ByAndrew Oxford and Steve Terrell, Santa Fe New Mexican |
There were no threats of a government shutdown this time. Instead, a sort of political peace reigned as the 30-day legislative session ended Thursday with a $6.3 billion budget headed to the governor’s desk along with a bipartisan slate of crime legislation and pay raises for teachers and state police. The bombast and sense of crisis that marked the 2017 session seemed to evaporate as Gov. Susana Martinez sought to strike a conciliatory tone on her way out of office. But gone, too, were any major initiatives or innovative policy changes. With Martinez nearing the end of her term and the state’s financial outlook brightening but not totally sunny, the session ended anticlimactically, with lawmakers eager to avoid another partisan showdown as they also wait to see what direction the state’s economy — and the governor’s yet-to-be-elected successor — might take.
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 rift over how to stem New Mexico’s rising crime rates burst into the open Thursday, with Democrats blocking a proposal to expand the state’s three-strikes law. The bill would have allowed prosecutors to seek life sentences for criminals convicted of three violent felonies. Republicans argue this would keep repeat offenders off the streets. Democrats and advocates for criminal justice reform contend the policy would do little to prevent crime but would raise the cost of the state prison system. New Mexico already has a three-strikes law that covers a short list of violent crimes, such as first- and second-degree murder, kidnapping resulting in great bodily harm and armed robbery resulting in great bodily harm.
Oil and gas industry revenues pay a huge share of the money that goes into the state budget. And lobbyists for big oil companies pay a huge amount of campaign contributions to New Mexico politicians. An analysis of lobbyist expense reports filed in recent days with the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office shows oil companies dominate the list of the largest donors to campaigns and political committees since last October. By far the biggest contributor among lobbyists in the new batch of reports was the Austin, Texas-based Stephen Perry, Chevron USA’s state government affairs manager for Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Perry listed $183,250 in contributions.
Gov. Susana Martinez signaled Tuesday she is not going quietly into her last year in office, opening a 30-day session of the Legislature with a State of the State address that touted issues she has pushed throughout her administration and steeling herself for one last showdown with Democratic lawmakers. The two-term Republican governor called for comprehensive tax reform but did not offer any specifics on what that might involve, urged tougher criminal sentences and raised many of the same education and economic policies she has regularly mentioned in her annual address. With the state’s finances improving, offering a reprieve from another round of budget cuts, many Democrats and Republicans alike had come to expect this monthlong session would not be marked by any particularly ambitious initiatives or changes in policy as Martinez prepares to leave office. Instead, many seemed ready to approve a balanced budget and take steps to try to stem the state’s rising crime rates. Indeed, the governor did not offer any big new ideas.
Legislative leadership in both chambers and of both parties announced a bipartisan group of legislators will address the state’s sexual harassment policy. The sexual harassment policy was last revised in 2008, which was also the last time legislators underwent sexual harassment training. The group of legislators will work with the Legislative Council Service as well as outside attorneys to review the existing policy and recommend an updated draft policy to the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council, which is made up of members of each chamber, will then vote on adoption of the new policy in January. Leadership announced that the working group will look at applying the policy to staff, contractors, lobbyists and outside vendors in addition to legislators as well as “clearly outlining terms of enforcement” and outlining protections for those reporting sexual harassment from any retaliation.
Both the House and Senate recessed Thursday afternoon—without officially ending the special session. Now, the governor has three days to take action on four bills aimed at tax changes and reinstating funding to the Legislative branch and institutes of higher education. By recessing until Tuesday instead of adjourning, the House and Senate could still introduce new legislation to replace anything Gov. Susana Martinez might veto. Martinez, in an atypical statement, praised the Legislature for some of their work. “In a bipartisan manner, lawmakers passed my plan to put more funding toward cancer research and student financial aid, while at the same time forfeiting their pork projects and a small portion of their personal legislative retirement accounts to fill the budget hole — something I’ve urged them to do for months,” she said.
The state House of Representatives on Tuesday passed yet another bill that would legalize research on industrial hemp. The House voted 65-1 to pass House Bill 530, sponsored by Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque. The bill, which now goes to the Senate, comes on the heels of Gov. Susana Martinez vetoing not one but two industrial hemp bills. She offered no explanation in either of her veto messages. Gentry told The New Mexican earlier this week that following the latest veto, he sat down with the governor’s staff — namely Deputy Chief of Staff Jeremiah Ritchie — to “work out some minor details that brought us more in compliance with federal law.”
A legislative committee on Monday effectively killed a bill to expand background checks for gun purchases — an issue that drew large crowds to the Capitol as well as big campaign contributions and intense lobbying and advertising. The House Judiciary Committee voted 7-6 to table House Bill 548 after a lengthy hearing. It marked the defeat of the most recent gun-control bill sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos. Democrat Eliseo Alcon of Milan joined the six Republicans on the panel to stop the measure, which would have required background checks on all sales of firearms at gun shows and from advertisements on the internet or print publications. Garcia Richard said other states that have approved similar bills have seen fewer violent crimes and suicides involving guns.
Two days after Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a bill that would have established a research program for industrial hemp, the proposal is back — this time put forth by a high-ranking member of her own party. House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, is sponsoring the revived hemp measure, House Bill 530. He took a blank bill that had been introduced earlier, then added the latest hemp initiative to it. Gentry’s bill for industrial hemp research on Monday cleared the House Labor and Economic Development Committee on a bipartisan 8-0 vote. Gentry said he sat down with the governor’s administration before introducing the bill to “work out some minor details that brought us more in compliance with federal law.”