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Tension climbs as halfway point nears

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s legislative sessions often start slowly and race to a close in the final hours.

But not this one.

Lawmakers largely embraced the Capitol’s new political landscape this year, moving quickly to pass dozens of bills that had been blocked by the previous governor, Republican Susana Martinez.

The pace hasn’t slackened since then.

As the session approaches its midpoint Thursday, the House alone has either passed, or is nearing passage, of bills on abortion rights, gun restrictions, hiking the minimum wage and tapping more heavily into the state’s largest permanent fund for early childhood programs – all over intense Republican opposition.

Some of those proposals may eventually run aground in the Senate, where moderate Democrats sometimes clash with their more progressive colleagues in the House.

But for now, Democrats are buoyed by their expanded House majority and sweep of every statewide office in last year’s general election. They also maintain a sizable edge in the Senate.

“The voters that gave us this mandate for change want to see results, so I don’t want to waste time,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Tuesday.

The view from the other side isn’t so positive.

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said New Mexicans are alarmed at the legislation gaining momentum this year.

“It’s been frustrating,” he said. “I have never had so many people call me concerned about the level of spending, the type of bills, the impacts to rural New Mexicans. It goes on and on.”

More ahead

Despite the fast start, there’s plenty still on the “to do” list.

Committees in the both chambers are crafting legislation aimed at overhauling New Mexico’s school system, after a court ruling last year said the state is failing to provide a sufficient education to all students.

The bills aren’t yet in their final form, but the package is expected to include raising the pay of teachers, expanding early childhood programs to prepare children for school, and revising the funding formula to help districts with higher percentages of Native American students.

Charter schools have emerged as a key point of contention. Lawmakers have opted against capping total enrollment in charter schools, but they still are considering the elimination of a “small school” budget adjustment that charters benefit from.

All told, legislative leaders may boost annual education spending by $400 million to $500 million a year.

The broader state budget is still in development, with state economists expected to provide an updated revenue forecast by the end of the week. A projection from December estimated New Mexico would have about $7.4 billion in recurring revenue available for the next fiscal year, or about $1.1 billion more than this year’s spending levels.

The extra money contributes to the sense of urgency. Ideas that weren’t feasible two years ago – when the state nearly exhausted its financial reserves – are real possibilities now, thanks to an oil boom that’s fueling state revenue.

“We’re swimming in money,” said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales. “Whenever you have a lot of money, there’s a lot more bills introduced.”

The House is expected to vote on the budget late next week and send it to the Senate. The chambers may exchange education bills shortly after that.

‘Rocket docket’

The 60-day session started with some cooperation, as the House and Senate worked together to send 43 bills to the newly elected governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Bills sponsored by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers were part of the “rocket docket,” as they called it.

And female legislators established a bipartisan Women’s Caucus.

Nevertheless, tension has been building in the House, as Republicans accuse Democratic leaders of ignoring their concerns and rushing ahead with legislation. Some Democrats, in turn, have said Republicans are engaging in stall tactics. Egolf says he welcomes a full debate, just not abuse of House rules.

An unusual procedural fight illustrated the frustration late Friday as Democratic lawmakers pushed for passage of a bill that would expand the requirements for background checks before the sale of a firearm.

Republicans moved for a call of the house – a step that halts action until legislative staff finds and returns any missing lawmakers to the chambers, unless the member is excused. It also locks everyone inside the chambers.

In the end, one Republican lawmaker was missing, and Democrats countered with their own procedural moves to excuse the member, end debate and vote on the bill.

Republicans then lifted their call of the house and debated whether to walk out. Democrats immediately moved to issue their own call, forcing everyone to stay.

“Lock that door!” House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, shouted at one point.

But Democrats soon released their call, and everyone settled down. Altogether, the alternating calls of the house lasted about an hour.

Deadline

The deadline to introduce legislation is Thursday, the midpoint of the session, though lawmakers sometimes find ways around that restriction.

They have until noon March 16 – the end of the session – to get their bills through both chambers and on their way to the governor.

Sen. Richard Martinez, an Española Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the lawmakers have a chance to make some real progress if they maintain their momentum.

But “I already feel like I’ve been here 60 days,” Martinez joked.

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