Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A 30-day session that featured both bruising debates and bipartisan breakthroughs reached its end Thursday, with lawmakers having passed bills dealing with firearm seizures, early childhood funding and pension reform.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham lauded lawmakers for their work, saying during a post-adjournment news conference that about 80% of the bills she had sought were approved by legislators.
“It’s really clear who we’re fighting for – we’re fighting for every single New Mexican in every single fashion,” the first-term Democratic governor said as members of her Cabinet, top-ranking lawmakers and some youthful advocates watched.
She also half-jokingly lamented the session’s end, saying, “I wish it wasn’t over.”
In all, lawmakers approved 88 bills during the session – the smallest number for a 30-day session since 2012.
But many of the measures that made it to Lujan Grisham’s desk were heavy lifts, including a $7.6 billion budget bill, a solvency fix for the Public Employees Retirement Association and a plan that could lead to prescription drugs being imported from Canada.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, cited the Legislature’s positive working relationship with the Governor’s Office as a key dynamic in this year’s session.
“I don’t remember a 30-day session that had this many (big) items,” Wirth said.
In contrast, House Republicans described the legislative session as a missed opportunity. They said Democratic lawmakers overspent, ignored the concerns of rural residents and violated gun owners’ rights.
“If I had to say this session had a theme, it was disrespect – disrespect for New Mexican values,” said House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington.
House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said voters throughout the state are unhappy with what happened at the Roundhouse this year.
“I think all across New Mexico,” he said, “they’re saying, ‘Enough is enough.'”
But majority Democrats said they had focused on issues that would help New Mexicans, including an Extreme Risk Firearm Protection Order Act – or red flag gun bill – that would authorize the temporary seizure of guns from those a judge determined were dangerous to themselves or others.
Despite opposition from all but a few county sheriffs, Lujan Grisham is expected to sign the legislation, which would make New Mexico the 18th state with such a law on its books, in the coming days.
And House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, predicted it would have an immediate impact on New Mexico’s rate of firearm-related deaths, which is one of the nation’s highest.
“The next time this Legislature convenes in Santa Fe,” Egolf said, “someone will be alive because of that bill who otherwise would not. Someone will have their life saved by that bill.”
Although Lujan Grisham saw many of her top initiatives win approval, she didn’t get everything she wanted.
A renewed plan to legalize recreational marijuana for adult users and a bill establishing a crime of domestic terrorism were among the proposals that ended up stalling at the Roundhouse.
The governor said she plans to try again to add New Mexico to the ranks of other Western states that have legalized cannabis during next year’s 60-day session.
“We think the work we did last year was a really productive start,” Lujan Grisham said, referring to a working group she established. “I don’t see any of that as a failure by building a foundation.”
Lujan Grisham also sounded a positive note on her proposed tuition-free college plan, which many lawmakers did not immediately embrace.
The final version of the budget bill passed by lawmakers includes $17 million for the Opportunity Scholarship program in the coming academic year, or only about half of what the governor and her top staffers initially proposed.
Lawmakers also retooled the scholarship language to target aid more at low-income students, although much of the program’s rollout will be up to the Lujan Grisham administration.
The governor said she wasn’t bothered by the Legislature’s changes to the proposed scholarship program but suggested her administration might push for additional dollars during the 2021 session.
Much of the 30-day session was spent on budget-related matters, as an oil production boom in southeastern New Mexico gave lawmakers a gusher of revenue for the second consecutive year.
Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said the state’s cash-flush revenue situation made for a difficult budget-drafting process.
“There’s folks out there that want a lot of that money,” Ingle said.
Under the final version of the budget, state spending would go up by $536 million – or 7.6% – over this year’s levels, with about one-third of that money earmarked for salary increases for teachers and state employees.
Lujan Grisham described the budget plan as “responsive and responsible,” while acknowledging the temptation to spend even more of the state’s windfall.
A hefty chunk of that surplus – $320 million – will, in fact, be used as startup funding for a new early childhood trust fund that will make distributions starting in July 2021 to pay for prekindergarten, home visiting and other programs.
Even with the new trust fund, Ingle said, the state remains heavily dependent on oil-generated tax dollars, saying that solar, wind and other types of renewable energy could not come close to matching its revenue impact on the state.
But Ingle also said lawmakers had acted responsibly in approving the budget bill, a public works package and money for statewide road repairs.
“Everything we needed to get passed in a 30-day session we did,” he said.
Lujan Grisham has until March 11 to act on most bills passed during this year’s session.