Gov. Susana Martinez will have to decide whether to sign a bill designed to prevent the state government, as well as local governments in Northern New Mexico, from losing tax revenue if a nonprofit university takes over management of Los Alamos National Laboratory later this year. That possibility is real, as two Texas universities have submitted bids for the contract. “We stand to lose about $30 million in gross receipts revenue to the state should a nonprofit contractor receive the [operations contract] at the national laboratory in Los Alamos,” Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, told the House of Representatives late Tuesday night before it voted 48-19 in favor of the measure, Senate Bill 17. Garcia Richard’s number is consistent with a fiscal impact report by the Legislative Finance Committee, which estimates the state’s gross receipts tax losses at $25 million to $30 million if a nonprofit is chosen to run the lab. Both the University of Texas System Board of Regents and Texas A&M submitted formal bids on the lab management contract in December.
A legislative committee gave its backing Wednesday to a bill that would allow Spaceport America to exempt many of its business dealings from New Mexico’s open records law as the state’s major open government advocacy group dropped its opposition to the measure. The publicly owned facility, which cost more than $200 million to construct, has been pushing for the legislation, arguing the bill would allow it to attract more aerospace companies to New Mexico from a highly competitive and secretive industry. And while critics had argued the measure would diminish the public’s oversight of the facility, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said it would not oppose a revised version of the bill put forward by a top Republican lawmaker Wednesday evening. “It’s a very difficult balance,” Rep. Nate Gentry, an Albuquerque Republican, told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday evening, summing up how lawmakers have been torn this session between arguments for transparency and arguments that the facility already has cost the state too much money to pass up any opportunity to attract business. As a public agency, Spaceport America’s own finances will still be audited.
The president pro tem of the New Mexico Senate on Wednesday called for the resignation of the five regents of New Mexico State University, saying they had arbitrarily stripped powers from Chancellor Garrey Carruthers. The regents voted Monday to prohibit Carruthers from hiring and firing people in executive or coaching positions at the main campus in Las Cruces and on NMSU’s branch campuses. This triggered a strong response from Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces. She stated in a letter of complaint to the regents that they had inappropriately and perhaps unlawfully delegated their responsibilities to one person while taking away authority from Carruthers. Papen’s reference was to regents board Chairwoman Debra Hicks, who was empowered by the rest of the board to make interim appointments.
The Legislature’s two chambers are at odds over a proposed $6.3 billion state budget. Unlike recent years when financial problems prompted rounds of cuts, partisan fights and depleted reserves, the disagreements that emerged Tuesday came down to comparatively minor questions about funding roads. The Senate overwhelmingly approved a spending plan on Tuesday that provides bigger pay raises for state police than a version of the budget passed by the House of Representatives. The Senate version of the budget, approved 40-2 by members of that chamber, also provides millions of dollars in additional funding for the district attorney in Albuquerque and returns some of the money cut from school districts last year. But the Senate also scaled back the amount of money the House had approved for roads.
The proposal to expand early childhood education across New Mexico died quietly Tuesday at the state Capitol, scotched because a vote on the initiative will not be taken in the state Senate Finance Committee. Sen. John Arthur Smith, the Democrat from Deming who chairs the committee, said in an interview that he had decided not to give a hearing to the proposed constitutional amendment before the legislative session ends at noon Thursday. “It doesn’t have the votes,” Smith said of the measure, House Joint Resolution 1. Asked if he had polled his 12-member committee, Smith said he expected that at least he and the five Republican members probably would vote down the initiative. That would leave the measure no better than a 6-6 tie, meaning it could not advance to the full 42-member Senate.
In a case of strange political bedfellows, a conservative lawmaker from San Juan County and the leader of a Santa Fe environmental group not known for compromising came together Tuesday to back a bill aimed at easing the economic woes of New Mexico communities hit by the closing of large coal-burning power plants. The House of Representives voted 44-25 to pass Rep. Rod Montoya’s House Bill 325, designed to help a large school district keep most of its tax base if Public Service Company of New Mexico closes the San Juan Generating Station by 2022. To become a reality, the measure would also have to clear the Senate before the Legislature adjourns at noon Thursday. “Are you going to refer to me as an environmentalist activist,” Montoya joked with a reporter Tuesday. Endorsing the bill was Mariel Nanasi, executive director of New Energy Economy, a Santa Fe-based non-profit that has fought many PNM rate increases and other proposals before the state Public Regulation Commission.
New Mexico lawmakers injected a dose of political pressure Monday into an unwavering but so far unsuccessful effort to add opioid use disorder to the list of qualifying conditions for medical cannabis in New Mexico. State Sen. Jeff Steinborn and Rep. Joanne Ferrary, both Democrats from Las Cruces, held a news conference at the Roundhouse to bring attention to companion memorials they are sponsoring, calling on Department of Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher to allow people with opioid dependence to obtain medical marijuana to help them break the chains of their addiction. “It is past time that this secretary do this,” Steinborn said. “People are dying every day in the state of New Mexico from opioid abuse, and medical marijuana has proven to be a safer treatment for any underlying conditions and certainly, hopefully, to step people down from opioid addiction into something safer that won’t kill them.” Twice, the state Medical Cannabis Program’s advisory board has recommended medical marijuana be allowed as a treatment for opioid addiction.
A sinkhole is threatening to swallow part of Carlsbad. In the meantime, it is poised to consume tens of millions of tax dollars. The state House of Representatives voted 70-0 on Monday to send a bill to Gov. Susana Martinez that would take part of the taxes on car sales to pay for the remediation of a brine well that is at risk of collapsing. “This is an absolutely critical bill for averting a disaster in [the] southern part of the state,” said Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad. The 350-foot-wide, 750-foot-long cavern sits beneath two major highways, a railroad, a mobile home park, an irrigation canal and businesses, she said.
A legislative committee on Sunday tabled a bill that could have extended greater legal immunity to law enforcement officers accused of wrongdoing, snubbing a proposal touted by Gov. Susana Martinez amid heightened scrutiny of police misconduct in Albuquerque and beyond. Critics of House Bill 279 pointed to what the Department of Justice has called a pattern of excessive force by officers at the Albuquerque Police Department and the death just last year of a 6-year-old boy in a car crash involving an officer at the agency, contending there is plenty of reason to be wary of legislation that could make law enforcement less accountable. In an interview with The Albuquerque Journal before the legislative session, the governor said lawsuit settlements were being awarded to what she characterized as “crooks and thieves who are hurt or injured by police officers who are doing their job.” But that comment came against the backdrop of ongoing controversy surrounding misconduct at the Albuquerque Police Department, which is in the midst of an ongoing reform process overseen by the federal government. Meanwhile, the city government there has paid millions of dollars over the last several years to settle lawsuits, including $5 million for the family of James Boyd, a homeless man killed by police during a standoff in 2014.
As gunshots rang out in Aztec High School one morning last December, a substitute teacher was left to improvise. She did not have a key to lock the door to her classroom, but ushered her students into a neighboring room and barricaded the door with a couch. The gunman entered the classroom the students had just left and fired several rounds through the wall that stood between them. The bullets did not hit any of the students, and the substitute teacher’s swift thinking was credited with saving lives. The shooting left two students dead elsewhere on campus, and the gunman — who did not attend the school — killed himself.