Senate committee tables right-to-work bill

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SANTA FE – A New Mexico right-to-work bill that has reignited old economic arguments and fanned partisan flames was shot down Tuesday in a Senate committee, leaving its path to final approval blocked with less than two weeks left in the 60-day legislative session.

The proposed change in state labor laws was derailed on a 5-3 party-line vote in the Senate Public Affairs Committee, after majority Democrats thwarted a GOP attempt last week to have the House-approved legislation sent to the full Senate for a vote.

Labor union leaders lauded the vote but said they will be on the lookout for attempts to revive the measure before the Legislature adjourns March 21.

“We know it’s not over,” said Charles Goodmacher, the director of government relations for the National Education Association-New Mexico, a teachers union. “There are opportunities the proponents of the legislation may seize upon.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, the right-to-work bill’s sponsor, described the vote as marking a “sad day” for New Mexico workers.

“It’s extremely disappointing that the Democrat-controlled Senate would choose obstruction over a common-sense compromise that would raise the minimum wage and give our workers the freedom to choose whether they financially contribute to a union,” Roch said in a statement.

During Tuesday’s hearing, backers of the right-to-work bill said it would give employees more freedom of choice and could jump-start the state’s economy.

Roch said many out-of-state companies do not even consider New Mexico as a possible place to do business because of its lack of a right-to-work law, saying, “We don’t want to miss that economic opportunity again.”

The proposed New Mexico law would mean nonunion employees – in both the private and public sectors – would not have 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.

Critics of the right-to-work legislation, House Bill 75, described it as a politically driven measure that would lower the wages of New Mexico workers.

“Thank goodness for unions. They have kept us from working too long and not having health benefits,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque. “It’s not the right answer for New Mexico – it will help ruin our economy.”

The Tuesday vote came after the committee heard several hours of testimony on the bill Sunday but did not vote on it. Labor unions had packed the Roundhouse for that hearing, bringing busloads of members and supporters to Santa Fe from Las Cruces and Albuquerque.

Twenty-five states now have right-to-work laws in place, after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a similar bill into law on Monday.

The right-to-work measure has emerged as one of the most high-profile issues in this year’s 60-day legislative session, driven in large part by House Republicans having a majority in the chamber for the first time in 60 years.

The legislation had been approved 37-30 in the House on Feb. 25 on a nearly party-line vote. Even before the House approved the bill, Democratic leaders had vowed to derail it in the Senate, where Democrats hold a 25-17 advantage over Republicans.

Meanwhile, Gov. Susana Martinez has indicated she supports the legislation and would likely sign it into law if it made it to her desk.

But the Tuesday vote to table the bill – and a similar Senate right-to-work measure – means it’s unlikely Martinez will have that chance.

In a Tuesday night statement, the Republican governor said the tabling vote was an example of the “failed leadership” of Senate Democrats.

“Unfortunately, some partisans are more interested in putting politics before people than giving the entire Senate an opportunity to vote on legislation designed to advance policies that the overwhelming majority of New Mexicans support,” Martinez said.

In a recent Journal Poll, 60 percent of New Mexico voters surveyed said workers should not be required to pay union fees as a condition of employment. Twenty-six percent said such fees should be required, while the remaining 14 percent were undecided or would not say.

Few senators on either side of the issue asked questions Tuesday, with most offering their views on the legislation’s impact.

“It inserts the government and the police power of the state into private negotiations between employers and employees,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque.

“I think this is a step in the right direction,” countered Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo.

In New Mexico, there were about 43,000 union members in 2014, or about 5.7 percent of the state’s total workforce, both in private and public service, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, argues against a right-to-work bill before the Senate Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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