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Legislature sets ‘high-water mark’

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, near the end of this year’s session. “We’ve done more in the last 60 days than I’ve seen in the last 10 years put together,” he said Monday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers passed 310 bills during the just-completed 60-day legislative session – their highest output in a decade.

The barrage of bills came with Democrats holding an expanded majority in the Legislature after last year’s election cycle and a new Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, who aggressively pushed for legislation dealing with education, health care and the economy.

“We’ve done more in the last 60 days than I’ve seen in the last 10 years put together,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told a news conference in the Governor’s Office just after the session ended Saturday.

Bill quantity is just one measure of a session’s effectiveness, but this year’s session featured several high-profile measures getting across the finish line.

That includes increasing New Mexico’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2023, enacting new renewable energy standards in future years, raising starting teacher pay to $40,000 annually, adjusting the state’s funding formula for at-risk students and setting up a state ethics commission to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by elected officials, lobbyists and government contractors.

“I thought it was a session of historic progress in many ways,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, who specifically cited legislation aimed at addressing climate change, education and ethics.

The state’s budget situation played a prominent role in this year’s session.

After several cash-lean years, New Mexico has an estimated $1.2 billion budget surplus for the current fiscal year and nearly that much in projected new revenue available in the coming year, due primarily to an oil drilling boom in the state’s southeastern corner.

The unprecedented budgetary windfall allowed lawmakers to spend nearly $400 million on statewide road construction and maintenance projects, increase public school funding levels to an all-time high and authorize a $933 million infrastructure package on sewer systems, building repairs and ballfields without issuing bonds.

“We had extra money, and there were needs of the state that we were able to address,” Senate Minority Whip Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, said shortly after the session ended.

But he said legislators perhaps should have left more money in the state’s cash reserves – currently about 20 percent of state spending is projected to be set aside in reserves – in case projected revenue levels do not materialize, given the historical volatility of oil and natural gas prices.

“We didn’t reach a new baseline – we reached a new high-water mark,” Payne said of state spending levels.

Meanwhile, another factor in the high bill count was a “rocket docket” of bills passed during the session’s opening weeks by both the House and Senate and subsequently signed into law by Gov. Lujan Grisham.

Those bills were based on previous measures that were vetoed in 2017 or last year by her predecessor, former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who in some cases offered no explanation for her vetoes.

Lujan Grisham suggested she might show more restraint with the veto pen than Martinez did and vowed to communicate her reasoning behind any vetoes.

The governor has until April 5 to act on bills passed during the session’s final days.

Journal staff writer Ryan Boetel contributed to this report.

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