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Allegations of ‘bullying’ fill session’s final hours

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, left, talks with Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, on the Senate floor Friday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — New Mexico legislators knocked a critical item off their to-do list Friday — approval of the state budget — as they neared adjournment of an exhausting, tumultuous 60-day session.

They worked until the early hours of Friday morning, and some members were preparing Friday afternoon to keep going straight through the night until noon Saturday.

Tension gripped the Senate, in particular, as lawmakers accused Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto of bullying and misogyny after he sharply questioned Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart. Both are Albuquerque Democrats.

The dustup came as hours of debate over a paid sick leave bill kept lawmakers from voting on it until about 2:30 a.m. Friday.

The proposal to require employers to offer sick leave — revised to apply only to private sector workers, not government employees — won approval 25-16 but still needs House agreement on the Senate amendments.

And that is no sure thing.

Even with Democrats in control of both chambers, they are running out of time, as Republicans prolong debates to slow the pace of bill approvals.

Among the proposals awaiting final action Friday were measures to establish an independent redistricting commission, overhaul a medical malpractice law, limit interest on small loans and legalize marijuana.

“The clock is running, and many, many bills are not going to see the light of day,” Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said as she fielded questions for three hours on the Senate amendments to the annual budget bill.

The Senate usually does not limit debate, and filibusters pop up periodically. The House typically restricts debate to three hours per bill — a pace that will force Democrats to pick their priorities carefully as they move through the final 24 hours of the session.

Any piece of legislation still pending at noon Saturday dies upon adjournment.

Bills that make it through in the final days go to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has until April 9 to act on them.

Sick leave passage closer

The paid sick leave legislation moved closer to approval early Friday during a turbulent Senate floor session.

The late-night, early morning debate on the measure, House Bill 20, intensified after Stewart — the president pro tem of the chamber — proposed amending the legislation to undo a Senate committee change that extended the sick leave mandate to cover state and local government employees.

After a lengthy line of questioning and requests to read parts of the bill, Stewart said she would no longer yield to questions from Ivey-Soto, an attorney known for his aggressive questioning and line-by-line review of legislation. He had voted against the leave bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Shortly thereafter, Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, rose to describe Ivey-Soto’s actions as “bullying,” prompting applause from other senators.

Senators recessed for about 30 minutes to calm the atmosphere.

When they returned, Ivey-Soto said he was passionate about ensuring all employees are protected but did not intend to be abusive.

“If my passion came out as anger, I apologize,” Ivey-Soto said.

But that didn’t stop a barrage of criticism. House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, paused debate in the House on an unrelated bill to address the Senate tension.

“To see a member of that body attack a fellow senator in a cruel and vicious way reeks of the worst type of misogyny and male arrogance,” Egolf said.

He acknowledged it’s usually out of order to mention anything happening in the other chamber, but he said legislative staffers were in tears over the treatment of Stewart.

Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, and Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, after the House concurred with the Senate changes to HB 2, the appropriation bill for the state, on the House Floor Friday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The fate of the sick leave bill remained unclear. The Senate version of the bill still needs House approval.

Drawn-out debate

The House, meanwhile, slowed to a crawl Friday afternoon as Republican lawmakers rose to ask questions and debate each agenda item, even ones they supported.

Nonetheless, the House granted the final approval necessary to send a $7.4 billion budget plan to Lujan Grisham. The annual appropriations bill would boost ongoing spending about 5%.

The extra spending includes $110 million to extend the school year by 10 days for all grades and $120 million for K-5 Plus programs that extend the year even more at some elementary schools.

It picked up bipartisan support in both chambers. The legislation, House Bill 2, passed the Senate earlier this week on a 29-13 vote, and the House agreed to the Senate amendments Friday afternoon.

The proposal would result in reserves of about 24%, a critical item as lawmakers try to protect themselves against revenue volatility.

Also included in the bill are some transactions that would be contingent on federal stimulus funding — including an extra $100 million for the lottery scholarship program for college students and $200 million for Department of Transportation projects, such as road improvements.

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said he was a bit “uncomfortable” with a 5% increase in spending but that the Senate changes were reasonable.

“This is what I consider to be a good compromise place to be,” he said.

Debate on the bill consumed three hours, taking critical time off the clock.

Changes narrow scope

A proposal to ask voters to amend the state Constitution to authorize pulling 6.25% out of the permanent school fund each year — rather than 5% now — won final legislative passage Friday when the House signed off on Senate changes.

The extra revenue would be dedicated largely to early childhood education programs and K-12 education, including enhanced instruction for at-risk students and an extended school year.

The Senate amendments target the proposed 6.25% withdrawal a little more narrowly than the House version of the proposal.

The extra 1.25 percentage point distribution would apply only to the permanent school fund, which is a component of the larger Land Grant Permanent Fund. It means the increased funding would go toward early childhood education and K-12 education, but other beneficiaries of the Land Grant Permanent Fund — such as universities and hospitals — wouldn’t get a bump in their distribution.

The legislation, House Joint Resolution 1, would need approval in a statewide election — likely in November 2022 — and by Congress to take effect.

And both supporters and opponents alike could launch campaigns to sway voters in the coming year.

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