Paid family leave bill hits dead end in Roundhouse, but backers vow to continue fight - Albuquerque Journal

Paid family leave bill hits dead end in Roundhouse, but backers vow to continue fight

Rep. Linda Serrato, D-Santa Fe, right, and Tracy McDaniel, a policy advocate for the Southwest Women’s Law Center, react Monday as the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee votes on a New Mexico paid family leave bill. The measure was tabled on a 6-5 vote, blocking it from advancing with just a few days left in this year’s 60-day legislative session. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE — With just five days left in this year’s 60-day legislative session, a proposed paid family leave bill that’s prompted a deluge of opposition from business owners hit an apparent dead end at the Roundhouse.

After several days of negotiations between bill supporters and skeptics failed to produce a compromise both sides could accept, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee voted 6-5 on Monday to table the measure.

The vote blocks the bill from advancing, though sponsors vowed to keep working on the issue.

“It deserves to be voted on,” Rep. Linda Serrato, D-Santa Fe, said in an interview after Monday’s vote. “My goal is that this coalition keeps growing and growing.”

She also said legislators have worked to provide ample aid to businesses during this year’s session that ends Saturday at noon, citing a proposed reduction of the state’s gross receipts tax rate and other proposals.

But critics said the proposal to make New Mexico the 12th state to adopt a state-run paid family leave program was too broad and too onerous on business, while also questioning whether a state fund that would be created to make leave payments could end up facing insolvency in future years.

“This was a one-size-fits all approach,” said Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, who cast the deciding vote to table the measure after meeting with bill sponsors over the last several days. “It didn’t feel right for New Mexico.”

Matthews, who said she received phone calls from hundreds of people about the bill, was one of two Democrats on the House committee who joined with the panel’s four Republican members in opposing the measure.

The other was Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who said after Monday’s vote, “It’s not ready for prime time.”

Changes fail to assuage skeptics’ concerns

This year’s proposal, Senate Bill 11, was crafted with feedback from a task force featuring advocacy groups, business owners and labor union representatives that met last summer and issued a final report in October.

The bill, officially called the Paid Family and Medical Leave Act, passed the Senate on a 23-15 vote this month.

Specifically, it would allow qualifying employees to take up to 12 weeks per year of paid leave following the birth of a child or to attend to serious medical situations for themselves or family members.

In addition, the legislation would require both employers and their workers to start making regular payments into the state fund in 2025, though businesses with fewer than five employees would be exempted. For that reason, about two-thirds of the state’s roughly 44,000 businesses with more than one employee would not have to pay into the fund, though their employees would be required to do so.

Backers of the paid family leave proposal did agree to several changes before Monday’s hearing, including clarifying that paid leave would be calculated over a rolling 12-month period — not a calendar year — and limiting the size of annual adjustments for employer contributions into the fund.

But those changes fell short of addressing the concerns of bill critics.

“This is just not enough to make this palatable,” said Rep. Joshua Hernandez, R-Rio Rancho.

He and other opponents argued the bill would be another body blow for employers, after the COVID-19 pandemic, a paid sick leave mandate on private employers that took effect last year and a recent increase to the state’s $12 per hour minimum wage.

Bill backers vow to bring proposal back

But supporters have insisted the legislation would actually increase employee retention and help women, in particular, to stay in the workforce.

Bill sponsors also said they had balked at more far-reaching changes, like allowing businesses to opt in to the paid leave program.

“I think it’s an excuse, to be honest with you,” Serrato said of the expressed reasons for opposing the bill.

Allen Sánchez, president of CHI St. Joseph’s Children, which operates the largest home-visiting program in the state, said his organization sees first hand the need for paid family medical leave.

“We have recently heard legislators talk about protecting women of color,” he said, but “the tabling of (the bill) lets down women and infants.”

Sánchez said lawmakers should have amended legislation to address their concerns rather than reject it.

“We assure you, we’ll be back,” he said.

Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Dan McKay contributed to this report.

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