Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – With a key election cycle on the horizon, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham largely focused on her hits – and not her misses – Thursday after lawmakers put the final touches on a 30-day legislative session.
Specifically, the Democratic governor touted legislative approval of agenda items such as increased teacher salaries, funding for law enforcement officer recruitment bonuses and a tax package that would reduce the state’s gross receipts tax rate for the first time in 40 years.
“Most legislatures around the country have no idea how they’d get this kind of stuff done in 30 days,” Lujan Grisham said during a Roundhouse news conference just after the session ended.
But the governor also expressed frustration that some of her session initiatives were rejected by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, including a plan to make it easier to keep defendants charged with violent crimes behind bars until trial and legislation establishing a legal framework for hydrogen energy development in New Mexico.
“I’m not very good at taking ‘no’ for an answer – ever,” Lujan Grisham told reporters.
She said she was not – at least for now – planning to call lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session, but left the door open for possibly doing so later this year.
“Today is not the day to worry about that,” the governor said. “There’s no announcement today and no intention of that.”
In all, lawmakers passed 64 bills during this year’s session and two proposed constitutional amendments – one dealing with judicial elections and the other with using state funds for internet connection, water hookups and other essential household supplies.
That’s the lowest number of bills approved during a 30-day session in at least the last decade.
The relatively small number of bills – out of more than 500 filed – could be due in part to a hybrid session format in which some committee hearings were conducted remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Republicans also used legislative rules to slow some bills’ progress, engaging in lengthy debates that caused some floor sessions to stretch until well after midnight.
Despite the stall tactics, top-ranking Democrats said Thursday they were able to win approval for some of their top priorities.
“We did get a lot done in a very short time under really difficult circumstances,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe.
“There’s things we’re celebrating, and there’s things that make us very frustrated,” Wirth added.
But Republicans’ cited their ability to stymie bills requiring carbon emissions to be net-zero by 2050, changing some New Mexico voting laws and enacting new clean fuel standards.
“I think the results of this session speak volumes to the dissatisfaction of so many New Mexicans and how they are struggling to trust in a government so focused on making their lives harder,” said House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia.
The 30-day session happened just a month after a bruising special session on redistricting that led to a GOP-backed lawsuit over a new congressional map.
It also took place in a key election year in which Lujan Grisham is seeking reelection to a second four-year term. All 70 state House seats will also be on the ballot.
Lt. Gov. Howie Morales acknowledged the challenges of the session, which was the second regular session held since the COVID-19 pandemic hit New Mexico, but described it as a success.
“It’s a success because we’re investing in the people of New Mexico,” Morales said.
In large part, those investments were made possible by a state revenue windfall driven by increased oil and natural gas production and an uptick in consumer activity.
An $8.5 billion budget plan approved by lawmakers would boost New Mexico spending to record-high levels for the budget year starting in July.
The nearly 14% spending increase – roughly $1 billion more than current levels – would allow New Mexico to increase starting teacher pay to $50,000 per year and establish a $15 per hour minimum wage for state workers and education employees.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, called it the “most transformational budget our state has ever seen.”
But some lawmakers expressed concern about the sustainability of the proposed spending increase, given big recent revenue swings and the historic volatility of the oil and gas industries.
In the heat of the session, Lujan Grisham said lawmakers’ reluctance to pass some crime-related proposals “defied explanation.”
She was more measured during her Thursday news conference, lauding lawmakers for approving an expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program for older students returning to school.
Lujan Grisham also cited tax changes included in a package that includes exempting Social Security retirement income from taxation up to a certain income amount and a child tax credit of up to $175 per child.
But the governor expressed disappointment in the session’s final outcome in three policy areas – crime, environmental protections and voting rights.
She also said hydrogen-fueled power plants would still be pursued, even after lawmakers blocked several different bills on the issue.
“Hydrogen is coming everywhere in the country,” Lujan Grisham said.
And she said she would not give up on pushing for tougher criminal penalties, saying Thursday that many New Mexicans – including members of her family – have been victims of crime.
While it fell short of the $100 million she had requested, Lujan Grisham pointed out lawmakers earmarked $55 million in the budget bill for law enforcement officer recruitment and retention bonuses.
That, she said, could be a step toward hiring more officers and arresting more violent offenders.
The governor has until March 9 to act on most bills passed during the session.