Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Fresh off a bruising special session on redistricting and with a key election cycle on the horizon, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has prepared an ambitious agenda for a 30-day legislative session that starts Tuesday.
Proposals on crime, voting rights, hydrogen energy and the state’s tax code are just some of the issues the Democratic governor has placed on lawmakers’ plates.
“This is a critical opportunity to strategically and responsibly invest in transformative programs that support New Mexicans in building stronger, brighter futures,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement Friday.
But it’s unclear whether the Legislature will have the appetite to tackle everything on the menu as even some Democrats have expressed skepticism about Lujan Grisham’s initiatives.
Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said he has not yet seen the crime-related legislation proposed by the governor and law enforcement officials.
He also said such measures would be closely scrutinized in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, and suggested a better-funded state judicial system would do more to address crime rates than hasty changes to sentencing laws.
“It’s a problem that Albuquerque has largely created for itself,” Cervantes said, pointing out violent crime rates in some parts of southern New Mexico are much lower than in New Mexico’s largest city. “It’s not really about changing state law.”
Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas, said many of the governor’s initiatives are politically driven.
“Everything the governor is proposing is very polarizing,” Fajardo told the Journal.
She also said a hybrid session format due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will make it difficult for lawmakers to scrutinize bills and get information from lobbyists and other legislators alike.
That could lead to an increase in legislation being approved with flaws or unintended consequences, she added.
“These bills are thrown at us, we’re isolated and it’s ultimately shoved down our throats,” Fajardo said.
“I think that’s wrong no matter what party is doing it.”
But House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said rhetorical “bombthrowing” from minority Republicans has contributed to a politically charged atmosphere in the Roundhouse in recent sessions.
He also said a hybrid session format under which some legislative business will be conducted in person and some remotely will allow for robust public participation while attempting to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
“There has never been as many ways to participate in the process,” Egolf said.
Session comes as NM COVID infections surge
The 30-day session will play out amid New Mexico’s latest surge in COVID-19 infections.
While the Roundhouse will remain open during the session, it will feature metal detectors at each entrance to screen for firearms and workers checking the COVID-19 vaccine cards of all individuals entering the building. Proof of a booster shot will also be required to get into the Capitol.
In the House, all committee meetings will be held virtually to reduce the possible spread of COVID-19.
Floor sessions will be held in-person, but members who test positive for the virus, are experiencing symptoms or are isolating due to possible exposure will be able to participate and vote remotely.
As for the Senate, Democratic floor leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe said Senate rules will likely be adjusted, possibly to allow lawmakers who are in quarantine to participate remotely – either from their homes or their Capitol offices.
“I sense we’re going to be probably dealing with more cases with this omicron (variant) given the spread and how fast it’s happening,” Wirth said. “I think we do need to be able to allow members to represent their districts and vote from wherever they need to be to get the care they need to get better.”
While members of the public will be able to provide testimony through online platforms and by phone, and all committee meetings and floor sessions will be webcast by the Legislature, some transparency advocates have expressed unease about the session format.
Shannon Kunkel, the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, urged top-ranking lawmakers in a recent letter to make bills available to the public for review at least 72 hours before a scheduled vote.
She also said legislators should be required to keep their computer cameras on for the duration of any committee hearings or floor sessions they are participating in remotely.
“Let’s work together to ensure government transparency is not another victim of the COVID-19 health crisis,” Kunkel said in her letter.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Roundhouse was closed to members of the public and lobbyists for a special session in June 2020.
It remained closed for last year’s 60-day legislative session and a subsequent special session on legalizing cannabis for adult users.
Teacher exodus, nurse shortage plague NM
New Mexico faces daunting issues that include a nursing shortage, a teacher exodus, high drug overdose rates and an aging population.
But an unprecedented budget windfall – driven largely by increased oil and gas production in southeast New Mexico – could allow for big spending infusions targeted at some of those areas.
“To me, this is an opportunity we’ve never had before,” said House Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces. “With the pandemic, we’ve seen where the cracks are.” New Mexico’s public schools, in particular, have been strained by the pandemic, which has led to enrollment declines and concerns about lost learning time.
Given that backdrop, both Lujan Grisham and a key legislative panel have released budget plans that would increase starting teacher pay to $50,000 per year – or possibly higher – and provide educators with a 7% salary increase starting in July.
“We’ve got to do something about teachers,” said Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec. “We’re losing teachers right and left and we’re not growing our own.”
Meanwhile, Egolf said the revenue windfall – a projected $1.6 billion in “new” money for the coming budget year – could also allow for “generational investments” in areas such as conservation, climate change and economic development.
And at least some of the revenue surplus could also be used to provide tax relief to New Mexicans.
Wirth said the Senate plans to advance a tax package that would include a tax rebate for low-income workers, a reduction in the state gross receipts tax base rate – currently set at 5.125% – and a provision aimed at reducing “tax pyramiding,” which occurs when taxes are levied several times on the same product or service.
But he said a more comprehensive overhaul of New Mexico’s tax code would likely not happen until the 2023 legislative session.
Meanwhile, several lawmakers have also urged spending restraint given the state’s historic revenue volatility. Currently, about 43% of all state revenue comes from the oil and natural gas industries.
Lawmakers, governor eye environmental bills
Energy-related proposals could also draw a lot of oxygen during this year’s session.
Lujan Grisham has said she will push lawmakers to enact new clean fuel standards and pass a requirement New Mexico reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.The governor has also urged legislators to approve a legal framework to put New Mexico on the forefront of hydrogen energy development. Neville said hydrogen development would be a boon for northwest New Mexico, which produces large amounts of natural gas but has lost residents in recent years and is facing the closure of the coal-powered San Juan Generating Station. However, environmental groups have criticized the proposal and Wirth said passing it would be a “big lift” during this year’s session.
“I do have concerns based on what I’ve heard,” Wirth said, adding he was awaiting final versions of bill. In all, the combustible mix of election-year dynamics, the ongoing pandemic and the state’s unprecedented budget bonanza could make this year’s session one to remember – even if lawmakers are somewhat wary about returning to the Roundhouse.
“The Constitution requires us to be here,” Wirth said. “While the timing is challenging, it’s important we’re here.”