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Right-to-work plan heads to House floor

SANTA FE – A high-profile proposal to enact a New Mexico right-to-work law is headed to the House floor, after a multiday debate in a House committee ended late Friday in a party-line vote.

Much of the hearing in the House Judiciary Committee hinged on a plan, unveiled by House GOP floor leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque, to tie a minimum wage increase – of 50 cents per hour – to the controversial proposed change in state labor law.

Democrats and dozens of labor union representatives blasted the plan, describing it as a politically motivated stunt.

“If you see a pile of dung and you throw some perfume on it, it’s still a pile of dung,” said Rep. Eliseo Alcón, D-Milan.

But Gentry insisted the changes were intended as a compromise, and committee members voted 7-6 to endorse the revised bill, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats opposed.

Right-to-work legislation has emerged as a hot-button issue in the 60-day session, prompted by Republicans’ taking control of the House for the first time in 60 years.

The proposed change in New Mexico’s labor laws would mean nonunion employees – in both the private and public sectors – would not have to pay union fees as a condition of employment.

Opponents claim the measure would stifle worker pay and benefit levels, while backers say it would boost the state’s sagging economy and give employees more freedom of choice.

“I absolutely believe in the individual’s choice, and secondly, I believe it would have an economic development benefit for the state,” said Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, the bill’s sponsor, who had said he preferred not to tie minimum wage to the right-to-work measure.

In New Mexico, there were about 43,000 union members in 2014, or about 5.7 percent of the state’s total workforce, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. That union membership rate was down from 2013 and below the national average of 11.1 percent.