Over objections, New Mexico energy chief confirmed

After his confirmation hearing turned to discussion of climate change and the Four Corners methane hotspot on Wednesday, environmental groups lambasted Mew Mexico’s top oil and gas regulator as echoing politically conservative talking points while one legislator described the conversation as “very troubling.” But despite opposition from conservationists and a small group of Democratic lawmakers, the state Senate voted 32-4 to confirm former oil and gas industry executive Kenley McQueen as secretary of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. While McQueen won praise from some lawmakers as having an expert grasp on the sector he is now in charge of policing, environmental groups have likened his appointment to picking a fox to guard a hen house, prompting some of the harshest opposition that any of Gov. Susana Martinez’s appointees have met so far in the current legislative session. Related: Climate change part of debate over energy head’s confirmation

The secretary’s confirmation hearing on Wednesday only seemed to enflame criticism from liberal senators. “What I heard today was very troubling,” Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said later on the Senate floor.

Martinez vetoes another hemp research bill

Without a word of explanation, Gov. Susana Martinez on Wednesday vetoed a proposed research program intended to clear the way for an industrial hemp industry in New Mexico, a key plank in the economic plan announced by Democrats in the Legislature at the outset of the 2017 session. Republican Martinez’s action could mean the end of the push to start a research program administered by the state Department of Agriculture. “With the stroke of her pen, the governor just killed countless jobs and new economic opportunities in New Mexico,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of the bill, said in written statement. “The hemp industry has been a booming success in at least thirty other states. This common sense job-creating legislation would have been a giant step forward for New Mexico’s farmers and entrepreneurs.”

Senate votes to apply smoking rules to vaping

The state Senate voted 30-10 on Tuesday to restrict the use of e-cigarettes in public places much like other cigarettes, backing a proposal to curb what some public health advocates argue are the dangers of nicotine vapor from products that have gained popularity rapidly in just the last few years. But some senators argued it is premature to treat e-cigarettes like traditional tobacco products, maintaining that too little is known about the health effects of “vaping” to warrant strong restrictions. And language in the bill that could change where patrons of restaurants and bars are already allowed to smoke also raised concerns among some Republicans. Related: Senate panel: Hike cigarette tax to help schools

Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said the measure would help New Mexico keep up with changing consumer preferences. “When we did the Clean Indoor Air Act, there was no such thing as vaping,” McSorley said, arguing it is time to update the state’s main anti-smoking law.

Unclear how much state knows about wholesale medical marijuana sales

In New Mexico, lawmakers have debated acceptable uses of medical marijuana and some have questioned if cannabis producers are allowed to have enough medical cannabis to qualify as an “adequate supply” for patients. While politicians and medical cannabis advocates in Santa Fe argue over appropriate plant numbers, getting actual numbers from the agency that governs the program is difficult—despite the fact that producers are required to use specific software to track all transactions. Despite the plethora of debates and discussion, cannabis transaction data from the state is either unavailable or state employees do not know how to access it. In almost every legislative discussion about New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program, producers and patients sell their respective claims on how much medical cannabis should be available in the state. Depending on what day and who is speaking, the state could be in a shortage that amounts to a crisis or have such a glut of cannabis that producers have to unload product to each other.

Industry comes out in force, committee kills energy surtax for early childhood ed funding

On Tuesday a bill to fund early childhood education programs with two new taxes on energy and electricity producers failed to make it out of committee. During the Senate Conservation Committee meeting, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, sought support for a bill that would create an early childhood education fund paid for by a one-hundredth percent oil and gas energy surtax and a one cent per kilowatt hour tax on electricity produced in New Mexico. The two revenue sources would generate more than $320 million annually, according to the fiscal impact report for Senate Bill 288. Once the meeting was opened for public comments, not one audience member spoke in support of the bill. But more than a dozen lobbyists and representatives of the oil and gas industry and utilities like PNM, El Paso Electric, Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission opposed it.

Farmers, legislators hope legalized hemp could breathe new life into economy

When Mikki Anaya worked as the executive director of the Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for farmers and ranchers, she became acutely aware of what she characterized as a troubling trend in New Mexico. “A lot of families no longer farmed or ranched land that had been in our families for many generations,” Anaya said. “It deeply saddened me to see that transition happening.” Anaya started to study the dynamics of the change and concluded that economics were a root factor. “A lot of it is that people are just leaving our rural communities because there’s no economic opportunity there,” she said.

Panel approves money for jury trials

A state Senate committee Monday night approved $1.6 million in funding for the courts, enough to pay for jury trials through June 30, the end of the fiscal year. Still, it was unclear whether the legislation represented a temporary or a permanent step back from the brink of a breakdown for the judicial system. The committee action was another pull in a political tug-of-war between the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez over funding for the courts. The game is being played out against a backdrop of a state budget crunch across all of government. In recent weeks, Martinez has twice vetoed money to avoid a halt to jury trials and potential dismissal of criminal charges against defendants.

Medical marijuana expansion bill clears Senate

Medical marijuana patients would be able to possess more cannabis and producers would eventually be able to grow more under a bill that cleared the state Senate on Monday by a wide margin. Senators voted 29-11 in favor of Senate Bill 177, sponsored by Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque. If approved by the House of Representatives and signed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, it would change the state’s medical marijuana program to allow patients to have 5 ounces of cannabis, and it would allow producers to increase the number of plants they can grow when the number of patients in the program increases. Cannabis producers can now grow up to 450 plants. The bill comes as the number of patients in the program is exploding.

Medical cannabis bill would let vets enroll without diagnosis

A Senate committee voted Wednesday in favor of a bill that would make changes to New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program, but some lawmakers were troubled by a section that would allow veterans to enroll without being diagnosed with a qualifying medical condition. One state senator who voted in favor of the measure said he might change his vote when the bill reaches the Senate floor. Senate Bill 8 — which would increase the amounts of marijuana patients could possess and producers could grow — would be the first legislative change to the medical marijuana program since it was approved 10 years ago, said Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor. McSorley also carried the original medical marijuana bill that passed the Legislature in 2007. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-3 along party lines to send the bill to the full Senate.

New Mexico Senate once again endorses hemp research

The New Mexico Senate, by a lopsided bipartisan majority, passed a bill Tuesday that would make it legal to cultivate hemp so researchers can study possible industrial uses. The legislation goes now to the House of Representatives, where other industrial hemp bills also are being considered. Senate Bill 6, sponsored by Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, which cleared the Senate 37-2, is identical to a McSorley hemp bill that passed the Legislature two years ago with strong bipartisan support but was vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez. The governor, in her veto message, claimed it could be confusing for law enforcement because the fibrous plant is basically the same plant as marijuana but with a much lower level of the intoxicant THC. McSorley on Tuesday repeated his insistence that “Industrial hemp research begins the process of bringing needed manufacturing and agricultural jobs to our state.”