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Plenty left to do as lawmakers hit midpoint

John Gibson, a building services worker at the Roundhouse, shovels snow from the east entrance to the state Capitol in Santa Fe on Tuesday morning. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Climate activists – bound at the hands – locked themselves in stocks below a faux guillotine to start the legislative session.

Gun enthusiasts carried semiautomatic rifles to the Capitol and prayed for President Trump.

But the most dramatic, consequential moments of the 2020 session are still to come.

As lawmakers reach the halfway point of their 30 days in the Roundhouse, tension is building over how much of New Mexico’s oil-driven revenue boom to spend.

The fate of a red flag firearms law, legalization of recreational marijuana and tuition-free college remain undecided.

“The pace is going to get hot and heavy,” Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, said Tuesday.

A few bills, of course, are off to a particularly fast start, suggesting they have a strong chance of reaching the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Already having passed at least one chamber of the Legislature are proposals to ramp up spending on census outreach, to make it easier for military family members to get teaching and occupational licenses, and to pursue the importation of prescription drugs from Canada.

Other key proposals

As for other key legislation:

• The proposed Extreme Risk Firearm Protection Order Act, or red flag gun law, will face a critical test Wednesday, when it goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee, potentially its last stop before reaching the full Senate.

Supporters and opponents alike are expecting close votes in Wednesday’s committee meeting and, if it survives there, on the Senate floor. The proposal is Senate Bill 5.

• Legislation to allow recreational marijuana sales to adults 21 and older is moving slowly and remains far from final passage. The proposal, Senate Bill 115, cleared one committee on a party-line vote but still must pass two more before it can reach the full Senate.

The bill is still alive but running out of time.

• A $7.6 billion spending plan for the coming year – with money to raise teacher pay by 5% and boost spending on early childhood programs – is scheduled for consideration by the state House on Wednesday before moving on to the Senate.

State spending would climb about 7.5% over this year’s levels under the budget package, House Bill 2. The legislation, however, doesn’t include funding for Lujan Grisham’s plan to provide tuition-free college to state residents.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Tuesday that he expects the new scholarship system – at least in some form – to become part of the final budget proposal. But details are being worked out, he said, and there wasn’t enough information available yet to make it part of the House version of the budget.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Tuesday that the Governor’s Office has been working on a compromise approach with the Senate that would change the sequencing of how the Opportunity Scholarship would be applied, so that other types of financial aid could still be used to offset student fees.

The revised plan would be phased in over two years but would keep the “spirit” of the governor’s initial proposal, Sackett said.

Republican lawmakers, in turn, are growing frustrated at the level of spending and the priorities pursued by Democrats, who hold majorities in both chambers. Lujan Grisham is also a Democrat.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said New Mexico policymakers should be taking action to make the state more business-friendly, not increasing the state budget substantially.

“The governor hasn’t really provided a lot of leadership,” he said. “I think this session is floundering, and the majority is trying to spend every dollar that they can.”

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said there’s been strong communication with the governor. Lujan Grisham, he said, has been talking one on one with legislators as she makes the case for her priorities.

“The level of communication is the best I’ve seen in the time I’ve been here, which is 16 years,” Wirth said.

As for the budget, he said, he expects the final spending package to win at least some bipartisan support in the Senate.

By rule, the House is to send a budget proposal to the Senate by the midway point of the session, which is Wednesday.

Deadline for new bills

It’s also the deadline for bill introduction, although lawmakers get around the limit by introducing blank legislation that can be amended later if needed.

About 590 bills had been introduced as of Tuesday afternoon, and more are expected Wednesday. By comparison, lawmakers introduced 687 bills altogether in the 2018 session.

Just one bill has reached the governor’s desk this year – House Bill 1, the “feed” bill, which pays legislative staffers and other session expenses.

On the House side, tension has been escalating between Republicans and Democrats over transparency rules and whether committees are limiting debate too tightly.

“I really have a problem whenever the public’s voice is being silenced,” Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said Tuesday.

Republican Rep. David Gallegos of Eunice said debate is an important way for lawmakers, especially those in the minority, to speak for their constituents.

Speaker Egolf said he believes Republicans are getting a fair shake.

“We want to make sure folks have their say but also make sure that committees are able to get through their agenda,” Egolf said. “I think we’re just trying to strike a balance.”

Some Democratic leaders have tentatively supported a Republican-sponsored rule change to require publication of the results of “tabling” votes made in committee, a procedure often used to reject legislation.

But a House committee shelved two other Republican-backed rule change proposals aimed at giving more advance notice to the public before bills are voted upon by the full House.

Backers said the proposals would make it easier for New Mexicans from outside the Santa Fe and Albuquerque areas to travel to the Roundhouse for high-profile votes.

They also accused majority Democrats of rushing certain bills, including the $7.6 billion budget bill that was scheduled to be voted upon Tuesday but was ultimately pushed back a day by leadership.

Democrats said the current system is working fine and has been modified in recent years to bring more clarity to the bill-scheduling process.

“To me, this falls in the ‘If it isn’t broke then don’t fix it’ category,” Egolf said.

Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this article.

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