February 11, 2020

Bill for uninsured passes after search for quorum

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With a vote of 6-0, Democrats on the House Taxation and Revenue Committee passed a bill that advocates say would help the uninsured and the underinsured.

No Republicans voted on HB 278. Committee co-chair Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, tried to go to a vote at one point but then appeared to stall. He asked Rep. Deborah Armstrong, also a Democrat from Albuquerque, to talk more about the bill. A few advocates of the bill ran out of the hearing to try to find more Democrats who could return to the hearing. The committee ran late and some Democrats, such as Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, a Democrat from Santa Fe, had left, presumably to go to the House floor.

Rep. Antonio Maestas, a Democrat from Albuquerque, returned to the committee. Soon after, Rep. Jason Harper, of Rio Rancho, the sole Republican still at the hearing, got up to leave. Martinez then cut off Armstrong to go to a vote. Harper questioned whether they would have a quorum as he walked out, saying, “I will not be here to vote.”

The bill still passed, said Armstrong.

“We passed the bill. People walk out all the time,” Armstrong told NM Political Report.

Legislators can leave committee hearings for a number of reasons, from meeting constituents to presenting their own bills in other committees.

The bill will be heard again Wednesday, according to Jennifer Abbott, House Democrat spokesperson.

But according to Len Sena, an advocate for the bill, House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, stood outside the committee hearing room and joked about the bill with a lobbyist who spoke against it. Other Republicans standing outside the committee hearing were Rep. Larry Scott, of Hobbs, and Rep. James Strickler, of Farmington. All three are on the House Tax and Committee, Sena told NM Political Report.

Montoya said through Republican spokesperson Matthew Garcia-Sierra that, “there is nothing funny about a $308 percent tax increase to insurance premiums on working families.”

Last year, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported that Republicans had used a lack of a quorum to slow down legislation in committee hearings. Committees can only vote to pass legislation in committee if a majority of members are present.

Sena, 30, said she was offended because she is battling stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She said she is the third generation in her family who has had to contemplate bankruptcy because of her medical bills related to her cancer diagnosis. She said this bill would help New Mexicans like her who are underinsured or uninsured.

“I found it distasteful. To me this is a very serious issue,” she said.

Adriann Barboa, field director for nonprofit group Forward Together, said the money New Mexico would gain from this tax would help rural communities the most.

Barboa and another Forward Together representative, Marshall Martinez, said they saw the Republicans standing outside the committee room.

According to the bill’s advocates, a federal tax that the Trump Administration repealed would mostly be replaced by a state tax and that would create $125 million in new funds. The majority of that money – 55 percent – would go to create a fund for New Mexicans who are either uninsured or underinsured. The rest would go back to the general fund.

Opponents to the bill said insurance carriers will reduce premiums because of the federal tax repeal. During discussion Harper said the bill does not have a plan on how the money would get spent and lawmakers would have to “pass the bill to see what’s inside it.”

Harper, through Garcia-Sierra, did not respond to direct questions about leaving the hearing to try to prevent a quorum, but he did provide the following statement:

“New Mexico families are already having a hard time paying for health insurance. I am flabbergasted at bills like HB 278 which target wage-earning New Mexicans,” he wrote.