New Mexico voters will be able to register to vote or change their information on Election Day now thatGov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a same-day registration bill into law Wednesday. In a statement after signing SB 672, the governor called the law “a victory for democracy.”
New Mexico is the 18th state (plus the District of Columbia) to allow same-day voter registration. The law will not go into effect until 2021, so it will not be in place for next year’s presidential election. And the law will not allow voters to change their party affiliation during a primary election. To change their registration at the polls, voters will be required to show identification.
New Mexicans voted in a landslide for an ethics commission to police those in state government. But a Senate committee can’t seem to agree on how it should work. The Senate Rules Committee deadlocked Monday in a round of votes on two different bills that would set up the commission. The logjam comes amid questions about how much the public should know about the panel’s work and how much authority it should have to subpoena documents or witnesses. This disagreement is not a surprise given that lawmakers have been left to decide how to police themselves.
In politics, misdeeds do not often play out in words or sweeping actions but are instead buried in papers and spreadsheets. So, a constitutional amendment that New Mexico voters overwhelmingly approved last year to set up a statewide ethics commission allowed the proposed panel to collect documents, gather testimony and get other evidence during investigations by issuing subpoenas. But as lawmakers debate how exactly this commission should operate, many disagree over whether the panel should have the power to issue subpoenas on its own or if it should have to get the approval of a state court. The debate over subpoena power has emerged as a central point of contention and goes to show how many details of the commission’s structure and power were left for legislators to decide. The constitutional amendment “authorizes the commission to require the attendance of witnesses or the production of records or other relevant evidence by subpoena, as provided by law.”
Several Democrats joined with Republicans on a state Senate committee Monday to block a proposed constitutional amendment on early childhood education funding, snubbing a priority for members of their party in the New Mexico House and posing a challenge to the agenda of newly elected Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The Senate Rules Committee tabled a resolution that would have asked voters to decide whether the state should take an additional 1 percent of the nearly $18 billion land grant permanent fund each year to expand services to the youngest New Mexicans. Backed by a coalition that includes liberal advocacy groups and the Catholic Church, the measure has foundered for years in the face of opposition from budget hawks among Senate Democrats who contend the proposal would undercut the growth of an endowment that is key to the state’s school system. But Lujan Grisham urged lawmakers in her State of the State Address this year to consider taking a “responsible pinch” — a “poquito” — of the fund to pay for more early childhood education programs.
Within hours of the Rules Committee’s vote on Monday, the Democratic governor offered up an alternative to the tabled bill, proposing to take half as much money and designate it specifically for pre-Kindergarten, with a separate provision she argued should assuage the concerns of fiscal conservatives concerned about depleting the fund. If Lujan Grisham can win support for that idea, she will have pulled off a victory that has eluded Democratic leaders in the House.
Election season might seem like the perfect time for a government ethics watchdog to be on high alert. But in setting up a new statewide ethics commission, lawmakers are proposing to curtail its work during the height of election years — or even for the entirety of the campaign season. Some legislators contend the commission needs a sort of blackout period to avoid political adversaries from filing complaints solely for the purpose of derailing a candidate’s campaign. Advocates have been hesitant to give too much ground on the issue, though, for fear of defanging the proposed panel. Three out of four New Mexico voters in the last election backed a constitutional amendment creating a statewide ethics commission.
A state senator has proposed to keep much of the New Mexico ethics commission’s work secret and potentially impose thousands of dollars in fines and even jail time on anyone who breaks its confidentiality rules. Seventy-five percent of voters in last year’s election approved the creation of a state ethics commission, and legislators are now debating exactly how it should work, including how much the public should know about the cases it handles. Legislation filed this week by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, would set up the commission to ensure that ethics complaints remain secret unless it decides there has been a violation of law or the accused signs waives confidentiality. Under her Senate Bill 619, the form for filing an ethics complaint would include a confidentiality agreement. And anyone who discloses confidential complaints or investigations could face fines as high as $10,000 and up to a year in jail.
Growing up surrounded by a mother and sisters who were teachers, Karen Trujillo decided to rebel. “No,” she said to herself as a child, rejecting the idea she should become an educator. “I don’t want to do that. I want to do something else.” But the call of the classroom was too strong for her to resist, she said, and when she was about 12 she had what she called an epiphany.
For a window into how legislation is made, few moments were more educational than a sparsely attended meeting Tuesday afternoon in a cavernous, mostly empty room on the University of New Mexico campus. On the surface, the meeting was congenial as two state lawmakers, legislative staff, attorneys and representatives of civic organizations hammered out the beginnings of draft legislation that would fill out the details of the state’s first independent ethics commission if voters give the go ahead in November. But beneath the amicable discussions there was a rematch of sorts, perhaps noticeable only to those aware of the contentious history surrounding the idea of an independent ethics commission. For almost 15 years, lawmakers offended by the notion that they needed anyone to watch over them squared off against other legislators who touted independent oversight as a way to restore public trust in government. Legislative opposition knew no political party, with both Democrats and Republicans chafing at the idea of an independent oversight body.
An interim committee hearing included harsh criticisms and personal stories of detention at private facilities which have contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee held a hearing Monday afternoon concerning two privately-operated prisons in New Mexico that detain immigrants. These include Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, which is run by CoreCivic, and the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, which is run by Management and Training Corporation. Legislators heard from an immigration attorney, advocates for immigrants and some in the country without authorization. The committee invited Ronald D. Vitello, the acting director of ICE, but he did not attend or even acknowledge the invitation.
A senior Democratic lawmaker says Christopher Ruszkowski, secretary-designate of the state Public Education Department, has not consented to a background check, preventing the Senate from holding his confirmation hearing. “We require all teachers and administrators and others in the [education] field who deal with children in our public schools to be cleared, and we are still unable to do that with Mr. Ruszkowski,” Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said Monday in a statement. “He is operating as Cabinet secretary without authority to do so.” Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, appointed Ruszkowski last summer. But Lopez said the Martinez administration did not send formal notice to the Senate, which the state constitution requires within 30 days of appointment.