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Editorial: Critical bills need action as end of ’17 session nears

With the state Legislature scheduled to end its 60-day session at noon Saturday, the focus is on whether the governor and lawmakers can work out a budget deal for the upcoming fiscal year. But several other key bills need attention before the clock winds down.

Those that should be passed:

ETHICS: For far too many years, legislators have failed to create an independent panel to ensure that they, other elected officials, candidates, state employees, lobbyists, contractors and others adhere to high ethical standards. Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, has presented an outstanding bill, HJR 8, that would create such a panel, with voter approval, that would operate with transparency and go a long way to ending the abuses that put two treasurers and a former legislator in prison, has another legislator facing charges and has forced several other government officials to resign in disgrace. New Mexico is one of only eight states without an independent ethics commission, and it’s past time to change that. The House passed Dines’ measure unanimously, but it appears it may be getting bogged down, again, in the Senate. The Senate should send it to voters.

CAPITAL OUTLAY: Senate Bill 262 would finally fix the state’s extremely inefficient capital outlay system, which splits millions of dollars from severance tax bonds equally among the governor and Senate and House members. Consequently, few big projects – like roads and water systems – ever get done. The bipartisan bill would set up a committee to prioritize capital projects statewide and recommend them to the Legislature for funding. It’s a great anti-pork bill that invests in New Mexico’s infrastructure.

LOAN INTEREST CAP: Because of effective lobbying by the payday loan industry, many low-income New Mexicans find themselves in an inescapable whirlpool of debt, paying rates as high as 400 percent on payday loans, 456 percent on title loans and 929 percent on unsecured installment loans, according to a report by the Attorney General’s Office. House Bill 347 would ban small loans with terms of less than 120 days and impose a 175 percent cap on loans issued by companies that are not federally insured. That might sound high, but it’s better than the current rates and past time to set a ceiling on loans people can never get ahead of.

MINIMUM WAGE: When you can get lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as business people like chambers of commerce and some union representatives, to agree on a minimum-wage increase, you’ve done your homework on a smart compromise. Senate Bill 386 would gradually bump up the state’s minimum wage to $9 an hour. It is a reasonable way to address New Mexico’s entry-level wages as well as bring some uniformity to the state’s patchwork minimum wage rates – and businesses like the predictability it brings to the marketplace.

FINING POLLUTERS: Since a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling that the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division lacked legal authority to fine oil and gas companies for spills and other violations of state law, the collection of fines dropped from an average of $597,000 annually to $14,000 in 2010. Meanwhile, oil production is high in the state, and gas production is showing signs of improvement, meaning the chances for environmental damage rise in proportion. Senate Bill SB 307 would authorize the OCD to directly impose penalties on industry violators through administrative hearings for the first time since 2009, and it should be fast-tracked to approval.

COYOTE KILLING CONTESTS: There is simply no scientific or ethical justification for these barbaric slaughters, as coyotes are compensatory breeders and New Mexico is better than a place that celebrates killing just for killing’s sake. SB 268, which would ban the contests, is past due.

SPAY/NEUTER FUNDING: If you want to see an animal population control measure that actually works, spay/neuter is it. House Bill 123 would increase the paltry $2 per product per year that large pet food manufactures pay the state to $100 – a minuscule part of the $108 million we pay these companies for food and treats for our dogs and cats each year. The fees would fund up to 11,000 additional spays and neuters at municipal and nonprofit shelters and spare the lives of tens of thousands of dogs and cats annually.

BIOSIMILAR DRUGS: There’s a promising new class of drugs called “biosimilars” that mimic the therapeutic effects of biologically produced drugs – some of the most expensive drugs on the market. Biologics include blockbusters such as Humira and Embrel, which are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. But New Mexico lacks a law authorizing pharmacists to substitute FDA-approved biosimilar drugs for brand-name products, much as they now can with generic drugs. Two bills would change that; Senate Bill 180 and House Bill 260. Both should be approved.

Those that should die:

GOVERNMENT SECRECY: Legislators have introduced a number of bills designed to restrict, sometimes severely, access to public records. Although Senate Bill 149’s stated purpose is to protect the privacy of victims and witnesses of six highly personal crimes, it has the potential to gut related police reports and make it nearly impossible to accurately report on those crimes and ensure investigations are fair to all involved. House Bill 505 would allow some convicted criminals to have their records erased, which can place the unknowing public at risk. Senate Bill 93 would keep secret the names of people applying for public jobs – jobs taxpayers fund – giving favors and cronyism free rein. House Bill 267 would exempt from public disclosure “data, records or information of a proprietary nature” generated by university research before the information is published or patented, but state laws already exempt “trade secrets.”

LOTTERY SCHOLARSHIP FUNDING: The demand for lottery scholarships continues to outstrip the state lottery’s ability to fund them fully. The scholarships could fall to around 60 percent of tuition if the downward trend in lottery revenues continues. Piecemeal attempts to keep the scholarship solvent, like tapping alcohol excise taxes, aren’t sustainable. But removing the requirement that at least 30 percent of the lottery’s gross revenues go to the scholarship fund – SB 192, which lottery officials keep lobbying for by saying they could actually generate more revenue without the benchmark – is a gamble that should not go forward without a guarantee the money won’t end up in administrative or vendor pockets.

As it happens every legislative session, the end is near with lots of work to be done – good bills to pass, OK bills to improve, bad bills to kill or ignore. New Mexicans are depending on their elected lawmakers to work together to make that happen.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.