The months leading up to legislative sessions are often marked by state agencies presenting progress reports to lawmakers. Crime in the Albuquerque area has been a frequent subject to come up when talking about spending. But those conversations are usually devoted to the road ahead and not to picking apart past budgets.
But in a letter sent last month, the state’s speaker of the House and a top financial leader in the House asked the Bernalillo County district attorney for an informal audit of millions of dollars appropriated to his office two years ago. In return, the district attorney offered a private meeting with a legislative panel to go over how money is being spent. The written exchanges hint at further budget scrutiny from lawmakers, and also a potential rift between some House and Senate Democrats.
On October 17, New Mexico Speaker of the House Brian Egolf and House Appropriations Chair and Legislative Finance Co-chair Patricia Lundstrom, both Democrats, co-authored a letter to 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez about an upcoming interim meeting with the Legislative Finance Committee.
A high-profile New Mexico medical cannabis producer still maintains a recent change in the wording of the state’s medical cannabis law means non-residents should be able to become patients. Brian Egolf, an attorney for medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, sent a six-page letter arguing that point to Medical Cannabis Program director Kenny Vigil on Wednesday. Egolf is also New Mexico’s Speaker of the House. In the letter, Egolf outlined five reasons why the state should allow non-residents to become patients in New Mexico’s medical cannabis program, including a straightforward reading of the law, the fact that other state programs include non-residents, that state law prohibits transporting cannabis across state lines and that the Department of Health cannot override state law. A DOH spokesman said the department received the letter late in the day on Wednesday and was still reviewing it at publication time.
The 60-day legislative session ended Saturday with a down-to-the-wire agreement on a sweeping tax bill that will raise rates on e-cigarettes and new vehicles while nearly doubling an income tax credit for some families. The scaled-back version of House Bill 6 approved by the Senate in the last 20 minutes before the final bang of the gavel was a fitting end to a session dominated for better or worse by the state’s financial outlook. Driving the session was a whopping budget surplus and the substantial increases in funding for education that it has financed. An oil boom generated the windfall, but there was fear among several lawmakers about what might befall New Mexico if fickle energy markets take a turn. For Republicans and even some skeptical lawmakers on the other side of the aisle, the tax bill represented a sort of “only in Santa Fe” paradox, with newly elected Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham looking to raise revenues at the same time that the state had a surplus of $1 billion this year.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun-control advocacy group affiliated with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, contributed nearly $400,000 to New Mexico Democrats and Democrat-friendly political action committees in last year’s election. As the 2019 legislative session nears its end — marked by gun-control legislation that has incensed some New Mexicans, especially in rural areas — these big campaign bucks may play into gun-control opponents’ narrative about an out-of-state billionaire riding roughshod over gun owners by throwing money around. On the other side of this divisive issue, the National Rifle Association spent only a fraction of Everytown’s amount. According to the Institute on Money in Politics, the NRA gave slightly more than $21,000 to New Mexico candidates last year. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham a week ago signed Senate Bill 8, which requires background checks for most firearms purchasers.
The New Mexico House of Representatives rejected the Senate’s proposed budget on Wednesday, raising objections related to teacher pay, road funding and the pension plan for public employees. The differences are not insurmountable, leaders in both chambers insisted, but they delayed final action on a whopping $7 billion spending plan. The Senate approved its version earlier in the day with a vote of 39 to 2. But the House voted overwhelmingly against that budget, leaving some questions over how to divvy up appropriations as the state increases spending by 11 percent over the current fiscal year, with big boosts in funding to schools, infrastructure and child services. “This isn’t war or anything,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Democrat from Gallup who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
Stung by the recent passage of legislation that would expand requirements for instant federal background checks on New Mexico firearms purchasers, House Republicans are looking for a way to override the bill. Their solution: Employ an arcane provision in the state constitution that would send the question directly to voters in the next statewide general election, scheduled for 2020. The House of Representatives earlier this week voted almost totally along party lines to approve Senate Bill 8, moving the legislation to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. She has said she will support such gun-control measures. House Republican leaders on Thursday sent a letter to Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, asking her to use the constitutional referendum provision to place the question on the 2020 ballot.
Following a contentious debate, the state House of Representatives late Tuesday voted to approve a bill that would automatically register eligible New Mexicans to vote when they conduct transactions with the Motor Vehicle Division. House Bill 84 includes a provision that allows those citizens to opt out of registering or updating their existing voter registration as they apply for a driver’s license or state identity card. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver spoke in favor of the legislation during a news conference at the Capitol earlier in the day, saying, “When more eligible voters vote, our democracy wins.” She said the bill, if it becomes law, has the potential to increase voter participation by 30 percent, or, according to a fiscal impact report, some 385,000 people. Rep. Debra Sariñana, D-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the proposal “would make it more likely that anyone who wants to cast a vote can.”
On a frigid Tuesday morning, Mariah Peña drove from her home at San Ildefonso Pueblo to go grocery shopping in Santa Fe with her son and little sister. Inside the Market Street supermarket, 7-year-old Damian settled onto his back in Peña’s empty shopping cart, kicking his legs up in the air in front of a case of colorful donuts. “Why should food be taxed?” Peña said. “Just trying to make it as a single mom is hard enough.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wants state legislators to allocate up to $380 million to pay off a backlog of tax credits owed to production companies that shot movies or television shows in New Mexico. Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, said the buildup of unpaid rebates “creates an uncertainty in the minds of producers. The governor prefers to get this done as quickly as possible.” Paying what’s owed would require a one-time appropriation from the general fund, said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who met with the governor on Tuesday. As it stands, New Mexico’s tax incentive program for qualifying movie-makers only allows state government to pay out $50 million of rebates in any given year, regardless of how much was accumulated.
An advocate for one of the plaintiffs in the landmark court case mandating improvements in New Mexico’s public schools said Wednesday that state lawmakers are failing to comply. “The Legislature has dropped the ball on funding needed to move the state toward compliance with the court ruling,” said Preston Sanchez, an attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represents one set of plaintiffs in the case. The Legislative Finance Committee has proposed spending an additional $416 million for public education in the coming year. Of that total, $113 million would be directed toward at-risk students who headlined the lawsuit. “It’s not enough,” Sanchez said.