Each session of the New Mexico Legislature, it’s tempting to rush to cover bills, some of which never make it out of committee, let alone get signed into law. There’s no doubt many important bills are winding their way through the legislature this year—related to renewable energy, healthy soils and pollution fines. But this year, I’m kicking off environment coverage of the 2019 session by looking at what three critical agencies have to work with in terms of budgets and responsibilities. On Friday, the heads of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), New Mexico Environment Department (NEMD) and the Office of the State Engineer presented to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. The top staffers were there to answer questions about their department’s budgets, one version recommended by the Legislative Finance Committee analysts and another recommended by the governor’s office.
On Monday, federal employees will return to work. For now. After more than 30 days, the partial federal shutdown ended Friday. During that time, almost 11,000 New Mexicans—and 800,000 people nationwide—were either furloughed or working without pay. But many people remain wary, given that the deal worked out between Congress and the White House only reopens the government for three weeks, through February 15.
How high will the statewide minimum wage go? Or will it go at all? For many business owners, that is a key looming question during the 60-day legislative session. The minimum wage in New Mexico, unchanged since 2009, could see an upward adjustment from $7.50 an hour. Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, wants to double that to $15 an hour Jan.
Elected in November to represent New Mexico’s First Congressional District, Rep. Deb Haaland is among the first of two Native women to join the U.S. Congress. Focusing on her background, national magazines and television programs profiled her even before she swooped to victory on Election Day, outpacing her nearest opponent by more than 20 points. After her first week in Congress, we’d agreed to meet at the Albuquerque BioPark’s Botanic Garden to talk about climate change. And on a cold, cloudy morning, we ducked inside the garden’s faux-cave, complete with giant toadstools and plaster footprints of prehistoric creatures. Neither warm, nor particularly quiet, the cave is a uniquely terrible place to conduct an interview.
Right now, if New Mexicans want to participate in elections, they have to register four weeks before Election Day. But legislative efforts look to change that. Right now, if New Mexicans want to participate in elections, they have to register four weeks before Election Day. But legislative efforts look to change that. State Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, is the Senate sponsor of a same-day registration bill, which he says will help the state reach its “obligation to citizens to enfranchise their voting rights.”
“Year after year, we meet people who really are not plugged in or tuned into an election until really close to it, at which point it’s too late for people to register to vote,” he said.
A bell on a desk greeted visitors to the lieutenant governor’s office during Howie Morales’ first couple weeks on the job. Ring for service, a sign said. Not particularly glamorous, it seemed to sum up the office of lieutenant governor, which comes with few official duties and even fewer prospects for higher office. But Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in her early days in office has handed Morales a more expansive profile than many of his predecessors. She asked the former state senator, teacher and high school baseball coach to oversee the Public Education Department until she names a cabinet secretary.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura told a joint session of the New Mexico Legislature on Thursday the state’s justice system, which her predecessor described in 2017 as a patient on life support, is beginning to breathe on its own. Nakamura said funding appropriated over the past two years means the judicial branch can now pay Magistrate Court rents without worry and no longer loses employees to better paying jobs to discount retail stores such as Wal-Mart and Target. And, she said, a new jury management system has resulted in savings that mean jurors are paid in a timely fashion for the first time in eight years. “Are our courts thriving?” Nakamura said.
Concho Resources really wants to get to know you. At least, if you’re on the Legislative Finance Committee. The oil and gas company’s lobbyist reported spending $4,173 at the upscale Santa Fe restaurant La Casa Sena last month on “relationship building” with the influential committee. Lobbyists had a deadline Tuesday night to report spending from the beginning of October to the end of December. This restaurant tab was the single biggest expense disclosed by any of the Capitol’s legion of professional wheelers and dealers.
Top lawmakers on Monday rolled out a proposed $7 billion state budget that would include a whopping $600 million for public works projects around New Mexico as the government’s coffers swell with a windfall of revenue from an oil and gas boom. The Legislative Finance Committee’s proposed budget would mark almost an 11 percent increase in spending by the state. That is less than what Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has proposed in her own version of the state budget, which would raise spending by about 13 percent. But as lawmakers prepared to convene Tuesday for a 60-day legislative session, leaders indicated they are not far off from an agreement with the new governor when it comes to some spending on the issue that is sure to dominate the agenda: education. Faced not only with a judge’s order to come up with ways of improving education for many of the state’s most vulnerable students but also with a bright financial outlook in the short-term, legislators echoed Lujan Grisham’s own call to greatly increase funding for New Mexico schools.