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Gov. signs labor bill despite transparency objection

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law Thursday a measure that would standardize and streamline the 50 labor boards that handle disputes between unions and government employers in New Mexico – despite concerns that the law will keep more employment information secret.

Approval of the legislation came over the objection of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government – which argued that a provision in the law will, even if not intended, make much employment information secret.

Lujan Grisham’s office and supporters of the bill dispute that interpretation. They say the law makes no changes to what’s already publicly available, such as employee names, job titles and salaries.

The disagreement centers on the meaning of language in the bill covering the exchange of information between public employers and union officials. That information includes an employee’s name, job title and salary level.

The same section of the bill prohibits public employers from disclosing the information to a third party, “notwithstanding any provision contained in the Inspection of Public Records Act.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines the word “notwithstanding” as meaning “in spite of,” leading to the dispute over whether the new labor law will trump the public records act.

The governor, in any case, said Thursday that the legislation will ensure that police officers, firefighters, teachers and other public employees have uniform rules for negotiating wages and working conditions.

“This legislation will assure accountability at the local level by requiring local labor boards to adopt standardized rules or default their duties to the New Mexico Public Employee Labor Relations Board,” Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said in a written statement.

The bill calls for the dozens of labor boards throughout the state to show they’re supported by both employees and employers and to adopt standardized rules – or be eliminated and have their duties transferred to the state labor board.

The measure emerged as one of the most controversial bills in the final days of the 2020 legislative session.

It was tabled by a Senate committee at one point, blocking it from advancement. But after other procedural clashes, a version of the bill was later revived in the House, where a blank bill was amended with language from the Senate proposal, allowing it to move forward in the House.

Ultimately, the legislation, House Bill 364, passed the House 43-25 and the Senate 24-17 to reach the governor’s desk.

Democrats hold majorities in each chamber.

Both the content of the bill itself – and the procedures used to pass it – faced intense criticism in the final days of the session.

“After being drafted and passed under cover of night, the light has shone on HB 364 and revealed a dangerous mistake,” House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said in a written statement this week, urging a veto of the bill.

Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, a nonpartisan group, said her organization remains concerned about the legislation, even after hearing from supporters that they didn’t intend to limit public information.

Only time will tell, the foundation said, how courts will interpret the bill.

“FOG urges the governor and the legislature to work with FOG to clean up the troublesome language during the next legislative session,” the foundation said in a written statement. “Even more importantly, we implore the legislature to reexamine the arcane processes and practices – many of which take place behind closed doors, or at the eleventh hour of the session – that enabled this drafting error to be enacted into law.”

Furthermore, the group said, it “assumes that the governor will instruct the executive branch that it is not to withhold any public records based on this statute.”

Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki, a former newspaper reporter, said the legislation won’t infringe on the public’s right to know. The administration strives to be transparent, he said, and values the concerns raised about public disclosure.

“But what was publicly accessible is very much still publicly accessible,” Stelnicki said in a written statement.

Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office urged public agencies to continue to comply with the Inspection of Public Records Act.

“Public bodies should be fully transparent and provide any information required by IPRA, and the Legislature should clarify and strengthen IPRA’s disclosure requirements,” said Matt Baca, a spokesman and senior counsel for the attorney general.

The New Mexico Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, thanked the governor and legislators for approval of the bill.

“We appreciate your courage to respect and empower the working women and men of our state,” the federation said in a written statement.

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