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Door still open for sick-leave proposal to go on ballot

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

State District Judge Alan Malott granted a temporary restraining order late Friday that bars Bernalillo County from printing ballots that don’t include a summary of the proposed sick-leave initiative.

He also scheduled a hearing Monday afternoon to further consider the case – a critical step because the county must submit its ballot to the state by 5 p.m. the next day.

His order says the plaintiffs have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits, but he’ll decide after Monday’s hearing whether to turn the order into a more lasting injunction.

Friday’s temporary decision came after supporters of the sick-leave initiative filed an emergency petition asking the court to step in and order the question be put on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Supporters said the city attorney incorrectly told Bernalillo County commissioners that the full seven-page ordinance had to be placed on the ballot, not just a summary of the measure.

The full text won’t fit, and the County Commission, in a special meeting Thursday, refused to add the question to the ballot. Commissioners cited a shortage of ballot space and a reluctance to get involved in a city government decision.

Adriann Barboa, a spokeswoman for the coalition supporting the sick-leave initiative, said Friday that voters deserve a chance to decide on the proposal this year.

“We hope the court will recognize that the County Commission and city attorney are playing politics with the lives of working families and undermining the democratic process by trying to delay a vote on our proposal till next year,” she said in a written statement.

On the other side, Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said voters deserve to see the entire sick-leave ordinance, not just the summary that would fit on this year’s ballot.

If the proposal isn’t on this year’s ballot, it could go before voters in the October 2017 city election.

“Despite the fact that Judge Malott granted a temporary restraining order,” Cole said, “we believe the public’s need for maximum transparency will prevail. The initiative is more burdensome than it sounds and will hurt small business. The public needs to understand the gravity of the initiative before voting on it.”

Legal arguments

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including the Healthy Workforce ABQ campaign and other supporters, argue that the City Council and County Commission had a duty to place the measure on the general election ballot this year.

They say their campaign in favor of the sick-leave ordinance successfully gathered enough petition signatures to trigger a City Charter provision that requires the question to go before voters “at the next general election or regular municipal election.”

And the full text of the proposal isn’t required, the plaintiffs argue. The charter itself calls for the ballot to include the “proposed measure as originally submitted,” and the supporters’ original submittal to the city included a summary, the lawsuit says.

Furthermore, the City Charter doesn’t explicitly say the full text of the ordinance must go on the ballot, supporters argue.

“We’re confident in our case,” said Tim Davis, an attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which filed the emergency petition for ballot access. “The law is on our side – from Supreme Court precedent, state statute, as well as the city of Albuquerque charter.”

City Attorney Jessica Hernandez, meanwhile, told the county that she believes the entire ordinance must go on the ballot. The City Charter requirement for publication of the “proposed measure” suggests that the full text is required, she said, not simply a summary.

The city asked voters last year, in fact, for explicit permission to publish summaries of proposed charter amendments rather than the full text, but the proposal failed.

People on both sides of the issue say they have history on their side. In 2013, the city ballot included a copy of an entire ordinance that sought to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

But in 2012, a summary of a minimum wage ordinance appeared on the general election ballot.

Voters rejected the abortion ordinance; they passed the minimum wage bill.

Sick-leave mandates

The proposed ordinance would require employers in Albuquerque, regardless of size, to allow their workers to earn paid sick time off. It would apply to full-time, part-time and temporary workers at any business with a physical presence in Albuquerque.

Supporters say passage of the ordinance would ensure that no one has to choose between their paycheck and caring for a sick loved one. Supporters include the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, OLÉ New Mexico, the SouthWest Organizing Project and El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos.

Opponents say that the proposal is more onerous than it sounds and that it could force small companies out of business, because of the cost and because of new record-keeping requirements. Opponents include the New Mexico Restaurant Association, Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry and NAIOP, the commercial real estate development association.