by scrapping some of the more than 50 local labor boards around the state and concentrating more power in a state labor board.

New Mexico has more labor boards to consider union petitions than bigger states, including California and New York, and supporters of the legislation say the system has led to inconsistent rulings and – in some cases – lengthy delays on petitions to unionize workplaces.

“It is an experiment that was tried and failed nationwide,” said Shane Youtz, an attorney for the New Mexico Federation of Labor.

Stephanie Ly, president of American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, said having multiple local labor boards hasn’t resulted in effective, standardized policy, which affects public employees.

“You have workers in all different areas that are state public employees – firefighters, police, educators, nurses, correction officers – they are all governed, if they have a local labor board, by different employment policies,” she said, adding that the bill aims to make public workers’ rights congruent.

However, Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a libertarian-leaning think tank, also said some local government officials around New Mexico remain concerned about the bill, despite its changes.

“This bill is going to have a nontrivial fiscal impact on governing bodies,” Gessing said.

He also said he believes the bill stems in part from a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred states from requiring the payment of “fair share” fees by nonunion public sector workers, even if those workers benefit from union protections and contract negotiations.

“I think there’s some connection there, if not directly, then at least from a policy perspective,” Gessing said.

Supporters of the bill dispute those claims, saying that changes to the state’s collective bargaining act have been in the works for years and that the legislation could actually reduce costs.

Ly described the legislation as a compromise.

She said it would allow local labor boards to keep functioning, but only if there’s agreement between management and employees, among other criteria.

Meanwhile, some provisions that initially drew strong opposition from county officials and other local government groups have been removed from the bill.

That includes wording that would have made it easier to unionize workplaces, by reducing the threshold of employees who have to vote in favor of such a step.

Senate Minority Whip Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, has expressed concern about another part of the bill that would allow public employers, using taxpayer-funded contributions, to pay all or part of their employees’ mandatory pension contributions.

He said that could lead to universities, counties and other public employers taking on large liabilities that could be passed on to taxpayers.

“It will set a precedent, and the dam will break,” Payne told the Journal.

But Youtz said that provision, and others, already exist in state law and are simply being added to the Public Employees Bargaining Act.

Meanwhile, Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia, who assisted with the updated legislation, said the legislation had a “whack-a-mole” effect, given how many entities it affects.

She also said the district has officially taken a neutral stance on the bill.

“You fix a problem somewhere else; then it creates a problem for another entity,” she said, adding that she wished there were more time to work on the legislation.

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