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Lawmakers pledge a session full of action

Anthony Rodriguez, left, and Aaron Sena, production technicians for KNME-TV, set up equipment in the state House chamber for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s State of the State address, which will open the legislative session Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – After several years of tight budgets, political barbs and bottled-up bills, this year’s New Mexico legislative session has all the trappings of a Roundhouse geyser that’s set to explode.

Consider the following: There’s a new governor in town, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has vowed to pursue an aggressive policy agenda; an expanded Democratic majority in the state House; and a court-ordered mandate to improve the state’s public education system for at-risk students, including Native Americans and English-language learners.

And don’t forget an unprecedented amount of “new” money – an estimated $1.1 billion – that’s expected to be available for the coming budget year, due primarily to booming oil production levels in southeastern New Mexico.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said Lujan Grisham has indicated she plans to be more involved in the legislative process than her predecessor, former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

“This is a new day,” Wirth said. “Not everything is going to go screaming through, by any means. But I think, overall, there’s real excitement about the new energy the governor is bringing.”

Lujan Grisham has said she wants to go “big” during this year’s session, proposing an expansion of prekindergarten programs statewide, salary increases for teachers and state workers, new renewable energy standards and a sizable increase in the state’s $7.50-per-hour minimum wage.

“The people in this … state are ready to reimagine what New Mexico can be, and they are willing to step into the arena and make it a reality,” Lujan Grisham said in her Jan. 1 inaugural address.

Add it all up, and the 60-day session that starts at noon Tuesday could end up looking a lot like 2003.

That’s the year lawmakers passed laws setting up a new pay system for teachers, cutting personal income taxes for upper-income New Mexicans, outlawing employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation, and allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses.

There was also a new Democratic governor in 2003, former Gov. Bill Richardson, who had taken over the reins of state government from an outgoing Republican chief executive.

Senate Minority Whip Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, said majority Democrats will face weighty expectations this year, after reclaiming control of both the Governor’s Office and both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since 2010.

“There’s going to be a lot of pent-up demand for activist legislation,” Payne said. “This is a Democrat-run show right now.”

Extra money

More money will likely mean a cheerier Roundhouse than in recent legislative sessions, but it could also mean more headaches.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura said during Lujan Grisham’s inaugural ceremony that the session could be like Christmas, with many groups – including the judiciary – submitting a budgetary wish list to lawmakers.

And although the unprecedented revenue uptick could allow for a hefty spending increase on public schools and other programs, there is no shortage of needs across New Mexico state government.

Both of the state’s two large retirement systems, the Public Employees Retirement Association and the Educational Retirement Board, plan to push for legislative fixes aimed at putting them on firmer financial footing that could eat up some of state’s available revenue.

A June 2018 downgrade of the state’s credit rating cited concerns about New Mexico’s pension liabilities and other deeply rooted spending challenges, including a high Medicaid enrollment rate.

Then there’s the landmark ruling on New Mexico’s public education system, which found that the state was failing to meet its constitutional requirement to provide an adequate education to all students.

Although some lawmakers have applauded the ruling, Payne said that ultimately complying with it could prove difficult for lawmakers. The judge ordered the Legislature and new governor to come up with a plan by April but did not stipulate how much money should be spent on such a plan or what its specific contents should include.

“It sets us up for endless debates and litigation,” he said.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said lawmakers will end up spending “hundreds of millions” of additional dollars on programs and teacher salary increases for K-12 schools statewide as part of their ultimate response to the judge’s ruling.

But she said the Legislature also has work to do backfilling other agency budgets that were trimmed in recent years.

“There are a lot of departments that are really behind the curve when it comes to salaries,” she said.

New faces

Change will also be evident when it comes to the Legislature’s makeup.

In all, about one out of five legislators will be a new face from last year’s session, as there will be 20 new members of the House, due to retirements and election outcomes, and three new members of the Senate.

“Everybody is anxious to see how they can help New Mexico,” said Rep.-elect Susan Herrera, an Embudo Democrat who knocked off veteran Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, in last year’s primary election to win the House District 41 seat.

She said she has been meeting with other lawmakers to get up to speed on key issues, including a backlog of road maintenance projects and a high vacancy rate across many state government agencies.

“It’s exciting, but it’s also daunting,” Herrera said. “We’ve kind of had a backlog for eight years where we haven’t got a lot of things done.”

But the newcomers could also face a steep learning curve in the Legislature, which does not pay its members a salary and relies heavily on a small number of longtime staffers.

The key House appropriations committee, for instance, will have to replace one-quarter of its 16 members.

And new committee chairs will have to be appointed for four House panels: the Education; Agriculture and Water Resources; Labor and Economic Development; and Business and Industry committees.

‘Rocket docket’

Unlike some 60-day legislative sessions, this year’s could start with a bang.

Both chambers plan to move quickly once the session starts to pass bills that were approved by overwhelming margins in previous years but vetoed by Martinez, Wirth said.

Although few bills typically reach the governor’s desk until the final weeks of a 60-day session, Wirth said legislation included in the “rocket docket” could be debated on the House and Senate floor by the end of the session’s second week after being fast-tracked through their assigned legislative committees.

“Constituents that I’ve talked to are pretty excited that we’re going to come in and get right to work,” Wirth told the Journal.

Other measures could face a tougher slog.

A renewed attempt to legalize and tax recreational marijuana use in New Mexico, for example, will likely draw close scrutiny and prompt lengthy debates.

That could also be true for proposals to overhaul New Mexico’s tax code – by lowering the state’s gross receipts tax base rate and eliminating many existing tax breaks – and to take more money from the state’s $17 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund and earmark it for early childhood programs.

Both of those ideas have ultimately stalled in recent legislative sessions before making it to the finish line.

Already, 440 separate bills had been prefiled as of late Friday. The final number of proposed bills is expected to end up in the thousands, which could lead to packed committee agendas and plenty of late-night floor sessions before lawmakers head back home March 16.


Online

Follow legislative coverage at ABQJournal.com/legislature, where you can find Journal stories, live news updates and other information about the 60-day session.



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