Dannemann: Laws should never be unamendable

Merilee Dannemann, New Mexico News Services
Merilee Dannemann, columnist.

Unamendable: a law that cannot be changed, no matter how problematic it has become. Think about that.

An “unamendable” provision of the New Mexico Constitution has finally been amended. This was the provision that required school board elections to be held at a separate time from all other elections. It has resulted in miserably low turnouts at school elections for decades.

The provision was written in a way that required impossible majorities to change it. So even though solid majorities have voted several times over the years to change this, it was not done until a few weeks ago, when the state Supreme Court found a legally adequate argument to acknowledge the will of the voters.

It will still take several steps, including new legislation, before the change can be implemented, so that school elections can be held together with municipal and other nonpartisan elections.

At the same time, however, the voters of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County have just temporarily dodged a bullet of unamendability: a proposed city ordinance to require all employers, with no exclusions, to provide sick leave.

Remember California Proposition 13 – perhaps the most famous voter initiative of our era? Passed in 1978, it severely limited increases in property taxes for existing property owners.

Like other citizen initiatives, but unlike a law passed by the Legislature, Proposition 13 could only be changed by another voter initiative. It is still in effect and has caused many problems, among them, shifting the burden of higher taxes to new homeowners and new businesses.

We no longer live in the age of the New England town meeting, in which the citizens can vote on everything. Public policy issues are often complex. That’s why we have not only a legislature but a year-round nonpartisan legislative staff that can research issues and help legislators to understand what they’re doing.

In New Mexico, at the state level, a proposal can get on the ballot only if it first passes both houses of the Legislature. You may think that limits democracy. I think it has saved us from heaven only knows what.

But the city charter of Albuquerque allows voter initiatives. So issues can be placed on the ballot that the voters do not fully understand. And let’s be realistic; most voters will not inform themselves fully before election day.

The proposal on sick leave would have been on the general election ballot this November in Bernalillo County but was stopped by a court decision based on the length of the seven-page proposal. All seven pages will now be on the ballot at the municipal election next year.

I am in favor of sick leave, but not at the cost of driving small companies out of business. This proposed ordinance contains several inflexible technical requirements, including ones that would force employers to provide for the sick leave according to an inflexible formula, apparently written by the people who wrote the proposal.

And the last paragraph makes the ordinance unamendable, if it is approved by the voters next year. It says:

“This Chapter may be amended by the City Council without a vote of the people as regards the implementation or enforcement thereof, in order to achieve the purposes of this Chapter, but not in a manner that alters the effective date or lessens the substantive requirements of this Chapter or its scope of coverage.”

It will take another Supreme Court decision to figure out what that means. The employers of Albuquerque could possibly be stuck with this forever.

There has been talk around the Legislature about limiting the right of cities and other local government jurisdictions to enact separate ordinances relating to workplace or labor practices. After reading this proposed ordinance, I am very sympathetic to that position.

Nothing should be unamendable.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.