Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – In a way, it was only fitting a hotly debated New Mexico cannabis legalization bill passed the Senate by a seven-vote margin Wednesday evening.
After all, the Senate’s seven first-term Democratic members played a key role in getting the bill across the finish line during a legislative special session – after previous marijuana legalization bills had stalled in recent years.
“It was all about the election,” Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said Thursday, referring to last year’s election results that saw five incumbent Senate Democrats ousted by more progressive primary challengers.
“The freshmen really carried the day,” she added, saying the first-term senators were among a group of lawmakers that met on the fourth floor of the Capitol with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to celebrate approval of the cannabis bill after the two-day special session ended late Wednesday.
The Democratic governor said Thursday she individually thanked each of the new members during the brief gathering, which she said did not violate the state’s public health order, given that Santa Fe County is now in the least restrictive turquoise level.
“Frankly, the majority of them campaigned on this new industry,” Lujan Grisham told the Journal. “It was the right time and the right environment (to pass the bill).”
While the new dynamics were especially on display during the special session focused on cannabis legalization, there were other signs of a new era in the Senate.
In past years, legislation dealing with repealing a long-dormant abortion ban and tapping New Mexico’s largest permanent fund for early childhood programs had also been derailed in the 42-member chamber.
But those measures both won approval during the 60-day session that ended March 20, in large part due to the new class of Democratic senators who replaced a more conservative old guard.
Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, who is among the seven first-term senators, said the freshman class came into this year’s session “unafraid” and ready to tackle high-profile bills.
“The voters were ready to get things done and they sent that message loud and clear,” Duhigg said Thursday. “But we still had to produce good bills. No one came here to rubber stamp legislation.”
But not all senators were left happy with the new order at the Roundhouse.
During the floor debate Wednesday evening, Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, said attempts to find a bipartisan compromise on cannabis legalization were discarded by majority Democrats.
“I think what’s most disappointing to me is the destruction of the Legislature we’ve witnessed here,” Pirtle said.
He also said the Legislature had acquiesced too easily to Lujan Grisham’s wishes on marijuana legalization, as the special session was called less than two weeks after lawmakers concluded the 60-day session without giving final approval to a previous cannabis bill.
“I don’t care about having my name on a freakin’ peace of legislation that nobody’s going to remember whenever I’m rotting in my grave,” said Pirtle, who proposed a competing cannabis legalization bill that failed during this week’s special session.
But some Democrats disputed Pirtle’s characterizations of the negotiations on cannabis legalization, with Stewart saying parts of his bill had been incorporated into the final version passed by the Legislature.
She also said minority Republicans might be feeling frustrated since they could not stop some Democratic-backed bills from passing like in previous years.
After last year’s election cycle, Senate Democrats were generally more on the same page this year than in past years, Stewart added.
“It’s a caucus that wants to move New Mexico forward and change what needs to be changed,” she said.