Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham urged lawmakers Tuesday to move quickly to approve tax cuts, teacher pay increases and stiffer criminal penalties as a 30-day legislative session got underway at the Roundhouse under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In her fourth State of the State speech, Lujan Grisham also called on lawmakers to think big in a session in which unprecedented New Mexico revenue levels are expected to allow for hefty spending infusions.
“Dating back decades, a timid mindset has afflicted people in this Capitol building, a pessimism that can be self-fulfilling,” Lujan Grisham said in her speech, which was delivered remotely from the Governor’s Office. “Thinking small is a curse. Big and meaningful changes are possible, but the biggest change may be our attitude, our perspective.”
However, top-ranking Republicans accused Lujan Grisham of shifting her priorities – on crime and other issues – based on election-year dynamics.
The Democratic governor is seeking reelection to a second four-year term this year and at least seven Republicans are vying for the opportunity to run against her in the Nov. 8 general election.
Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, suggested a record-high homicide count in Albuquerque last year was specifically behind the governor’s call for a change to New Mexico’s bail reform law and a push for 19% pay raises for State Police officers.
“The bar stands at 117 murders in Albuquerque – then we’re going to do something,” Baca said during a news conference held by legislative Republicans in response to the governor’s address.
House GOP floor leader James Townsend of Artesia was even more blunt, saying, “I thought for a minute she actually became a Republican for the election cycle.”
The governor’s State of the State address was delivered remotely due to the ongoing pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 6,100 New Mexico residents.
It clocked in at 25 minutes – or only half as long as her initial speech to legislators in 2019.
While the Roundhouse will remain open during the session, unlike during last year’s 60-day session, those entering the Capitol on Tuesday faced screening for firearms and were required to show proof of their COVID-19 vaccine status.
The requirements prompted protests outside the building, including a small group of individuals opposed to the vaccine requirement who greeted legislators entering a Roundhouse parking garage. Another group of protesters urged lawmakers to end a ban on rent control, while others advocated for stiffer criminal penalties.
Inside the Capitol, protesters opposed to a hydrogen energy development initiative backed by Lujan Grisham’s administration were forcibly removed from the House public gallery – and the media gallery – just as the governors’s speech was beginning.
They released balloons, unfurled banners and chanted “Hydrogen is a false solution” before being removed.
Two groups, Youth United for Climate Crisis Action and Pueblo Action Alliance, claimed responsibility for the protest on social media.
Tax relief, utility assistance on Lujan Grisham’s agenda
Lujan Grisham began her speech by seeking to tamp down partisan strife, saying the legislative session should not be a “competition” pitting opposing teams against each other.
Given the state’s revenue situation, the governor said her administration would earmark an additional $230 million in rent and utility assistance for low-income New Mexicans. She also called for tax relief for New Mexico families in the form of a 0.25 percentage point decrease in the state’s gross receipts tax base rate – from 5.125% to 4.875% – and for Social Security retirement income to be exempted from taxation. The state’s personal income tax is currently only levied on income above $24,800 annually for a married couple filing jointly.
“We must unburden the New Mexicans who rely on Social Security benefits by cutting their taxes,” Lujan Grisham said. “This is good government, serving the people who have asked us to serve them.”
Several bills dealing with taxation of Social Security benefits have already been filed at the Capitol. One measure, Senate Bill 49, is sponsored by Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, and would increase the state’s tax rate on tobacco products to offset the revenue hit to the state caused by exempting such retirement benefits from taxation.
Two other bills were filed by a bipartisan group of House members and would simply do away with the income tax on Social Security retirement income.
Meanwhile, the governor also touted the economic impact of bills approved last year to legalize recreational cannabis for adult users and overhaul New Mexico’s liquor laws, saying the state was at the “frontier of economic growth.”
She also touted the fact New Mexico’s unemployment rate has declined for 10 consecutive months, though she did not mention the state still had the nation’s fifth-highest jobless rate – at 6.2% – as of November, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics.
Steve Pearce, the chairman of New Mexico’s Republican Party, said Lujan Grisham’s policies have not yielded results, despite spending increases over the last three years.
“This governor needs to take a serious look at what is happening around New Mexico before taking another band-aid approach to fixing our crises,” Pearce said in a statement.
New Mexico’s population growth also lagged behind the growth rate of neighboring states over the last decade, though much of that occurred before Lujan Grisham took office in 2019.
Lujan Grisham pledges law to fight crime in New Mexico
Despite its recent economic growth, New Mexico must get crime rates under control in order to keep its momentum going, Lujan Grisham said.
Specifically, the governor said she rejects the argument that crime is only an issue in Albuquerque, as some other New Mexico cities have also seen a rise in violent crime.
“The worst offenders, the most serious and dangerous criminals in our state, need to be behind bars, simple as that,” Lujan Grisham said. “And we are going to pass a law, this session, that will keep violent criminals behind bars until justice can be done.” However, some legislators have expressed misgivings about the proposal to make it easier for defendants charged with violent crimes to be held in jail until trial.
Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque independent, vowed recently to filibuster the proposal if it advances to the Senate floor, saying, “This measure is racist and has nothing to do with public safety.”
And Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who helped craft an overhaul to New Mexico’s bail laws in 2016, said in a recent interview lawmakers should closely scrutinize any proposals to change the law.
“I think we’ve got to be very careful when you’re talking about incarcerating someone before they’ve had the chance to prove their innocence,” Wirth said.
But Albuquerque Democrats have largely expressed support for the crime-related proposals, which also include retention bonuses for law enforcement officers and creation of a $100 million fund to help hire more officers.
“I know from conversations with my constituents, their number one concern is reducing crime and making our neighborhoods safer,” said Rep. Meredith Dixon, D-Albuquerque.
Galleries emptier than usual
With New Mexico facing its latest surge of COVID-19 infections, the opening day of this year’s legislative session had a different feel than other opening days.
The public galleries in the House and Senate chambers both had more empty seats than full ones, and Baca acknowledged some Senate Republicans watched the governor’s speech from their offices instead of from the chamber floor.
But there was still some of the usual pomp and ceremony, as Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard and Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Vigil were among the guests in attendance for the session’s first day.
For his part, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, wore a Scottish kilt with his family tartan for opening day and said he was proud of how lawmakers have responded to the pandemic.
“We have in New Mexico everything we need to build a great future for our state,” Egolf said during his remarks shortly after officially bringing the House to order. In the House, all committee meetings will be held virtually to reduce the possible spread of the virus. 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.