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Civil rights, economic growth bills signed

In this file photo, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham bumps elbows with Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, after a news conference following adjournment of the 60-day legislative session March 20. Senate Majority Whip Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, is pictured behind the two. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Two days before a critical deadline, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed civil rights legislation Wednesday that grew out of last year’s protests against racial injustice and police brutality.

It was one of 10 bills she approved – measures that expand the Local Economic Development Act, establish efforts to coordinate the expansion of broadband and adds a bit of sunshine to the state’s secretive capital outlay process.

Most of the legislation faced a Friday deadline for approval.

The civil rights measure – one of the most fiercely debated of the 60-day legislative session – will allow the filing of lawsuits in state District Court to recover financial damages if a public agency or officer violates a person’s rights under the state Bill of Rights.

The law will also bar qualified immunity as a defense to the claims, making New Mexico one of just a few states to ban the legal doctrine available in federal court.

The bill’s passage was vigorously opposed by city and county governments, along with some police chiefs and sheriffs. Opponents said public agencies already face significant legal exposure and the proposal will result in costly taxpayer settlements without actually preventing police misconduct or protecting New Mexicans’ civil rights.

In a written statement, Lujan Grisham said the newly created Civil Rights Act isn’t an anti-police bill, and she knows public servants work hard to protect people’s rights.

“But when violations do occur,” she said, “we as Americans know too well that the victims are disproportionately people of color, and that there are too often roadblocks to fighting for those inalienable rights in a court of law.”

The proposal, House Bill 4, came about after Lujan Grisham and legislators established a commission last year to evaluate changes to New Mexico’s civil rights laws. It was triggered by protests after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed a knee onto his neck.

Economic development

Lujan Grisham also signed a number of bills intended to support economic development – all of which passed the Legislature with bipartisan support.

One measure, Senate Bill 1 from last week’s special session, will revise the Local Economic Development Act to allow new incentives designed to recruit large companies to New Mexico.

The law will authorize some of the tax revenue generated by large-scale construction projects – $350 million or more – to be recaptured and used by the state’s “closing fund” to offset the costs of business expansions and relocations.

Supporters said the measure isn’t designed for any particular project but that three companies interested in New Mexico could benefit from the law.

The governor also approved two bills intended to help oversee the expansion of high-speed internet as the state makes $130 million in funding available.

Senate Bill 93 establishes a state Office of Broadband Access and Expansion, and House Bill 10 creates the Connected New Mexico Council.

New Mexico has ranked among the worst states in broadband access. Twenty-one percent of students in public schools in the state live in households without internet subscriptions, according to a 2020 legislative report.

“The digital divide is nothing new, but the pandemic made it clear that closing it must be a priority for New Mexico if we’re going to honor our commitment to provide every child with a full and equitable education,” Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said in a written statement.

Also signed Wednesday was House Bill 55, requiring the publication of how legislators allocate their capital outlay money – a key transparency measure under debate for years.

Until this year, it had repeatedly won approval in the House only to die in the Senate. But voters shook up the composition of the Senate in last year’s elections, and the measure cleared both chambers easily in the 60-day session.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat in her first term, also approved bipartisan legislation that will allow student-athletes at New Mexico colleges and universities to sign product endorsement deals and take other jobs. Senate Bill 94 would also prohibit penalizing a student-athlete for receiving food, shelter, medical expenses or insurance from a third party.

The law may put New Mexico in conflict with NCAA rules. But Sen. Mark Moores, an Albuquerque Republican and co-sponsor of the bill, said other states have passed similar legislation, putting pressure on the National Collegiate Athletic Association to modernize its rules for student-athletes.

Bills awaiting action

Lujan Grisham has now signed 126 bills passed in the 60-day session and vetoed one.

Thirty-one bills from the regular session are awaiting action by Friday, including proposals to allow medical aid-in-dying, require employers to offer paid sick leave to employees and setting the state budget for the coming year.

The governor has extra time to consider bills passed in last week’s two-day special session.

Proposals to legalize retail sales of marijuana and expunge cannabis convictions from court records face an April 20 deadline for action by Lujan Grisham.

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