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Committee revamp sparks spat

SANTA FE – A committee revamp that Democrats claim gives the cold shoulder to workers, voters and consumers passed the House on Thursday, the first push of the new Republican majority.

The resolution was approved on a 37-30 vote along party lines after a two-hour debate. It took effect immediately, clearing the way for a backlog of bills to be introduced and sent to the new committees.

The reorganization eliminates a couple of long-standing committees: Labor and Human Resources; and Voters and Elections. Bills on those subjects would go instead to other committees.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said the reorganization amounted to more than changing names and shuffling jurisdictions.

“It’s very powerful rhetoric, and it’s very powerful messaging,” Maestas said.

He suggested that removing words such as “labor,” “voter” and “consumer” from committee titles would facilitate a continuing attack on unions, efforts at voter suppression and reduced emphasis on consumer protection.

Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, disputed that.

“This is a resolution that names committees. … It has no bearing on any policy matter at all,” he said.

He said a review of committee operations determined that the workloads were disproportionate, with the Judiciary Committee’s glut of bills particularly problematic.

“It’s just an effort to redistribute the workload so we don’t have so many good pieces of legislation not even getting a hearing,” Gentry said.

Labor bills would go to a combined Business and Employment Committee. Gentry said that makes sense because “there’s an interrelatedness between the two” and it could prove a place to build consensus.

But Minority Whip Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, said it was “a slap in the face to working families and middle-class New Mexicans” to do away with a venue in which their voices historically have been heard.

Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, said the message to New Mexicans is, “You don’t matter as much. We are rigging the system against you.”

The new Safety and Civil Affairs, and Regulatory and Public Affairs Committees will help weed out legislation before it reaches Judiciary, Gentry said. Regulatory and Public Affairs replaces Consumer and Public Affairs under the revamp.

Democrats also renewed their objections to putting wildlife issues into the agriculture committee, saying wildlife is a natural resource and agriculture a commercial venture.

The Taxation and Revenue Committee was renamed the Ways and Means Committee, and its jurisdiction will be expanded to include assistance programs such as unemployment and Medicaid.