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Vote delayed on right-to-work bill

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em021015d/biz/Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, introduces his bill HB-75, a right to work bill, to the House Judiciary Committee at the State Capitol, in Santa Fe Monday February 9, 2015. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque journal)

SANTA FE – A vote on a high-profile right-to-work bill was put off Wednesday in the New Mexico House as some Republican lawmakers balked at a plan to tie a minimum wage increase of 50 cents per hour to the proposed change in state labor laws.

As top-ranking House Republicans worked to shore up support for the legislation, which has drawn stiff Democratic and labor union opposition, some rank-and-file GOP lawmakers offered no guarantees of their backing.

“I want the right-to-work bill to pass,” said Rep. Bob Wooley, R-Roswell. “But I’m in a quandary because I don’t want to vote for a minimum wage increase.”

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats said Wednesday that the right-to-work measure could be in for a crash landing in their chamber if passed by the House.

At a news conference at which majority Democrats also cited their economic priorities for the 60-day session that ends next month, several lawmakers blasted the legislation as a hollow quick-fix attempt to address the state’s sagging economy.

“It’s a cheap political trick to try to divide people in this great state,” said Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen.

Right-to-work legislation has emerged as one of the most hotly debated issues in this year’s session, sparked by a GOP majority in 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 – could not be required to pay union fees as a condition of employment over their objection.

Opponents claim the measure would stifle worker pay and benefit levels, while backers say it would make the state more attractive to businesses and give employees more freedom of choice.

House Republican floor leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque moved last week to tack the minimum wage hike – from $7.50 to $8 per hour, with a six-month training period – onto the right-to-work bill that has cleared two House committees and arrived on the House floor.

Gentry has described the melding of the two high-profile issues as an attempt at compromise, but Democrats have criticized it as a political gambit.

Democrats have sought an increase in the state’s minimum wage for years, but two bills calling for sizable minimum wage increases were derailed earlier this month in the GOP-led House.

Gov. Susana Martinez has indicated previously that she is open to a modest increase in the minimum wage, as long as New Mexico stays competitive with neighboring states.

A Martinez spokesman reiterated that stance Wednesday, while also saying the Republican governor backs the concept of making New Mexico the nation’s 25th state with a right-to-work law.

“She is supportive of both of these policy initiatives,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell told the Journal .

Also Wednesday, two Democratic senators – Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces and John Arthur Smith of Deming – who could be key votes on the right-to-work bill, told reporters they will oppose any attempts to “blast” the legislation out of a Senate committee.

Blasting is a tactic used to advance a stalled bill out of committee. It has been occasionally used in the House in recent years but not in the Senate, as critics say it undermines the Legislature’s committee process.

The other bills cited Wednesday by Senate Democrats as part of their “ready-to-work” package include proposals to increase the state minimum wage to as much as $10.10 per hour, a proposed gasoline tax hike of 5 cents per gallon and more funding for a state job-training tax break. If approved, the various bills could create up to 73,000 new jobs, Senate Democrats said.

However, a House GOP spokesman said a gas tax hike would hurt New Mexico’s economy and working families.

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