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Sick Leave Ballot Question Stalls In Court

Marisa Demarco / KUNM

Advocates have been trying to get a question on the ballot about whether all businesses in Albuquerque should be required to offer paid sick leave to workers. They faced a setback in court on Monday night.

In closing arguments of the hearing in District Court, lawyers for the advocates said local politicians are trying to make it harder to pass this sick leave ordinance by tying it up in legal technicalities. 

Judge Alan Malott acknowledged that point. "Whether or not there are politics being played is not what I base my decision on," he said. "I frankly think there are some to some degree, but that’s not what we’re here to determine."

But he did have to determine if a summary of the ordinance would be allowed on an already packed general election ballot. The original text is long—seven pages. "I believe that for better or worse, the full text of the ordinance is what is required," he ruled.

Malott's decision means the sick leave measure won’t go before voters unless advocates keep pushing in court. Only city workers and businesses would be affected, but it fell to the Bernalillo County Commission to make the call about whether the sick leave question would make the ballot this November. It failed in a special meeting last week.

Jessica Hernandez, who represents the city of Albuquerque, said the judge stuck closely to the letter of the law in his ruling. "A longer initiative like this one does present a challenge on any ballot," she said. "But when it comes to important decisions that relate to new laws, it’s important for voters to be able to see exactly what they’re voting on. "

Even though paid sick leave supporters collected thousands of signatures, the judge ruled the county doesn’t have to put this city measure before voters this year. "The city can’t force the county to put it on their ballot. But there is always next year’s," Hernandez said. 

She was talking about Albuquerque’s election in 2017. It’s a municipal election, which historically has lower voter turnout than a presidential election.

Disappointed advocates and volunteers gathered outside the courthouse as the last light faded. Adriann Barboa helped collect petition signatures. She’s with Strong Families New Mexicoand said it will take work to restore the momentum they’ve built up during this election cycle. "If we have to wait a whole year," she said, "then yeah, we have to re-inform voters, we have to talk about this again, when we’ve spent lots of time, money, energy. People have volunteered. People have come out on their own time because they care about this."

And if every ballot question created by a petition has to be presented in full on the ballot, Barboa said, "What is the voter initiative for then? When will we be able to pass something that’s going to fit on the entire ballot?"

Barboa said New Mexico’s low voter turnout rates show that plenty of people don’t have faith in the process. "It takes a lot to get people to feel that they can trust elections. This just sets back that trust even farther," she said.

Martha Gamboa works in retail, and she doesn’t get paid time off when she’s sick. "At the end of the month, that will affect my bills," she said. "I might not have my cell phone, my electricity. I might not go anywhere, just to work, because I’m not going to have money for gas."

Plus Gamboa said, without paid sick leave, illnesses spread farther and faster. That’s in line with what most public health organizations have said about it, too. "Myself, I’ve been seeing a lot of these people getting sick, being sick at work," she said. "They have to stay working."

Tim Davis said the judge’s decision ignores the will of the voters. He’s with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and helped draft the ordinance. "The voters brought forward a question," Davis said. "They gathered their signatures that were needed to put it on the ballot. And the elected officials do not have the authority to intervene to keep that measure off of the ballot."

Business associations around the state have come out against the initiative, saying it would be expensive to implement. If the decision is appealed, it won’t be the first time. A question about raising the minimum wage in Albuquerque went all the way to the state’s Supreme Court in 2012 before making it onto the ballot.

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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