Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A burst of activity helped carry New Mexico legislators to the end of a grueling and unprecedented session Saturday, as they beat the clock with passage of sick leave legislation and bipartisan proposals on redistricting and government transparency.
The flurry of approvals came in the final hours before adjournment after Democratic and Republican floor leaders in the House agreed on a final agenda of bills to consider, breaking what had been hours of gridlock.
The most fiercely debated bill at the end – a proposal requiring private sector employers to offer paid sick leave to workers – passed the House on a 41-26 vote just 40 minutes before the noon deadline, following a three-hour debate.
But much of the final legislation won broad, bipartisan support late Friday and early Saturday.
Lawmakers rapidly signed off on proposals to establish an independent redistricting committee, extend public financing to District Court judicial candidates and shine more light on the state’s secretive capital outlay process.
The activity came in an unusual session as lawmakers cast votes and debated each other in a mix of formats – online and in person. The Capitol itself was closed to the public to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“I hope we never have another session like this in anyone’s lifetime,” Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said after adjournment. “This is hard.”
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said lawmakers can be proud of passing legislation to expand tax breaks for working families and enacting a broader economic relief package intended to help employers recover.
“It was an unprecedented situation,” he said, “but we didn’t want to let the virus deter us from doing the work critically needed for the people of New Mexico.”
Republican legislators – a minority in both chambers – offered a much different assessment. They said the Legislature blew its chance to limit the governor’s emergency authority, reopen more of the economy and combat crime.
Instead, GOP leaders said, the Democratic majorities pushed through bills to raise a health insurance tax, impose new regulations on business owners and harm rural New Mexico.
“This Legislature hurt the people of New Mexico at a most critical time,” said Senate Minority Caucus Chairman Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque. “It’s a sad day.”
Down to the wire, a bipartisan accord
The post-session words came after Democrats and Republicans worked until about 1 a.m. Saturday before returning at 8 to wrap up their final business by noon.
Dozens of bills won approval – often with no or minimal opposition – Saturday once Democratic and Republicans leaders in both chambers negotiated a bipartisan agenda of bills already close to approval but at risk of dying upon adjournment.
Before the agreement, Republican legislators, especially in the House, pushed to prolong debate on every measure to consume time and slow the pace of approval of Democratic bills.
Among the negotiated measures winning passage was bipartisan legislation to establish an independent redistricting committee that would accept public testimony and propose new legislative and congressional districts. The proposal incorporated elements of a host of competing bills on redistricting.
Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, unveiled the measure shortly after midnight Saturday, describing it as a compromise reached by a group of Democratic and Republican legislators, including Rep. Natalie Figueroa, D-Albuquerque.
“For the first time, citizens across the state will make a meaningful impact on what their district looks like,” Dow said Saturday after adjournment. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
The proposal, Senate Bill 304, would start the redistricting process this summer with an independent committee led by a retired judge or justice. No more than three of the seven members could be from the same party.
The committee would be barred from considering party registration data in crafting the proposed boundaries, and the panel couldn’t consider the voting addresses of candidates or incumbents, except to avoid pairing of incumbents, if possible.
Lawmakers could amend or change the maps before passage, but they would start with the committee’s proposals.
The House also raced to approve legislation, Senate Bill 160, that would make New Mexico the first state to offer public financing for candidates seeking to become District Court judges. Another bill, House Bill 55, calling for publication of how legislators allocate their capital outlay money, also won quick passage.
The bipartisan agenda “was a reminder that, for the most part, we agree much more than we disagree,” Egolf said.
House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said he was pleased to reach common ground with Democratic leaders.
“When the Legislature works like that,” he said, “I believe the people of New Mexico win.”
Paid sick leave – ‘a most difficult lift’
The final lengthy debate of the 2021 session centered on paid sick leave. The House granted final approval to the measure Saturday, sending it to the governor.
The proposal, House Bill 20, would require private employers to offer paid sick leave to their employees, starting in July next year. The bill allows broader paid-time-off policies to count as compliance with the sick leave requirement and sets a $500 minimum for damages if an employee is illegally denied sick pay.
The Senate amended the bill earlier this week, requiring House agreement on the changes for final passage.
“This has probably been one of the most difficult lifts of the session,” Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, said as House members spent three hours debating it Saturday.
Townsend and other Republicans cited the legislation as an example of intrusive regulations that damage economic activity.
“This legislative session, I’m unhappy to say, increased the burden on middle-class New Mexico,” Townsend said.
Diverse chamber, cultural changes
This year’s session was the first in which women made up a majority of House members. Voters also shook up the composition of the Senate, where 11 of the 42 members were new to the chamber, including an influx of female legislators and the first African American senator in New Mexico.
The session included some tense moments, including allegations of bullying during one debate and inappropriate questions about race in a confirmation hearing.
Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat elected to lead the chamber on opening day, said the more diverse chamber highlighted the need for some cultural changes in the Capitol. She mentioned the possibility of sensitivity training.
The new members “saw things in the Senate we haven’t seen, we haven’t recognized, we haven’t realized,” Stewart said after the session. “There were some rough times in the Senate when they pointed out how poorly women, especially, were treated.”
Lujan Grisham, a former state Cabinet secretary, said the Roundhouse has been “male-dominated.”
“We just have to stand up and stop creating environments where it’s just too easy to be hostile, angry, sexist, racist and inappropriate,” she said.
158 bills passed – lowest in a decade
In all, lawmakers sent 158 bills to the governor for consideration – the lowest number of passed bills in more than a decade.
They also signed off on one proposed constitutional amendment that would earmark more funding from New Mexico’s largest permanent fund for early childhood and education programs. That proposal is likely to go before voters in November 2022.
Meanwhile, the low bill output could be due partly to a suggested limit of no more than five introduced pieces of legislation per member of the House, a concession to the session’s remote format. No such limit was in place in the Senate.
Before the session’s final day, lawmakers had already signed off on high-profile bills to repeal a long-dormant state abortion ban, overhaul New Mexico’s liquor laws and provide financial relief to businesses and workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But legislation still pending at noon died upon adjournment of the Legislature, an end date set by the state Constitution.
Among the proposals that fell short were proposals to legalize cannabis, restrict the governor’s emergency powers and reduce the state’s small-loan interest rate cap.
Lt. Gov. Howie Morales touted lawmakers’ ability to safely complete the 60-day legislative session during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We didn’t know if we’d be able to start or complete this legislative session,” Morales as clock ticked toward adjournment.