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Lawmakers prepare for spike in new bills

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – They’ve got money and a new governor to work with.

Now state lawmakers are preparing for what could be a wild 2019 session – the first since Democrats picked up eight seats in the state House and swept every statewide office in New Mexico.

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe

At one point this month, in fact, legislative staff reported an 80 percent jump in requests for legislation to be drafted, compared to similar periods before a 60-day session.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said the change in the governor’s office – Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham will succeed Republican Susana Martinez – and the revenue boom are factors in the increased activity.

It’s natural, he said, for an incoming governor – after months of campaigning and talking to voters – to enter office with fresh legislative priorities.

“There’s momentum that a new governor has, regardless of party, during their first session,” Wirth said in an interview. “But I also think the frustration, the gridlock over the last eight years, has resulted in many bills just being stuck – not signed, or they’re vetoed. Now they have a chance of being signed, and that brings all those bills back.”

Republican legislators are raising questions about whether the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate will take the time necessary to evaluate the crush of proposed bills before voting on them.

“I just think when we have too many, they don’t get vetted properly,” said Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales. “There’s not enough time to allow the public to have some comment.”

Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham

Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham

During the campaign, Gov.-elect Lujan Grisham, a former state Cabinet secretary, suggested creating a slate of bills that aren’t controversial and can be acted on quickly.

Wirth said he and other lawmakers are working on a system that would fast-track bills that have already passed either unanimously or with almost no opposition but were blocked by Martinez.

In 2017, for example, Martinez vetoed more than half the bills passed by lawmakers, even bills that passed without any dissenting votes.

She said many were poorly written, frivolous or rife with unintended consequences.

Wirth said a four-person committee evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans is examining about 80 bills for inclusion on a “rocket docket.”

Proposals accepted into the program would be referred to one committee – where public comment is accepted – before heading to the floor for a full vote of the chamber. Then they would repeat the process in the other legislative chamber.

The typical route is for a bill to go to two or three committees before reaching the floor on each side.

“We’ve designed it in such a way to make this move quickly,” Wirth said, “but also to make sure there’s enough checks that we’re not doing anything too fast.”

Bills on the fast track, he said, will have already gone through at least four committees and two floor votes in a previous session.

The pre-filing period started Monday and continues through Jan. 11. The session begins Jan. 15.

The bills are already rolling in. Among them are proposals to:

• Increase the minimum wage.

• Expand background-check requirements for gun sales.

• Restore the voting rights of felons.

• Allow independent voters to participate in primary elections.

• Prohibit coyote-killing contests.

The ideas are likely to keep coming through Feb. 14, the deadline to introduce bills, about halfway through the session.

This week, much of the talk in the Roundhouse – where committee and transition meetings are already underway – has focused on the increased volume of bills expected for introduction. Everyone seems to have a higher estimate than the last – 3,000, 4,000, even more?

Lawmakers filed about 1,500 pieces of legislation – bills, memorials, constitutional amendments and the like – in the last 60-day session, in 2017.

“I don’t see how that’s good for anybody,” Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, said of the potential for the bill volume to more than double beyond the usual amount. “I just hope we slow it down, and we realize this money is not going to be here forever.”

House Majority Whip Doreen Yvonne Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, said it’s important to set reasonable expectations. She is urging her constituents to remember that each bill deserves thoughtful consideration to avoid unintended consequences.

But with 20 new members in the House, she said, enthusiasm is building.

“People are excited,” Gallegos said, “and we should embrace some of that – and see what we can pass. Some of this has been around for a bit, and it’s time it gets through.”

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