By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Supporters of a proposal to establish a paid family and medical leave program in New Mexico gathered Thursday in the Capitol’s Rotunda to deliver a message about its failure.
They’re bringing it back next year with backing from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“We have come closer to the finish line than we ever have,” said Rep. Christine Chandler, a Los Alamos Democrat who has been pushing for paid family and medical leave since taking office in 2019.
“We all know in this Rotunda that transformational change is difficult, but it can happen, and it will happen,” she said. “We plan on pursuing it next year as vigorously as we did this year, and we will continue to do so until this becomes the public policy of the state of New Mexico.”
Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said the governor supports the policy behind Senate Bill 11, which was tabled by the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee earlier this week.
“She will work with us in the interim,” Stewart said of Lujan Grisham. “We plan to continue working with legislators and businesses on this policy, and we will have the governor’s support with that.”
Next year’s legislative session will be only 30 days, with a focus on the state budget and high-priority issues for the governor, who can choose other types of legislation to place on the docket. Asked what assurances, if any, the governor had given about placing the issue on next year’s agenda, Stewart said she spoke Wednesday with Lujan Grisham.
“She said to me, ‘This is a policy I want to implement in New Mexico. This is a sound policy for our families and our workers.’ She pledged to work with us in the interim to continue to craft this, so we’ve got the governor’s support on this,” Stewart said.
Supporters of the proposal are disappointed but not defeated, she added.
“It’s far too important an effort to be left behind,” she said.
Stewart said paid family and medical leave is not just “great” for workers but business owners, too.
“The sky will not fall when we pass this,” she said.
“In 2019, we passed the first minimum wage increase in a decade, moving the minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $9 an hour,” Stewart added. “If the rhetoric from just four years ago came true today, there would’ve been mass layoffs and just a handful of local restaurants and small businesses left standing.”
Under Senate Bill 11, employees and employers would have been required to make contributions to a fund administered by the Department of Workforce Solutions.
The bill exempted employers with fewer than five workers from participating in the program, though employees at those businesses still would have been required to pay into the fund.
Employees would have been allowed to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth of a child or to care for themselves or a family member when they’re sick. Employees also could have taken time away from the workplace if they’re dealing with domestic violence.
A fiscal impact report found initial assumptions may have been too low and the fund would have been insolvent in a matter of a few years. Stewart told lawmakers the analysis was wrong and that such a program has worked in several other states.
During Thursday’s press briefing, Stewart said the bill was hurt by misinformation.
“There certainly was a full phalanx of lobbyists who just said, ‘The sky is falling. This will hurt New Mexico.’ We have 11 other states to look at. Every one of those states, this program is doing well,” she said.
Rep. Linda Serrato, D-Santa Fe, said supporters will have to embark on an educational campaign.
“I think one of the things we have to get back to is the heart of what this is about,” she said.
Serrato said people can get lost in “fear” of the future.
“I don’t think we can get lost in the fear when there are children who are dying without their mothers by their sides because their mothers could not take their time off, and that is something we as a state should be ashamed of if we claim to be about familia as many of us believe we are,” she said. “We need to get back to the heart of what this is, is the families that are keeping our restaurants running, the families that are keeping our hotels cleaned, that are running this economy. That is the heart that we all need to return to, and that is how you recenter those facts.”
House Speaker Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, said he was in the middle “of one of the hardest-fought battles in this building,” referring to a decadelong push to tap into the Land Grand Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood programs.
“It took us 10 long years to get it through this legislative process,” he said. “Today is a day of hope. It’s a day of excitement. [Senate Bill 11] did not get through this process, but this fight doesn’t end here. It continues.”
Martínez said New Mexico’s workers are relying on the Legislature to establish paid family and medical leave.
“Today, I tell the workers of New Mexico, I tell the janitors, the cooks, the dishwashers, ‘This isn’t over. This is not over. This Legislature will deliver for you. It may not be today. It may not be this year. But this Legislature will deliver,’ ” he said.