A top priority bill of New Mexico Republicans that would have given workers the right to choose whether to join a union or not, while also raising the state’s minimum wage by 50 cents, has been blocked by Senate Democrats and appears dead for the 2015 state legislative session.
The right-to-work bill was tabled by the Senate Public Affairs Committee Tuesday in a 5-3, party-line vote.
Committee Chairman Gerald Ortiz y Pino and fellow Democrats Bill O’Neill, Jacob Candelaria, Daniel Ivey-Soto and Mimi Stewart, all of Albuquerque, voted to table the bill.
Republican [auth] committee members Gay Kernan, of Hobbs, Ron Griggs, of Alamogordo, and Craig Brandt, of Rio Rancho, voted not to table the bill.
The original bill, House Bill 75, that would prohibit requiring workers to pay union fees as a condition of employment was amended by the House Judiciary Committee last month to include a 50-cent-per-hour minimum wage increase to $8 an hour. The minimum wage increase was added by House Republicans in an effort to reach a compromise with the Democrat-controlled New Mexico Senate.
The amended bill was adopted by the New Mexico House of Representatives on Feb. 25 by a 37-30 vote, virtually along party lines, with 36 of the 37 House Republicans voting for it.
State Rep. Dona Irwin of Deming was the only Democrat to support the bill in the final House vote. Three House members, two of which are Democrats, were excused from the Feb. 25 vote.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez said Senate Democrats should have allowed the entire Senate to consider the right-to-work legislation, instead of killing the bill in committee on Tuesday.
“This is yet another example of failed leadership by Democrats in the Senate,” Martinez said in a statement. “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.”
Republicans won a 37-33 majority in the House in November, reversing a 37-33 advantage Democrats held in the chamber last year, to earn a majority in the House for the first time since 1954. The Senate, whose members weren’t up for re-election in 2014, remains controlled by Democrats, who have a 25-17 advantage in that chamber.
Senate Minority Floor Leader Stuart Ingle told the Daily Record Wednesday that the tabling of the right-to-work bill Tuesday by the Senate Public Affairs Committee likely means the bill is dead for the 2015 legislative session.
“I would sure think so,” said Ingle, R-Portales. “I hope I’m wrong. I would love to be wrong. I’m afraid it’s dead in that committee. We can still move it out of the committee and bring it to the floor. Stranger things have happened here.”
State Sen. Cliff Pirtle said Wednesday the right-to-work bill might have passed the full Senate, if it had made it to the Senate floor for a vote.
“I really feel that the whole Senate should be afforded the opportunity to act on the legislation,” said Pirtle, R-Roswell. “I am disappointed because I think if the whole body was able to vote on the bill, that it would pass. There are a few senators that are using the committee process to actually try to kill the legislation. The issue of right-to-work should be acted on by the entire body.”
Ingle, whose job description includes knowing how Senate members would likely vote on legislation, also said the right-to-work bill might have passed the full Senate.
“I think it might have, but there are a lot of things that might have passed on the floor of the Senate, if they were actually brought down here for a vote,” Ingle said. “We all talk about growth, and we all talk about trying to get our economy up, generating more tax dollars to pay for the great things that we want to do. And when we just eliminate things that in every other state have helped their economies, it’s kind of tragic. It really is.”
Pirtle said there’s still a slim chance the right-to-work bill could be revived before the March 21 end of the 60-day legislative session.
“It’s still early in the session,” Pirtle said Wednesday. “We’ll wait until sine die. There’s always an opportunity that it can be brought back. The chances are fairly slim, but anything is possible.”
State Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell has throughout her 10 years in the House championed legislation to protect both private-sector and public-sector workers from being forced to join a union, or to contribute to one, as a condition of employment.
However, Ezzell also said she believes right-to-work legislation is dead this session.
“It is dead,” said Ezzell, R-Roswell. “Unfortunately, the leadership over on the Senate side decided he would rather make a statement rather than have his members vote for a good change for the state of New Mexico and the opportunity to have more jobs come in, along with an increase in minimum wage.”
Ezzell said Republicans met Democrats halfway, by including the minimum wage increase in the right-to-work legislation.
“We knew what the writing on the wall was going to be whenever it took forever for them to even schedule a hearing on it,” Ezzell said. “We knew what they were trying to pull. It just seems like the majority leadership over there is only being vindictive and not really taking into account the people that are actually out on the ground working.”
House Majority Floor Leader Nate Gentry also blamed Senate Democrats, particularly Majority Floor Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, for the right-to-work bill’s failure to pass the Senate Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
Gentry said Sanchez and Senate Democrats have chosen “gridlock and dysfunction” over bipartisan compromise.
“This is yet another example of Sen. Michael Sanchez’s failure to lead,” said Gentry, R-Albuquerque. “New Mexicans want solutions. But the Democrat-controlled Senate only delivers gridlock.”
House Republicans note a recent Albuquerque Journal poll found 60 percent of New Mexicans want to see a right-to-work law enacted.
Whether the first Republican-controlled House in 60 years would be able to reach compromises with the Democrat-controlled Senate, and subsequently send bills to the Republican governor’s desk, has been the looming question of this year’s legislative session.
So far, the governor has signed just one bill adopted in the 60-day session. That was a $9,352,700 “feed bill” to fund the legislative session’s costs, which the governor signed Jan. 26, in the opening week of the legislative session.
The only other legislation Democrats and Republicans must agree to this session is a state budget for fiscal year 2015-16, which begins July 1.
Ingle said he did not believe the killing of the right-to-work bill would impact budget negotiations between Democrats and Republicans.
“I think we can get the budget passed in time,” Ingle said. “It’s over here in the Senate. It’s been through the conference committees and it’s one of those things that’s going to come to the floor here for a vote, probably Friday or Saturday.”
A total of 25 states have right-to-work laws, including Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma and Utah. Colorado, California and New Mexico are the only three Southwestern states that lack right-to-work laws.
Supporters say states with right-to-work laws are doing better than states without them. Supporters also say a right-to-work law would make New Mexico more competitive with neighboring states, while opponents say it is an attack on labor unions.
“It’s the one thing that we can do that would really make us at least halfway equal with the surrounding states that we have,” Ingle said. “We’re totally surrounded by states with right-to-work. When we want to attract a business, that’s one of those things they look at. We have the most liberal liability laws that there are. That’s another thing that doesn’t help us recruit business. If you look at the states that are growing, the surrounding states are all growing at a much faster rate than we are and their populations are growing, and ours is not doing either. Our economy is not growing as good as it could and we are losing population because people are moving out of New Mexico to go to better jobs. Certainly a minimum wage increase is something that’s favored in the surveys I’ve seen. Democrats would not pass that either.”
Ezzell, chairwoman of the House Agriculture, Water and Wildlife Committee, says right-to-work is a matter of fairness and competitiveness.
“It would have put us on a more level playing field as far as being able to attract more businesses to come into the state of New Mexico,” Ezzell said. “Most companies that do come in, they want to know if we are a right-to-work state. And whenever our neighboring states are right-to-work and we’re not, hey, where are they going to relocate? It’s not going to be New Mexico. This would give the workers the ability to either say, ‘Yes, I want to be part of your union organization,’ or ‘No, I don’t want to be.’”
Ezzell also said Republicans made a good faith effort at compromising with Democrats, by including the minimum wage increase in the right-to-work legislation. The minimum wage language includes allowing employers to continue paying the state’s current minimum wage of $7.50 an hour, 25 cents more an hour than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, for a six-month probationary period for entry level workers.
“You know what, I hope that the people of the state realize that if their senator is not doing the job that they’ve been elected to do while we’re up here in session, maybe they need to change it,” Ezzell said.
Ezzell says she believes New Mexico’s lack of a right-to-work law is one reason Tesla Motors did not locate a $5 billion battery plant in New Mexico. The Palo Alto, California-based manufacturer of electric cars in September chose Nevada, a right-to-work state, for its battery plant that will employ an estimated 6,500 workers, spurning New Mexico and three other states that had been vying for the plant.
Ezzell predicted Republicans would attempt to revive the right-to-work bill before the session ends March 21.
“I have a feeling we’re going to try bringing this back because you know what, everybody is crying we need more jobs,” Ezzell said. “Well, if we need more jobs folks, look where these jobs are going. They’re going to our neighboring states, who are right-to-work states. Unfortunately, there are really some hard feelings towards our governor from the other side of the aisle. You know what, we have to put those feelings aside and do what’s right for our state.”
Staff Writer Jeff Tucker may be contacted at 575-622-7710, ext. 303, or at email@example.com.