Legislature votes to extend solar tax credits

Successful bipartisan support for a bill to keep state tax credits for solar power installation in place until 2024 could bode well for final ratification by the governor. Sponsored by Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, SB 391 would prevent tax breaks enacted in 2006 from expiring in five years. The Solar Market Development Tax Credit now pays up to 10 percent of the cost for purchasing and installing solar photovoltaic or solar thermal systems. Stewart’s proposal will gradually phase that down to 5 percent. 

According to the bill’s fiscal impact report, a growing number of New Mexicans claim solar tax credits mostly for new photovoltaic systems. The report also notes that in 2014, more than 1,000 residential-scale solar power systems added six megawatts to the power grid. A vocal minority of Republicans, some of whom work in the petroleum industry, opposed the measure. Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, argued Friday night that sun-generated energy would actually be cheaper without subsidies.

Campos (mostly) denies presidential ambitions

Senator Pete Campos, a Democrat from Las Vegas, proudly refers to himself as a moderate. He’s also well aware that his votes on some of the state’s most divisive policy measures have fed gossip about possible quid pro quo deals with the governor’s office. Campos, who is also president of Luna County Community College, said he noticed—and hoped to quash—pointed questions circulating on social media after he and four other Democrats helped tipped the scales in favor of the nomination of Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera. Eyebrows were also raised when he was the only Democrat to vote in favor of attorney Matt Chandler during a particularly contentious hearing over his nomination to the University of New Mexico Board of Regents. “I was just waiting for someone to ask me,” Campos told the New Mexico Political Report on Monday.

Budget clears Senate, back to House for final approval

With crude prices plummeting Monday to a six-year low, state senators approved a $6.2 billion state budget with fingers crossed that the cost of oil will at least stay steady enough to preserve funding plans until the next fiscal year. Sen. John Arthur Smith, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said steep drops in oil and natural gas prices meant a $35 million reduction in total revenue available for appropriations. “We’re moving ahead precariously,” said the Democrat from Deming, adding that “we’re hoping that this next year will be a better year, but we’re very concerned.”

The Senate’s budget for the most part closely tracks the House version. The Senate version has an added $12.9 million to result in a small 1.3 percent increase across all state government programs.

That $12.9 million was divvied up for additional investments for the public schools’ K-3 Plus interventions and increases for the Developmental Disability waiver and Family, Infant and Toddler Programs. It also includes a salary boost for nurses and allied professions and a restoration of funds cut in previous years for public broadcasting and higher education athletic programs.

The Senate also added $2.5 million in non-recurring spending to the state’s fund for the Local Economic Development Act. The cabinet-level Economic Development Department had requested $50 million for the program, which allows local governments to create public-private partnerships for economic development projects.

Abortion restriction proposals stall in Senate committee

Two bills drafted to impede access to certain abortion procedures were set aside on Sunday by Democrats in the state Senate Public Affairs Committee, a move that likely signals the end of both measures during this session. Party-line votes tabled both HB 390, sponsored by Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo, and HB 391, which was carried by Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas. While the drafters worked in close collaboration, the bills would impact the provision of abortion services in markedly different ways. HB 390 proposed a ban on abortions of pregnancies at 20 or more weeks gestation and included language Herrell said made exceptions for “physical harm if the woman’s health is in jeopardy” or if a woman asserts the pregnancy resulted from rape, incest or sexual abuse. Described by some supporters as a “parents’ rights” measure, HB 391 would require the formal notification of a parent or legal guardian of any minor female seeking an abortion.

What’s next for the state Senate now that Griego is out?

Since Phil Griego, D-San Jose, stepped down from his position as a member of the state Senate, it will be up to county commissioners throughout his sprawling former district to send recommendations for his replacement to Gov. Susana Martinez. District 39, which Griego represented until Saturday morning, contains parts of Bernalillo, Lincoln, San Miguel, Santa Fe, Torrance and Valencia counties. Each of the county commissions will choose a candidate, at which point Martinez will decide which candidate will replace Griego for the remainder of the term. The governor will likely prefer to see someone from her own party take Griego’s seat. Currently, 17 Republicans serve in the Senate.

House committee votes to advance voter ID legislation

A panel with a Republican majority split along party lines on Friday to approve a bill requiring voters to present photo identification before casting election ballots. Similar requirements enacted in other states have ignited controversy and costly court battles; critics contend voter ID laws disenfranchise eligible voters from low-income and minority communities. The legislation now heads to the House floor. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, said HB 340 was drafted to safeguard the integrity of the elections process while also passing constitutional muster. “I like to think of this more as voter authentication,” Brown told members of the House Judiciary Committee.

Lawsuit alleges BLM allowed Chaco fracking without proper impact analysis

President Theodore Roosevelt declared Chaco Canyon to be an historical monument on March 11, 1907, and 108 years later to the day, a coalition of environmental groups leveled a lawsuit against the federal government alleging inadequate protection of the area. John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians in Santa Fe, said on Wednesday that the timing was coincidental but appropriate, representing “another important milestone in the effort to protect Greater Chaco.” The primary threat to Chaco Canyon in Roosevelt’s time was looting of archaeologically and culturally precious sites, said Horning. “Today the threat is oil and gas development and fracking in particular.” Horning said the groups who brought the lawsuit hope to not only halt industry activity in the Chaco area, but to set “the foundation for a much better movement.”

Regulations for tax refund loans head to Senate after long House debate

A bill uncontroversial on its face about payday loans became the focal point of yet another drawn-out skirmish in the House. Members of the two political parties argued pros and cons of more stringent regulations for entities that offer payday and other high-interest small loans. Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales, presented HB 356, her proposal to update the state’s Small Loan Act to include additional rules for lenders who offer increasingly common tax refund anticipation checks. The bill ultimately passed on a 38-25 vote. Powdrell-Culbert said she proposed the legislation after hearing concerns expressed in committee meetings about the high interest rates charged by tax refund lenders, the majority of whom provide services to low-income people.

Senate endorses bill seeking to avoid repeat of behavioral health shake up

Nearly two years after a Medicaid funding freeze sent New Mexico’s behavioral healthcare system into a tailspin, the full Senate on Tuesday lent bipartisan support to a bill meant to stave off such crises in the future. Senate Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, sponsored HB 55, which she said will improve the way the state deals with healthcare providers. Responding to questions from Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, Papen said the primary differences between her proposal and the paradigm in which the state’s been operating boil down to a few key words: transparency and due process. Current law, said Papen, “is tilted in favor of state, and it’s calculated to make providers’ responses onerous.”

For example, when the state Human Services Department conducted an audit of 15 behavioral health providers back in February 2013, the results pointed to problems including Medicaid overbilling and possible fraud. The state’s response was to immediately freeze payments to all 15 affected agencies.

Senate GOP attempts fail to change committees for abortion bills

A Republican Senator made a series of moves this afternoon to transfer two controversial House bills related to abortion out of their assigned committees. All of his efforts failed. Senator William Sharer, R-Farmington, first requested that HB 391, a bill sponsored by House Majority Whip Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, requiring parental notification of minors seeking abortions, be moved to a Committee of the Whole in the Senate. The move incited spirited party divisions as Republican lawmakers rallied behind the motion, saying that the parental notification bill has major public importance and faces the danger of getting lost in committees as the 60-day session narrows in on its final days. Democrats, on the other hand, disparaged the move as contrary to the Senate’s conventional processes.