Legislative priorities for NM employers, workers to pay attention to

·6 min read

Jan. 22—We're already nearly a week into the 2022 legislative session, and the bills are flying fast and furious.

Keeping up with every new bill and each hearing can be a challenge, especially for New Mexicans who are working full time or running businesses. To help those who can't stay up to date on every twist and turn, the Journal caught up with a few groups representing New Mexico employers and employees about their priorities for the 30-day session.

What has the governor said?

A short session means picking and choosing priorities, and to this point Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has focused on tax cuts, increases to teacher pay and harsher penalties for repeat criminal offenders. During her State of the State speech last week, Lujan Grisham said her administration would earmark an additional $230 million in rent and utility assistance for low-income New Mexicans, and called for 0.25 percentage point decrease in the state's gross receipts tax base rate.

Previously, the governor had promoted legislation that would elevate the production and use of "clean hydrogen" in an effort to boost the local economy and facilitate the state's effort to decarbonize its transportation industry and other economic sectors. That proposal has drawn criticism from skeptics of the industry who are concerned about its environmental impacts.

While these focus areas can help set the agenda, individual groups each have their own priorities as the session gets underway.

New Mexico Chamber of Commerce

New Mexico Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rob Black said the organization is focused on four key areas — overall business climate, workforce and education, innovation capacity and infrastructure — that can help New Mexico offer the same level of opportunity as its neighbors.

"How do we ensure that the kids in New Mexico have the same educational and career opportunities in their community that the kids in Utah, Colorado, Arizona have?" Black said.

To that end, Black identified a few priorities that can help the state achieve those goals. Black supported Senate Bill 25, sponsored by Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, which would establish a "research grants closing fund" that would provide matching funds to public colleges to support research grants. Black described it as a way to jump-start New Mexico's innovation ecosystem.

"By creating that fund, it gives us the ability ... to get additional resources into New Mexico for innovation," Black said.

Additionally, Black supported efforts to reduce the state's gross receipt tax but said he'd like to see the reform go farther. Black said addressing "tax pyramiding" issues on business-to-business services, which he said hurts small businesses, could go a long way toward giving the state a more attractive business climate.

"I think that would be a very important piece for our overall competitiveness as a state," he said.

The chamber is also supportive of a funding request from the state Economic Development Department, and the state's effort, championed by Lujan Grisham, to make itself a hub for hydrogen generation.

The latter proposal has drawn ire from environmental groups who are concerned that the effort could slow New Mexico's transition toward clean energy and ultimately increase carbon emissions in the state. However, Black said he doesn't want to write off an industry without first figuring out if it can be viable, noting that New Mexico's geography, proximity to California and investments into alternative energy sources by its national laboratories make it an appealing opportunity.

New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty

The state's nonprofit poverty law center works on a wide variety of issues, but from an economic standpoint, the focus is on helping renters and making sure the state has the capacity to enforce its new sick leave rules.

Maria Griego, director of economic equity for the center, said her team's top priority is House Bill 65. The bill, introduced by House Democrats Andrea Romero, Kristina Ortez and Angelica Rubio, would increase the amount of time renters have to pay back rent owed before their case goes before a judge, among other statutory changes.

Griego said New Mexico, which has seen significant rent growth during and leading up to the pandemic, also has one of the tightest eviction timelines in the nation. She said this can mean that tenants often don't have time to fix the situation and get the money to landlords, forcing them out into a very competitive rental market.

"We really want to ensure that folks who are housed can stay housed, so that they are not forced out into an unaffordable market, and potentially end up homeless," Griego said.

HB 65 would lengthen those time frames to make sure there's more time at each step before a case goes before a judge. Griego added that the bill has support from a couple of landlord associations, and is hopeful that Lujan Grisham's attention to housing issues will push the bill across the finish line during a short session after a similar bill died in committee during the 2021 session.

"We're hoping that that will be the extra push that this bill needs," Griego said.

Stephanie Welch, director of workers rights for the center, said her main focus is on a budget request from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions that would give the beleaguered agency the resources it needs to enforce New Mexico's paid sick leave mandate, which is slated to go into effect in July.

"We also know that guarantees like that are meaningless for many workers unless they're enforced," Welch said.

Welch added that the money DWS is seeking — around $900,000 — will go toward hiring five investigators tasked with investigating workplace violations, along with staff who can provide legal assistance and technical support.

Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce

For the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, the path to prosperity is through shoring up the state's crime and education issues.

"We're hoping lawmakers and the Governor work together to attack crime, improve education, and make it easier and less costly to do business, live and work in New Mexico," said chamber President and CEO Terri Cole in an email.

Cole said that the organization is supportive of efforts to address pre-trial detention and aggressively recruit officers and prosecutors.

Cole echoed Black's support for tax reform, adding that she'd like to see the state eliminate its tax on Social Security income. Likewise, she said she believes "New Mexico should be a leader in all forms of energy production, including hydrogen energy."

Above all, Cole said, in an uncertain economic environment, the priority should be on ensuring that businesses don't face additional, state-imposed hurdles. "As such, it's detrimental to even consider policies that would make it harder or costlier to do businesses here," Cole said.