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Commissioners make Chaves fourth ‘right-to-work’ NM county; Members of Americans for Prosperity show up in large numbers

People in support of the Americans for Prosperity political group and a right-to-work ordinance raise their hands Monday morning to indicate their views prior to a public hearing on the issue. The group includes New Mexico State Director Burly Cain, front row, third from right, and state Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell (R-Roswell), in second row at right. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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In a room filled with people organized by the state arm of the Americans for Prosperity political group, the Chaves County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Monday morning to pass a right-to-work ordinance.

Commissioners T. Calder Ezzell, left, and Will Cavin listen to people speaking about the so-called “right-to-work” ordinance during a public hearing Monday morning held as part of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners meeting. The five commissioners unanimously passed the ordinance. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

The six people who spoke in opposition were significantly outnumbered by the Americans for Prosperity crowd, which broke into applause at the decision.

The county and the five Republican commissioners have become the fourth governing body in New Mexico, after Otero, Lincoln and Sandoval counties, to have put into law provisions that prohibit unions from requiring people to join or pay dues or fees as a condition of employment.

“I think it is an important statement for our community to say that we are open for business,” said T. Calder Ezzell Jr., the commissioner who introduced the ordinance, in a later interview, “and I want to thank my fellow commissioners for understanding that and support the measure.”

The people in the audience speaking in favor talked about the potential for job growth and worker freedom.

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“The economic advantages for you are clear and around the country,” said Albuquerque resident Burly Cain, the state director for Americans for Prosperity. “In Warren County, Kentucky, the first county to pass it, they saw $1 billion in the first year in contracts potential for them. In 2017, Kentucky saw $9.2 billion in a record-breaking year for economic growth.”

Cain, who called the ordinance a “worker’s rights” ordinance that frees people from having to pay for something they don’t want, also pledged support should the passage result in litigation, as it has in Sandoval County.

“We have worked hard to establish a legal defense fund for your support in the event that you should have any challenges to your ordinance,” he said. “And we are working hard with Sandoval to make sure that they have no problems and no expenses in the event that they have legal costs.”

Other people speaking in support included state representatives Candy Spence Ezzell (R-Roswell), wife of Commissioner Ezzell; Yvette Herrell (R-Alamogordo), also a candidate for the District 2 Congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Steve Pearce; and Dr. Gavin Clarkson, a former Trump appointee, New Mexico State University business professor and another District 2 congressional office-seeker.

Spence Ezzell said, “As you are probably aware of, I have carried the right-to-work bill for 10 years in the state legislature.”

She added that the ordinance would be key to rebuilding the area economy, which she described as struggling since the closure of the Walker Air Force Base in 1967. “This is not doing away with labor unions. It is about giving the worker the right to choose.”

Those speaking against the ordinance included several union representatives and supporters, including Connie Derr, the executive director of the New Mexico Council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“Right-to work is not an economic stimulus that the Chamber of Commerce bosses and the Americas for Federations bosses claim that it is,” Derr said, who also told the commissioners that they would have seen a lot more people opposing the ordinance and in support of union activities had they held the meeting later in the day.

“The right-to-work special interests want you to believe is about worker freedom, but it isn’t about worker freedom,” she said. “It actually means less freedom for workers and for employers, for them to bargain their own agreement. That should not be any decision that the County Commission takes under consideration.”

She also said that the support noticed in the county building is not a grass-roots effort. “This is being bankrolled to the tune of $84 million by the Koch brothers, by all the dark money. So this is not just bubbling up from Roswell. There is money that is pumped in to push this effort.”

Her comment prompted a question from Commission Chair Robert Corn about how much money the unions allocate to opposing right-to-work legislation. Some of the Americans for Progress group laughed when Derr responded that unions don’t have money for the opposition effort, which caused Corn to ask the group to settle down.

Derr then said that the unions only have whatever funds the membership provides for such political activities.

“In fairness if you are going to quote what one side has,” said Corn, “it is important what the other side has.”

Other people who opposed the ordinance talked about how life for them and their families improved when they worked for businesses with unions because their wages, benefits and retirement funds increased. One union representative called the ordinance an “unlawful right-to-work-for-less” provision. A couple of speakers said that union businesses tend to have fewer accidents and injuries. Some said that right-to-work legislation is not the most important factor in economic development and business recruitment, noting, for example, that Facebook chose to build its data center in New Mexico over neighboring states with right-to-work laws.

Another pointed out that workers choose unions when they opt to work for businesses with unions because of the wages and benefits they will receive. He said they could always choose a different company. Fees and dues, he said, are charged so that all those who benefit from the negotiations and bargaining of the unions pay their share.

The ordinance, officially known as the “Promotion of Economic Development and Commerce by Regulations of Certain Involuntary Payments Required of employees in Chaves County,” was officially signed by commissioners after the meeting. It applies only to private-sector employees working in the county.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporters02@rdrnews.com.

Commissioners also approve off-highway vehicles, Leprino grant

The Chaves County Board of Commissioners voted on four other matters during other public hearings held Monday as part of the group’s regular monthly board meeting.

• The five commissioners unanimously approved to act as a fiscal agent and intermediary for a $200,000 state Local Economic Development Act grant awarded to Leprino Foods Co. The money will be used to help pay for constructing a freezer warehouse at the company’s cheese and dairy by-products plant on Omaha Road.

• All the commissioners voted to pass an ordinance that allows off-highway vehicles on county roads. The Roswell City Council passed a similar resolution in January. Three people spoke in favor of the proposal, including local oil services company employee Randy Robertson, the key organizer behind the ordinances considered by both the city and the county. The other speakers said the ordinance would provide convenience and cost-savings to agricultural workers and others who use off-highway vehicles.

• In related matters, the board approved a variance requested by Victor and Tiffany Regalado of Dexter for them to place a mobile home within 35 feet of the front of their property on East Calusa Road rather than the typical 50 feet, but all the commissioners agreed to table a decision regarding allowing trucks on the site.

The couple had requested a temporary special use permit to allow eight operable trucks, used for agricultural purposes, on their land, zoned residential-agricultural, and up to two inoperable trucks. But commissioners were told that an inspection by Planning and Zoning staff that morning had found at least 10 trucks on the property and two dump trucks nearby, with the possibility of additional trucks that were not visible. Because the couple was not present to answer questions and after deciding that the matter needed more precise definitions regarding how to define a truck, the matter was delayed until a future meeting.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.