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Sick leave, tax bills among many left before Saturday adjournment

Senators applaud Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, lower right, after a $7.4 billion budget bill passed the chamber Wednesday on a 29-13 vote. Muñoz was appointed as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee at the start of this year’s 60-day legislative session. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Their tempers starting to fray, New Mexico legislators began their final sprint to the end of an unusual session Wednesday by granting final approval to civil rights legislation and nearing an agreement on a $7.4 billion budget plan for the coming year.

But the outlook for some of the most complex, closely watched proposals of the year remains unclear.

An effort to legalize cannabis – amid disagreement over how to tax and regulate its sale and consumption – won approval in the Senate Judiciary Committee early Thursday morning. The measure now advances to the full Senate, and if approved there would go back to the House for concurrence.

The Senate Judiciary Committee faces an enormous backlog, with more than 130 proposals awaiting a hearing, as the session enters its final days. Lawmakers must adjourn at noon Saturday.

Also pending at the Roundhouse are proposals to ban trapping on public lands, revise New Mexico’s medical malpractice law, make sweeping changes to the state’s tax code and require employers to offer paid sick leave to their workers.

Tension escalated this week as deadline pressure mounted. Some debates split not just along party lines, but also geographic ones.

“I’ve never seen a divide in this body so great as during this session,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said early Wednesday, just after midnight and just before the Senate passed the civil rights legislation.

Santa Fe and Albuquerque, he said, get what they want while “rural New Mexico is pretty much left out.”

Back on the floor after a few hours of sleep, tension was still evident, as Senate GOP whip Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho asked that a 222-page budget bill be read in its entirety on the Senate floor before a vote was taken.

Specifically, Brandt objected that he and other lawmakers had not had time to read the revised $7.4 billion spending plan before it was brought up for a vote.

“If we can’t have time to do that, then maybe we could read the budget on the floor,” Brandt said.

Tempers eventually cooled after Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, agreed to delay a vote on the bill in order to give lawmakers more time to digest it.

The budget legislation ultimately passed the Senate via a 29-13 vote after a lengthy debate.

State Civil Rights Act

The proposal to establish a state Civil Rights Act won approval in the Senate soon after midnight, following a series of amendments. The House later Wednesday signed off on the changes, sending the bill next to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The legislation would allow lawsuits to be filed in state court to recover financial damages for violations of the New Mexico Bill of Rights.

The amendments would make it discretionary, not mandatory, for a court to award attorney fees to a prevailing plaintiff; require plaintiffs to notify the government of a potential claim against law enforcement within a year of the incident; and allow people to bring claims only for incidents that happen after July 1 this year.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque Democrat and attorney who handles civil rights litigation, said the proposal would help enforce the Bill of Rights.

“Our Constitution can promise anything it wants,” Candelaria said, “but the promise of due process means nothing if there’s no remedy. The promise of freedom of religion means nothing if there’s no remedy.”

The bill passed the Senate on a 26-15 vote, largely with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. Muñoz was the lone Democrat to vote no.

Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, said the legislation could trigger an “endless pit of lawsuits,” a fear expressed by schools, cities and counties. Lawmakers should focus instead, he said, on protecting police officers who put their lives at risk for the public.

“These are officers who just want to go home at the end of their shift and see their family,” Sharer said.

Senate OKs budget bill

The budget bill approved Wednesday by the Senate would increase state spending by 4.8% – or roughly $373 million – over current levels for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

It passed after a series of proposed amendments – brought by both Republicans and a Democrat – were rejected.

The proposed changes included lowering funding for a governor’s contingency fund and barring state funds from being used to pay for abortion-related services, both of which were brought forward by Republicans.

A separate amendment proposed by Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, would have increased the minimum wage for state workers to $15 per hour, a change that she said would have benefitted roughly 4,000 employees.

But opponents of the amendments pointed out lawmakers have already approved a pandemic relief package that includes $600 tax rebates for low-income workers.

“I have never seen a budget that does more for working families than this budget,” Candelaria said.

The budget ultimately passed on a largely party-line vote, with two GOP senators – Steven Neville of Aztec and Pat Woods of Broadview – joining the chamber’s Democratic members in casting “yes” votes.

It would go to the governor’s desk for consideration if the House votes to sign off on the Senate’s revisions to the legislation, which included adding more money for an Opportunity Scholarship program that Lujan Grisham has championed.

Lawmakers have conducted the session under unusual circumstances, with committee hearings held remotely. The public is barred from the building to limit the spread of COVID-19, and public testimony has been accepted online, not in person.

At one critical point Wednesday, the Legislature’s webcasting system went down, forcing both chambers to pause briefly. Debate quickly resumed, testy as ever.

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