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Editorial: Governor’s signature on raft of 2019 legislation changes the state’s landscape in many areas

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s first legislative session is over, and her collaboration with the Democratic-controlled House and Senate means things in New Mexico will start to look very different in the coming year.

Some will be great improvements, some absolutely won’t, and some need to play out before being put in either category.

Perhaps the pinnacle of legislation Lujan Grisham signed made good on her campaign promise to put green energy front and center.

The Energy Transition Act commits New Mexico to a carbon-free energy system within 25 years and puts the state out in front in the battle to mitigate climate change.

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Education was also high on the governor’s campaign-promise list. Her signature on a new Early Childhood Department promises to bring efficiencies and accountability to the state’s disparate pre-kindergarten programs. Her approval of hundreds of millions more dollars for K-12 education is designed to improve opportunities for the state’s most disadvantaged students while complying with a court order. Her increasing teacher pay honors the profession and should aid morale. And her requiring the Children, Youth and Families and Public Education departments to follow students who move among districts and services should ensure more kids are safe and on track.

Unfortunately, the governor took the Legislature’s lead and removed the one window parents have into how well their child’s school is doing. A-F school grades will be replaced with an incomprehensible “dashboard.” And, unfortunately, the signed bill that provided raises for teachers will also automatically boost many school administrators’ salaries 6 percent, sending money that could have gone to classrooms into the pockets of those in Central Office instead. And the governor is phasing out the important ability for students over the age of 22 to still get a public education and high school diploma.

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One of the most controversial initiatives the governor took up this session was gun control. The measures she signed drew much support and much criticism, but all are pragmatic, middle-ground reforms that promise to make our communities safer. New Mexico has joined roughly 20 states in requiring background checks for nearly all gun purchases, and it now prohibits domestic abusers from possessing a firearm.

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Several anti-crime initiatives also received the governor’s signature this session, including expanding pre-prosecution diversion for nonviolent offenders; establishing a data-sharing network so police, prosecutors and other agencies can track offenders who use aliases or commit crimes in different communities; and banning the use of solitary confinement for pregnant or minor inmates and limiting it for those with a serious mental disability.

Unfortunately, the governor’s inclination to focus on helping New Mexico’s most vulnerable residents overrode the very serious consequences of redacting information in police reports and expunging criminal records. One point that has not been stressed: In this Facebook and internet world, expunging records does nothing to erase what’s already on the web – allowing claims of charges to be posted online without any way for the public to check if they’re accurate or were dropped.

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When it comes to doing business here, the governor was able to sign off on a minimum wage compromise that tries to balance employee and employer concerns by phasing in increases, to $9 hourly next year and $12 by 2023, keeping but increasing tip wages, and not mandating increases tied to a national index in perpetuity.

She also approved opening the state up to a new industry – the production, research and manufacturing of hemp – that should create a new private-sector revenue stream and help diversify our agricultural economy.

However, the governor ignored the will of residents in 10 counties and banned “right-to-work” ordinances, which bar unions from collecting fees from non-members.

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After years of trying and numerous attempts to hijack the legislation, New Mexico will finally have an independent ethics commission. Hard-fought compromises protected most of the public’s right to know what allegations are being leveled at their elected officials.

And lobbyists will now have to report their cumulative spending on individual meals or other items that cost less than $100 each, giving the public a better idea of who is trying to influence their lawmakers.

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Lujan Grisham’s signature also made the state a little safer for those New Mexicans subject to guardianships and conservatorships, giving them and those who care about them a greater voice in the process that can turn over their lives and finances to a court-appointed stranger. It’s an important provision that builds on the state’s monumental guardianship reforms of 2018.

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The changes Lujan Grisham approved on the election front were, however, all bad. Lawmakers refused to recommend open primaries, so New Mexico will continue to disenfranchise around one out of five voters who decline to pledge allegiance to a party line.

Yet New Mexicans can now register to vote on Election Day, opening the door back up to candidates and advocacy groups rounding up folks and driving them to the polls, then encouraging a vote for the price of a chicken dinner. Residents will also be automatically registered to vote when they sign up for public assistance or a driver’s license, eliminating the concept of having individuals put a little conscious thought into the responsibilities that come with casting a ballot. And many of those votes could come to naught, since Lujan Grisham signed away the state’s Electoral College votes to whomever wins the national popular vote for president.

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Finally, New Mexico’s landscape got much-needed protections this session. In addition to creating an office of outdoor recreation to better capitalize on the many amazing places to visit in the state, the governor approved changes that give the Oil Conservation Division authority to directly impose penalties on oil and gas operators, raise fines for violations for the first time since 1935 and set new rules for oil and gas operators to follow regarding brackish water. And she approved the ban on the brutal and disturbing practice of killing as many coyotes as possible for prizes. It is unfortunate lawmakers did not send her a ban on trapping as well.

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As long as this list is, it represents a fraction of what our elected state representatives, senators and governor lived and breathed over 60 days. Whether you agree with the outcomes or not, they each deserve our thanks for their time and dedication to trying to make New Mexico a better place.

As for those laws that didn’t make it or don’t work out? Well, there’s always next session.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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