Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Ready or not, it’s time for the legislature

Claudia Diaz cleans up the rotunda after COVID tests. (Eddie Moore/)

Copyright © 2022

SANTA FE — Fresh from a grueling special session to redistribute districts and with a key election cycle on the horizon, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has prepared an ambitious agenda for a 30-day legislative session that begins Tuesday.

Proposals on crime, voting rights, hydrogen energy and state tax legislation are just a few of the issues the Democratic governor has put on lawmakers’ plates.

“This is a critical opportunity to strategically and responsibly invest in transformative programs that help New Mexicans build stronger, better futures,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement Friday.

But it’s unclear whether the Legislature will have the appetite to tackle everything on the menu, as even some Democrats have expressed skepticism about Lujan Grisham’s initiatives.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said he has yet to see the crime-related legislation proposed by the governor and law enforcement officials.

He also said such measures would be scrutinized in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, and suggested that a better-funded state justice system would do more to curb crime rates than hasty changes to criminal laws.

“It’s a problem that Albuquerque largely created for itself,” Cervantes said, noting that violent crime rates are much lower in some parts of southern New Mexico than in New Mexico’s largest city. “It’s not really about changing state law.”

Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas, said many of the governor’s initiatives are politically driven.

“Anything the governor is proposing is very divisive,” Fajardo told the Journal.

She also said that due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a hybrid session format will make it more difficult for lawmakers to scrutinize bills and receive information from lobbyists and other lawmakers alike.

This could result in more laws being approved with flaws or unintended consequences, she added.

“These bills get thrown at us, we get isolated and it eventually gets shoved down our throats,” Fajardo said.

“I think that’s wrong, no matter which party does it.”

But House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said rhetorical “bomb-throwing” by minority Republicans in recent sessions has contributed to a politically charged atmosphere in the roundhouse.

He also said a hybrid session format, with some legislative business conducted in person and some remotely, will allow for strong public participation while attempting to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

“There have never been so many opportunities to get involved in the process,” said Egolf.

The session takes place when NM-COVID infections increase

The 30-day session comes amid the recent spike in COVID-19 infections in New Mexico.

While the Roundhouse remains open during the session, it will have metal detectors at each entrance to look for firearms and workers checking the COVID-19 vaccine cards of everyone entering the building. Proof of a booster shot is also required to enter the Capitol.

In the House of Representatives, all committee meetings are being held virtually to limit the potential spread of COVID-19.

Face-to-face meetings will be held in person, but members who have tested positive for the virus, are showing symptoms, or are isolating due to possible exposure can attend and vote remotely.

Regarding the Senate, Democratic caucus leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe said Senate rules are likely to be adjusted, possibly to allow lawmakers who are in quarantine to participate remotely — either from their homes or from their offices in the Capitol.

“I feel that given the prevalence and speed at which it’s happening, we’re likely going to have more cases to deal with with this Omicron variant,” Wirth said. “I think we need to allow members to represent their districts and vote from anywhere to get the care they need to get better.”

While members of the public can testify through online platforms and by telephone, and all committee meetings and plenary sessions are webcast by the legislature, some transparency advocates have raised concerns about the format of the meeting.

In a recent letter, Shannon Kunkel, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, urged senior lawmakers to make bills available to the public for consideration at least 72 hours before a scheduled vote.

She also said lawmakers should be required to keep their computer cameras on for the duration of committee hearings or meetings they attend remotely.

“Let’s work together to ensure government transparency is not another casualty of the COVID-19 public health crisis,” Kunkel said in her letter.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Roundhouse was closed to members of the public and lobbyists for a special session in June 2020.

It remained closed during last year’s 60-day legislative session and subsequent special session on legalizing cannabis for adult users.

Carlos Reyes is vacuuming the carpets near the west entrance of the Roundhouse. Crews prepare the state capitol for this year’s legislative session. (Eddie Moore/)

Teacher exodus, nurse shortage plague NM

New Mexico faces frightening problems, including a nursing shortage, an exodus of teachers, high rates of drug overdoses and an aging population.

But an unprecedented spree from the budget — driven largely by increased oil and gas production in southeastern New Mexico — could allow for large spending infusions targeting some of those areas.

“For me, this is an opportunity that we’ve never had before,” said Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, Whip of the House Majority. “With the pandemic, we’ve seen where the cracks are.” New Mexico public schools in particular have been strained by the pandemic, which has led to enrollment declines and concerns about lost study time.

With that in mind, both Lujan Grisham and a key legislative body have released budget plans that would increase teachers’ starting salaries to $50,000 a year — or possibly more — and offer educators a 7% pay rise starting in July.

“We need to do something about the teachers,” said Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec. “We are losing teachers left and right and are not building our own.”

Meanwhile, Egolf said the unexpected revenue gain — a projected $1.6 billion in “new” money for the upcoming fiscal year — could also enable “generational investments” in areas like conservation, climate change and economic development.

And at least some of the excess revenue could also be used for tax breaks for New Mexicans.

Wirth said the Senate plans to move forward with a tax package that would include a tax break for low-income workers, a reduction in the state gross receipts tax rate – currently set at 5.125% – and a provision to reduce the “tax pyramid”. that occurs when taxes are levied multiple times on the same product or service.

However, he said a more comprehensive review of New Mexico’s tax code is unlikely to happen before the 2023 legislative session.

Meanwhile, several lawmakers have also urged spending restraint amid the state’s historic revenue volatility. Currently, about 43% of all government revenue comes from the oil and natural gas industry.

Legislators, governor eye environmental bills

Energy-related proposals could also draw plenty of oxygen during this year’s session.

Lujan Grisham said she will push lawmakers to enact new clean fuel standards and meet a requirement that New Mexico achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Neville said hydrogen development would be a boon for northwest New Mexico, which produces large amounts of natural gas but has been losing residents in recent years and is facing the closure of the San Juan coal-fired power plant. But environmental groups have criticized the proposal, and Wirth said passing it would be a “big boost” during this year’s session.

“I have concerns based on what I’ve heard,” Wirth said, adding he’s awaiting final versions of the bill. All in all, the combustible mix of election-year dynamics, the ongoing pandemic and the state’s unprecedented budget bonanza could make this year’s session a memorable one — even if lawmakers are a little wary of returning to the roundhouse.

“The constitution requires us to be here,” Wirth said. “While timing is challenging, it’s important that we’re here.”

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