Friday, March 24, 2023

Sick Leave Debate in Senate Becomes 'Abusive' and 'Bullying' in Final Days

Tempers flare as Senators push to finish big-ticket items before Saturday deadline


Senate debates paid sick leave bill: The Senate late Thursday started to debate what was described as a "hard and difficult" proposal in this year's 60-day legislative session to require private employers in New Mexico to provide their workers paid sick leave.

Discussion on House Bill 20, known as the Healthy Workplaces Act, got off to a contentious start when the Senate sponsor, Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, introduced an amendment that would remove public sector employees from the legislation — a provision inserted by the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier in the week.

"Let me cut to the chase, and let's lay it out there straight," said Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who chairs that committee and had conditioned his tiebreaking vote on including government employees in the legislation.

"Why wouldn't we be willing to give them that benefit?" he asked. "The argument you've been told is they already get it or they get something better. But the bill already says that if they get better, they get better. That's not the reason. The real reason is we don't want to pay for it."

When Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, fired off a series of questions to Stewart, she became agitated.

"I'll continue to answer your questions if you'll stop being quite so abusive in your questioning of me," she told Ivey-Soto, who voted against the measure in committee, saying the legislation as amended had improved but was still "amazingly problematic."

Stewart later called the inclusion of public sector employees a "poison pill."

After more than 30 minutes of questioning, Stewart said she would no longer answer any of Ivey-Soto's questions.

As the debate became increasingly tense, Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, stood up and objected.

"I believe you are in a bullying state at this point in time, and it's disgraceful to the public," Stefanics said.

The Senate recessed for 10 minutes around 10:45 p.m. amid the heated debate.

The proposal would require all employers in the state, no matter the size of their workforce, to provide workers at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work, or 64 hours per year.

At the start of the hearing, Stewart said the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for paid sick leave.

"We had front-line workers that started getting sick. We had front-line workers that spread the disease. We had front-line workers who had no paid sick leave," she said. "We had spouses and brothers and uncles and aunts that got very sick with no one to care for them because their families had to go to work."

Big changes in tax package: Tax rates for corporations and higher-income New Mexicans would remain the same under a stripped-down tax package the Senate Finance Committee approved 7-4 on Thursday.

While a proposal to raise the personal and corporate income tax rate for higher earners is no longer part of House Bill 291, the measure still includes an increase and expansion in two tax break programs for lower-income residents.

"There are no tax increases in this bill," said Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat who chairs the committee.

Asked whether he supported the amendments, Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, one of the sponsors, said, "We've had some conversations with the leadership of this committee and staff, and we've decided that this is a friendly amendment."

All four Republicans on the committee voted in opposition to the revised bill.

"I appreciate the amendment that was made, really, in an effort to make what I consider a bad bill just a little bit better," said Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte. "I just cannot understand why would we even consider raising taxes when we have a huge surplus right now and why would we consider raising taxes in the midst of a pandemic that's brought small businesses in the poorest of poor communities … to their knees."

House OKs environmental protection bill: Legislation that would allow the state Environmental Improvement Board to adopt air quality and hazardous waste rules more stringent than federal law is headed to the governor's desk after clearing the state House of Representatives on a 39-29 vote Thursday. The Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board also would be covered by Senate Bill 8.

Approval of the measure came after a three-hour debate in which one of the sponsors, Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, faced a string of questions, mostly from Republican legislators who oppose the measure, primarily out of concerns it would be used to implement excessive regulations on the oil and gas industry.

"Do you believe any of the existing industries in New Mexico will be enhanced by this SB 8 and more stringent federal regulations?" Minority Leader Jim Townsend, a Republican from Artesia, asked Chandler.

"I think that the state of New Mexico and its people, including those who work for those industries, will be enhanced by the ability of the state to protect their health and welfare," Chandler responded, adding that one of government's "primary responsibilities" is ensuring the health and safety of its citizens. 

Interest rate caps: Supporters of a measure designed to rein in short-term lenders received approval late Wednesday of a compromise bill that restores a 36 percent cap — but only on loans above $1,100.

Under the compromise proposal, loans of up to $1,100 would be subject to a 99 percent cap. Borrowers would have up to 24 months to repay the loan and save substantial interest if they paid off the loan early.

The cap on loans above $1,100 would be reduced to the originally proposed 36 percent ceiling.

"We are curbing predatory lending, but we're also maintaining access to microlending and smaller loans, which many people find in need of many times throughout their life," Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque. "It's happened to me. It's happened to members of my family."

Hochman-Vigil was among five Democratic women who helped craft the compromise bill.

The Santa Fe-based think tank Think New Mexico urged its members to lobby for a 36 percent cap on all loans, saying loans below $1,100, which would be subject to the higher rate, make up about half of all loans.

"The Senate is extremely unlikely to accept the changes that have been made to the bill in the House, which means that it will go to a conference committee to try to resolve the differences between the chambers," the group wrote in an email. "Please email your legislators and urge them to restore the 36% cap, as passed by the Senate!" 

Governor signs several bills: A bill that increases the minimum wage for working high school students to $10.50 an hour was one of five signed into law Thursday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Senate Bill 35, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, will align the state's minimum wage for high school students to that of adults. The minimum wage for anyone under 18 was previously set at $8.50 an hour under the state's Minimum Wage Act.

The governor also signed House Bill 57, which is known as the Prescribed Burning Act. The bill establishes that "a private landowner has the right to conduct prescribed burns, provided that the prescribed burn is conducted with appropriate precautionary measures and abides by any restrictions on prescribed burning," according to a fiscal impact report. The Governor's Office called it an important environmental measure that will help improve forest management in New Mexico through prescribed burns, lessening the risk of catastrophic fires. The measure also will establish a voluntary training and certification program.

Other bills signed by the governor include House Bill 22, which expands who can qualify for a program designed to increase the number of teachers in New Mexico; House Bill 52, which establishes a 15-member Bilingual Multicultural Education Advisory Council in statute; and House Bill 157, which establishes a mining act forfeiture fund.

Quote of the day: "I am inherently distrustful, even of myself, of someone in power." — Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, during a Senate floor debate on insurance code changes. He told the assembly he is worried about government agencies consolidating power.


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