Gay rights will be back on the legislative agenda in New Mexico this session as legislators revisit a
flawed law--and revive a long-standing debate. After a dozen years of effort, advocates last year managed to win passage of a bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. But there was a glitch: The legislature sent Gov. Bill Richardson the wrong version of the bill, and he signed it. "It's disappointing when you think you have something resolved after years and years of trying," said Rep. Gail Beam (D-Albuquerque), a sponsor of last year's legislation. As a result of the mistake, companies with fewer than 15 employees--which constitutes more than one third of the state's private-sector businesses--don't have to comply with any provisions of the state Human Rights Act. Previously, employers were exempt only if they had fewer than four workers.
Lawmakers meant the under-15 exemption to apply only to the sexual-orientation provisions that they added to the Human Rights Act. Now those employers also are exempt from the ban on discrimination based on race, religion, age, color, national origin, sex, physical or mental handicaps, and serious medical conditions. "We definitely want to fix that," said Linda Siegle, lobbyist for the Coalition for Equality in New Mexico. The state's Human Rights Division also wants the law fixed, said division director Francie Cordova. In the few months since the change--which took effect in July--the division has continued to take and process complaints against employers with fewer than 15 workers, Cordova said. "We just proceeded as though we had jurisdiction," she said. But if the law remains unchanged, the division will doubtless be challenged in court, she said.
The governor has agreed to put legislation correcting the error on the agenda for the 30-day session that began Tuesday, according to a spokesman in his office. That will reopen arguments on a contentious issue--and do so in an election year, when all legislative seats are up for grabs. Opponents will have the opportunity all over again to try to defeat the gay rights provision. "I just think the opportunity before the legislature is...what type of direction our state is going to go in for our children," said Rep. Daniel Foley (R-Roswell), who fought the measure last year. Foley, who sponsored the amendment exempting employers with fewer than 15 workers, said a petition drive to repeal the law has made New Mexicans more aware of the issue--and more likely to press their legislators about it.