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Friday, January 16, 2015

Why Obscure "Right-To-Work" Measure Is On Everyone's Lips 

Why has the relatively obscure issue of "right to work" become the be-all-end-all of the 2015 legislative session? Several factors have pushed the anti-union measure to the fore, not the least of which is the national political positioning of Republican Governor Susana Martinez.

Soon after their historic November takeover of the state House, Republicans began fretting about their crazy aunt in the basement. She's the one who wants to ban gay marriage, late term abortion, loosen gun control laws and doesn't believe in climate change. All are positions that are entirely out of step with majority New Mexico opinion but are embraced by a strong majority of Republicans.

There would be no quicker way to alienate the state from the freshly empowered GOP House and its newly re-elected governor than to allow those "crazy aunt" issues to dominate the pre-legislative debate. That was the cue for the Governor's political advisers. Among the first bills prominently filed by GOP legislators were right to work bills. They attracted plenty of news coverage and signaled to the public that this would be the premier issue of Session '15, not the divisive social issues.

In a right to work state you have the right to decline joining a union and you cannot be required to pay dues to the union unless you choose to join the union.

Even Republican Mayor Berry, who has the same political adviser as the Governor, got into the act by conducting a news conference with the ABQ Chamber of Commerce to tout right to work.

The crazy aunt in the basement has been handcuffed. Longtime social conservative Republicans were silenced, content to buy into the argument that if the lightning rod issues were unleashed, it would endanger the GOP's future grip on the state House as well as Martinez's national reputation. That reputation rests on her image as a  Republican of a moderate stripe, not a spear-carrying radical

Martinez hopes her next stop is the national stage. Seizing on right to work as a banner issue strengthens her with base Republican voters even as she ignores their most emotional issues. If successful, it will bolster her argument that she is a Republican who appeals to Democratic voters, something the minority R's desperately need (we saw that recently when US House Speaker Boehner punished Republicans who rebelled against him).

With legislative leaders of the anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage movements muzzled and appearing to have bought into Martinez's view, you wonder about the grassroots members of those movements. They give much money and votes to Republicans. Will they emerge during the session to rock the boats of Martinez and the House leadership?

As for the legislative battle over right to work, it passed the Legislature twice in the early 1980's only to be vetoed by Democratic governors. Even though experts in selecting locations for businesses say such a law is no longer relevant and even though a minuscule 4 percent of the state's private labor force belongs to a union, it has a shot of getting to Martinez's desk for her signature.

The Republican controlled House is a no-brainer. The bill passes there. It then heads to the state Senate where the R's can be expected to unanimously vote for the bill. They will need four conservative Democrats to join them to get the win. Can they get them?

If Martinez prevails it will be a major legislative accomplishment for a tenure that has few of them. If it fails you can bet she'll blame the lack of economic progress on the Senate Democrats who all face re-election in 2016.

It seems the wind is completely out of the sails of the forlorn New Mexico Democratic Party after the disaster delivered to them by the gubernatorial candidacy of Gary King and their loss of the state House. National labor unions so far have shown little interest in tangling over right to work here. They spent millions to try to keep the state House out of GOP hands and failed. They and other traditional Democratic interest groups seem spent.

The Governor and her political minions have been able to shape the pre-legislative debate in a vacuum and to their liking. Going into the session it is they who have the momentum.

This column is also published in the ABQ Free Press, on newstands now.

Thanks for stopping by this week.

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