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Lawmakers scramble before deadline

SANTA FE — New Mexico lawmakers began their final dash to the end of the session Tuesday as they escalated their conflict over raising the minimum wage but reached broad agreement on complex energy legislation.

With adjournment just days away, the state House and Senate are working through a lengthy to-do list.

They haven’t agreed yet on how to spend the windfall created by an oil boom, respond to a landmark court ruling on education or establish an ethics commission to hold themselves accountable.

Also at stake are proposals to legalize recreational marijuana, repeal an anti-abortion law and raise taxes.

“At this point, every minute is precious,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Tuesday shortly before his chamber took the floor for a three-hour debate on the energy legislation.

A push to lift the annual limit on film incentives and a proposed constitutional amendment to withdraw more money from New Mexico’s largest permanent fund — for early childhood education — are also undecided.

The 60-day session ends at noon Saturday. It’s the first since Democrats swept every statewide race in last year’s general election and expanded their majority in the state House.

Democrats also hold an edge in the Senate, but the two chambers have clashed on the minimum wage and other issues. Moderate Democrats in the Senate sometimes reject the more left-leaning priorities of their counterparts in the House.

And senators, in turn, often are frustrated with how the House treats their bills.

“What happens at the end of the session is that we start picking on each other,” Senate Majority Whip Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said in an interview. “We ignore each other for eight weeks, and then in the final week we start fighting with each other. I’m hoping we’ll all calm down and focus on the bills that need to pass.”

Among her priorities are bills to overhaul New Mexico’s public education system. A district judge ruled last year that New Mexico is failing to provide a sufficient education to all students.

The House and Senate have competing plans to raise teacher salaries, and a Senate-approved proposal to revise the teacher-evaluation system hasn’t been acted on by the House yet.

Each chamber has passed legislation that would extend school years and revise the funding formula for schools, injecting hundreds of millions of more dollars into New Mexico public schools. But the two bills have slight differences, and neither has been approved by both chambers.

There appears to be broad agreement, however, about boosting education spending.

Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said he hopes to see increases for higher education and public schools after a budget crisis squeezed New Mexico finances.

“Four or five years ago, we made hellacious cuts in all those things,” Ingle said.

Energy transition

More than 100 bills have already made it through. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, for example, has signed legislation for gun background checks and strengthening disclosure requirements on lobbyist spending.

And one of her major priorities is now on its way.

The House on Tuesday voted 43-22 in favor of a complex legislation that would push New Mexico toward carbon-free energy generation over the next 25 years. Senators approved the bill the last week, and it now heads to Lujan Grisham.

Senate Bill 489 would authorize the use of bonds for Public Service Company of New Mexico to pay for costs associated with closing a coal-fired power plant in the Four Corners area.

It would also phase in requirements for PNM and other public utilities to shift to carbon-free energy generation by 2045. They would have to derive 50 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040.

Lujan Grisham on Tuesday called the legislation “a promise to future generations of New Mexicans. When we were presented the chance to move toward cleaner sources of energy, we took it, boldly charting a course to a carbon-free future, permanently centering our commitment to lower emissions and setting an example for other states.”

She added that the bill “does not leave our neighbors in San Juan County behind, as we will provide millions for trainings and economic development.”

Opponents of the bill, meanwhile, have argued that it would help PNM without doing enough for coal miners or other workers. They questioned the feasibility of moving to carbon-free electricity and sought more time to find a deal to save the power plant.

Tension grows

Inside the Roundhouse, the nights are getting long and tempers are getting short. The day sometimes starts with committee meetings at 8 a.m. and ends with floor sessions that stretch until midnight.

Republicans in the House are outnumbered but have been vigorously debating bills sponsored by their Democratic counterparts.

Republicans have sometimes employed procedural maneuvers to slow the flow of legislation, and they are sometimes taking advantage of the full three hours allowed for debate on each bill.

Speaker Egolf, in turn, has floated the idea of changing House rules — a move that would need approval by the House. In particular, he said, he is considering a rule change that would reduce the amount of time for debate on certain motions — such as “concurrence,” or when a bill that’s already been approved by the House comes back to the chamber after Senators have made changes.

“It has never been the practice of the House, or the Senate really, to have long debates on concurrence,” Egolf told reporters Tuesday. “But the Republicans are using unprecedented stalling techniques and trying to keep us from getting our work done.”

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said Republicans are simply trying to represent their constituents — many of whom are outraged at the kinds of bills passing the House.

“Our job is to vet bills,” Townsend said, “and when you’re in the minority, you have less opportunity — less tools — to use in order to represent your constituents. Debate is one of them, procedure is one of them and time is one of them.”

He added: “We’re doing nothing different than the Democrats did when they were in the minority.”

Wage

The House and Senate have also clashed on how high to raise the minimum wage.

A House-approved bill proposed increasing New Mexico’s minimum wage to $12 per hour with future increases tied to inflation.

But a Senate committee blocked the measure, and the full Senate later approved legislation to raise the wage to $11 an hour, without inflation-adjustments. There are other differences between the bills, too.

Now the House is amending the Senate bill. A House committee approved changes that would phase in a $12 minimum wage by 2022, with inflation adjustments that cannot exceed 3 percent after that, but while incorporating some aspects of the Senate measure, such as a lower minimum wage for students.

Undecided in the final days

— A $7 billion budget plan that would boost spending on schools

— Legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana at state-run stores

— Establishng the policies for a new ethics commission

— Addressing the annual cap on state film incentives

— Education initiative to respond to court ruling

— How high to raise minimum wage

— Repeal of a 1969 criminal abortion law

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