Legislature to consider adding environmental rights to the constitution - Albuquerque Journal

Legislature to consider adding environmental rights to the constitution

Donnie Harris enjoys the view of the Rio Grande in the bosque north of the Alameda Bridge in Albuquerque in December. A new proposed amendment would enshrine the right to clean water and a clean environment to New Mexicans in the state constitution. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — Two lawmakers are looking to add environmental rights to the state constitution through an amendment that, if passed by the Legislature, would be on the ballot in November.

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, pre-filed a joint resolution that would add the right to a clean environment and a stable climate to the state constitution’s Bill of Rights.

“If there’s a state action that fails to take the air, land and water into account, then a citizen could file a lawsuit asking the court to order the government to do its duty under the constitution,” Sedillo Lopez said.

The amendment is meant to hold government officials at state, county and municipal levels responsible for protecting these rights, but it does not allow anyone to sue for money if the amendment is violated.

“Individuals can sue the government to make the state do its job, but they’re not going to get money damages for that,” Sedillo Lopez said.

This is the third time she has introduced the proposal, which would also require approval from voters at the next general election. She said it has changed significantly since the first, which was filed in 2021 and patterned after a similar bill in Pennsylvania.

Additionally, the New Mexico Civil Rights Act was passed in 2021, which allowed for monetary damages for civil rights violations. Sedillo Lopez said that made it necessary to explicitly exempt this amendment from that provision.

“This bill is not about punishing the state,” she said. “This is about getting the state to do the right thing.”

Several states already recognize environmental rights in their constitutions. Pennsylvania and New York have passed amendments to that effect, and Montana adopted a new constitution in the 1970s which included environmental rights in its Declaration of Rights.

Derf Johnson is the deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, a nonprofit that advocates for environmental protection in the state. He said that the line in the constitution means lawmakers mostly abide by it because otherwise, laws they pass are vulnerable to being challenged. Still, interpretation can change from one administration to another.

“There’s this lofty goal set out in the constitution, and then there’s where the rubber hits the road in terms of a state agency making regulations and how they interpret and implement that constitution,” he said.

He said it’s not a cure-all, but rather “one of many tools,” for protecting the environment.

However, skeptics of the New Mexico proposal have expressed concern about unintended consequences, and Sedillo Lopez said she’s gotten the criticism that the amendment is too vague.

But she argued her intention is to create a statement of policy that more concrete laws would be passed under, while adding the proposed amendment includes a line securing the right equitably throughout the state.

“That’s to address the problem we have in New Mexico of these little sacrifice zones, where pollution affects a community more heavily than others,” she said.

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