New Mexico lawmakers launch 60-day session in busy capitol - Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico lawmakers launch 60-day session in busy capitol

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham delivered the State of the State speech Tuesday in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday delivered her first in-person legislative address in three years as she challenged lawmakers to forcefully address crime in new ways, reshape the tax code and offer child care to every New Mexico family.

With state revenue set to reach a record high, she also called for the creation of a new health care agency to move New Mexico closer to “universal health care,” and authorization of new funds for environmental protection and housing. An oil boom is providing much of the new income.

The Democratic governor – fresh off a tough reelection campaign – also outlined a host of public safety priorities, urging lawmakers to ban the sale of “assault weapons,” make it easier to hold violent criminals in jail before trial, and allow crime victims to sue gun manufacturers.

“To the lawmakers in this room: This is a tough thing to ask,” Lujan Grisham said. But “this is me, on behalf of the people of New Mexico, challenging the brightest elected officials and staff in the country to do much more to ease the burden of crime being placed on far too many of us, every single day, in every single corner of the state.”

The governor’s in-person State of the State address – her first to a joint session of the Legislature since 2020, due to pandemic restrictions – came about 2½ hours after lawmakers opened a 60-day session at noon. She gave remote speeches in 2021 and 2022.

Prior to the speech, the Capitol buzzed with activity like it hasn’t in years, with hallways crowded with lobbyists, legislative guests and visitors. U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Congresswomen Melanie Stansbury and Teresa Leger Fernández, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and other leaders attended the State of the State address.

For the first time since early 2020, visitors did not have to wear masks or prove their vaccine status.

Lujan Grisham thanked lawmakers for their work improving the lives of New Mexicans. She ticked off a number of accomplishments, including reductions in the unemployment rate.

“Over the last four years,” Lujan Grisham said, “we have made once-unimaginable strides and, today, New Mexico is on stronger footing than ever.”

But, she added, “we have more to do.”

GOP response

Following the speech, Republican lawmakers slammed the governor’s legislative agenda.

Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, said Lujan Grisham glossed over the serious challenges facing the state – such as crime, a shortage of doctors and an unfriendly business environment – and repeatedly offered more government spending as the answer.

He wasn’t impressed by her ideas on firearms, either.

Additional gun-control regulations aren’t the solution, Baca said, when the state is failing to keep firearms out of the hands of felons.

“Let’s enforce what we have. … We need a criminal justice system that people don’t look to and laugh at,” Baca said.

He called the governor’s administration “out of touch.”

Baca said Lujan Grisham touted renewable energy, for example, but failed to acknowledge the importance of oil and gas production.

“Let’s face it,” he said, “oil and gas provided the windfalls that we’re seeing this year.”

But Baca said he hoped to find some common ground with the governor and Democratic lawmakers on proposals to recruit and retain police officers in New Mexico.

House Minority Leader Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, offered a similar assessment of the governor’s speech.

“Most New Mexicans do not live in the utopia that Lujan Grisham described,” Lane said, “and Republicans are committed to working to provide meaningful relief and support to New Mexicans.”

New initiatives

Lujan Grisham’s wide-ranging speech touched on the environment, homelessness, health care and other topics.

It was 49 minutes long, just 1 minute shorter than her longest address, a 50-minute speech in 2019. She was escorted in by her husband, Manny Cordova, and showed no signs of a limp, despite recent knee surgery.

Among the proposals outlined in the governor’s speech were:

• $750 tax rebates for every taxpayer, middle-income tax cuts and changes to the tax code to address “pyramiding,” the way gross receipts taxes build on each other when assessed on each step of a longer transaction. Lujan Grisham said she would seek $1 billion in economic relief overall “to help more New Mexicans afford the things they need right now.”

• $10 million for a reproductive health care center in southern New Mexico and the codification of abortion rights in state law.

• Creation of a New Mexico Health Care Authority to consolidate services in one agency and move the state closer to universal health care. She also called for transparency in drug pricing.

• Providing child care and early childhood education to every family.

• New funds for environmental protection, rural health care and housing initiatives. She proposed $100 million, for example, to help communities affected by the largest wildfire in recorded state history.

• Picking up the full health care premiums of teachers and school employees, and giving them a 4% raise. She also expressed support for extending learning time for students to help boost academic achievement.

• New protections against eviction for renters, funding for mobile homelessness response teams and downpayment assistance for homebuyers.

• A host of new gun-control measures, including a ban on the sale of assault weapons, closing a loophole that she said allowed “straw purchases” of guns and penalties for people who don’t store firearms safely away from children.

The governor also proposed allowing “victims of gun violence to bring civil suits against firearm manufacturers.”

Opening day

Officials in each legislative chamber banged the gavel and called lawmakers to order a little after noon to formally begin their work.

The start of the session came at a particularly tense time for Albuquerque lawmakers. Police arrested a failed Republican legislative candidate this week in connection with a string of shootings at the homes of Democratic officials.

Lujan Grisham made note of it in her speech and thanked law enforcement for their quick work.

“There are elected officials in this room today whose homes and families were shot at in despicable acts of political violence,” the governor said.

Rep. Javier Martínez – an Albuquerque Democrat elected speaker of the House shortly after the session started – said it was “on us” as elected leaders to be mindful of heated, dangerous rhetoric. His was one of four Democratic elected officials’ homes damaged by bullets last month.

“It’s long overdue that we lower the temperature,” Martínez said.

But there was also the excited atmosphere of a typical opening day.

Protesters, as usual, made an appearance – calling for action to address climate change, among other causes. State employees demonstrated in opposition to a Lujan Grisham administration decision to rescind a telework policy that allowed some employees to work from home.

During a press conference before the session’s start, House Majority Whip Reena Szczepanski, D-Santa Fe, said majority Democrats would work to find effective ways to spend a huge state budget surplus.

Lawmakers will determine what to do with $3.6 billion in “new” money – the difference between projected revenue and current spending levels.

“We must make sure that all New Mexicans benefit from our growth,” Szczepanski said.

Dan Boyd of the Journal Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

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