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Senate Dems thwart attempt to fast-track right-to-work bill

SANTA FE — An attempt to fast-track a hotly debated New Mexico right-to-work bill was thwarted Thursday in the state Senate, with majority Democrats voting unanimously to reject what would have been a rare procedural move.

Senate Republicans had hoped to avoid having the measure sent to multiple committees, arguing it should instead be voted on by the full 42-member chamber.

“I think it’s one of those cases … where it’s essential we all get to participate,” said Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, speaking in favor of the motion to bypass committees.

But top-ranking Democratic lawmakers said allowing the bill — a controversial change in state labor laws — to bypass committees would undermine a long-standing Senate tradition.

“This is a way of avoiding the committee process and the specific committees that deal with issues of this nature,” said Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen. “I just don’t think this is the way to handle it.”

The vote on the motion to have the right-to-work measure bypass Senate committees was 17-25, with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats opposed.

The right-to-work bill 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.

It was approved in the House 37-30 on Feb. 25 on a nearly party-line vote.

If enacted, 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. Though union membership cannot be required under federal law, such fees can be mandated under contracts in unionized workplaces.

During Thursday’s debate, some Senate Republicans hinted the legislative committee process was being used to bottle up the right-to-work bill with just 15 days remaining in this year’s 60-day legislative session.

“I respect the committee process — I really do— but I don’t hide behind the committee process,” said Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell.

The Senate Republicans’ attempt to bypass the committee process came as the right-to-work bill was being formally introduced in the Senate.

After the motion made by Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, was defeated, the bill was referred to three committees. Three referrals generally means long odds for bills in the Roundhouse.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, said the Senate Public Affairs Committee, of which he is chairman, will take up the bill on Sunday.

“This is not being hidden in a committee somewhere,” Ortiz y Pino said.

House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, criticized Sen. Sanchez after Thursday’s vote, saying, “It has become crystal-clear that he is holding up the process because he’s afraid that there are enough votes on the Senate floor to pass this legislation.”

But Sanchez, in a statement released by Senate Democrats, said there is a clear reason for the bill to be vetted in committee.

“Short-circuiting the normal committee process shuts out the public from our debates on this important issue,” he said. “That is wrong.”

Journal staff writer Deborah Baker contributed to this report.