March 16, 2019

What lawmakers did, didn’t do

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

Here’s a capsule view of what happened during the state Legislature’s 60-day session that ended Saturday.

Not so high: No, New Mexico isn’t legalizing recreational cannabis this year. But Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told reporters she will put it on the agenda next year.

“We’re going to make that a priority,” she said.

While the possibility of legalization captured attention this session, lawmakers drastically reduced the penalties for possessing the drug.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, sponsored the measure to decriminalize marijuana. Senate Bill 323 would not allow for the sale of the drug. But people caught with less than half an ounce would be fined instead of charged with a crime. That means fewer people will end up trailed for years by a criminal record for possessing a drug that will probably be legal soon enough.

Health care: With a federal government bent on repealing or at least substantially overhauling the Affordable Care Act, Democrats focused on shoring up provisions of the law in state statute. They passed a law that would protect coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, for example, even if what has become known as Obamacare is repealed.

Democrats in the Senate joined with Republicans to defeat legislation to strike down an old law that made it a crime to perform an abortion.

Prisons: It has taken years, but a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushed through legislation that would restrict the use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails for minors, pregnant women and people with severe mental illnesses. Now, all eyes will be on the yet-to-be-named corrections secretary to implement the policy at the state level.

Gun laws: Lujan Grisham has already signed Senate Bill 8, which requires background checks for virtually all firearm sales in New Mexico. The bill has been a priority for gun-control advocates. They say the measure closes a loophole in state law and will help keep weapons out of the hands of people barred from owning firearms.

The governor has said she plans to sign Senate Bill 328. It would prohibit people subject to a protection order in a domestic abuse case from possessing a firearm.

Film industry: Lujan Grisham wanted to remove the annual $50 million limit on rebates to companies that make movies or television series in the state. She got her way.

Legislators approved Senate Bill 2 to increase the cap from $50 million to $110 million. The measure also appropriates $225 million to pay off a backlog of rebates owed to moviemakers.

And the bill seeks to expand the film industry across the state. It offers another 5 percent in rebates for productions that shoot in rural areas.

Education: The Legislature allocated an additional $450 million for public schools. This included $113 million targeted specifically at the state’s “at risk” students. Teachers got 6 percent raises.

An attempt to place a moratorium on charter school growth failed.

Lawmakers approved a bill to drop the state’s A-F system of grading schools, which a group of Los Alamos scientists once said they couldn’t make sense of. 

Lobbying reforms fall apart: Three years after creating a big loophole in the state’s lobbying laws, legislators finally closed it. Previously, lobbyists did not have to report expenses under $100.

Senate Bill 191 requires lobbyists to report the aggregate of such spending, at least offering some sort insight into who is wielding big influence around the Capitol.

But that is where lobbying reform really ended this year. Senate Republicans voted down a bill in committee that would have required lobbyists to disclose which bills they are working on and would have banned lobbyists from spending on legislators during the session.

Filibuster: Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, had the longest filibuster of the session. He talked for 3½ hours in hopes of stopping a bill to shut down the coal-burning San Juan Generating Station.

Sharer failed. A casualty of his speech was the annual charity basketball game between the Senate and the House of Representatives to raise money for cancer research.

No change: Time marched on. Old bills to adjust our clocks didn’t.

One bill would have placed New Mexico on permanent daylight saving time. The other called for permanent Mountain Standard Time.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth: The Senate has often been at odds with the state’s governors. So, Wirth, D-Santa Fe, was a good foil to former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. He’s inoffensive and calm, the opposite in public of previous, hard-driving Senate leaders.

But now there’s a new governor and the Senate Democrats have fought with her plenty, too. Some may pine for more discipline in the Democratic caucus. But there aren’t many other people in the caucus who could do what Wirth does in navigating the egos of the chamber. Now, the question is whether he can prevent his caucus from turning into a free-for-all.

Sen. Cliff Pirtle: A 34-year-old Republican from Roswell, Pirtle showed a libertarian streak. He pushed to legalize cannabis. He argued against what he called too many government regulations and unwarranted tax increases.

He also was an eager debater on the Senate floor. In turn, he seems positioned to take on a bigger role in a party now trying to find its way in New Mexico.

Rep. Liz Thomson: If there’s a case to be made that life experience can count for a lot more than political experience, look no further than this Albuquerque Democrat. Thomson is a breast cancer survivor. She has a son with autism. And wherever there seemed to be a debate this session about health care, women’s rights or the rights of people with disabilities, she was in the middle of it. Whether you agree with her or hate every bill she’s ever sponsored, Thomson put the citizen in citizen legislature, starting some debates where life experience matters more than just talking points.

Rep. Bill Pratt: This retired physician didn’t expect to get elected to the New Mexico Legislature. A Democrat from Albuquerque, he ran in a district that had been represented by the same Republican for years.

Then Rep. Larry Larranaga stepped down and later died. Republicans nominated another candidate, but Pratt won amid a blue wave . He used his opportunity to try to change how government works. He pushed to make it easier for independents to run office. And proposed to cap the costs that government agencies can charge for public records. He may not have won those fights. But at least he brought a long-shot’s perspective to a place run by insiders.

Elections: This was not the year for independents. Legislation that would have allowed independent voters to cast ballots in primary elections perished in a committee. Dead, too, is a bill that would have made it easier for independent candidates to run for office.

Lawmakers did take steps toward making it easier to register to vote. Senate Bill 672, sponsored by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, would allow voters to register during early voting. Current law cuts off registration at 28 days before an election.

Growth of government: The Legislature added a new division for outdoor recreation and a Cabinet department for early childhood education. That makes 23 Cabinet posts appointed by the governor.

In a surprise, Senate Republicans barely bothered to debate the bill creating the latest Cabinet department. And only one Republican and one Democrat voted against forming the agency.

Comeback trail: Critics drove Sen. Michael Padilla from the lieutenant governor’s race. Then colleagues stripped him of his title as Senate majority whip.

The setbacks occurred when a years-old scandal involving Padilla received fresh publicity. Two lawsuits by female city employees in Albuquerque alleged that he sexually harassed subordinates and created a hostile work environment. The city lost one suit and settled the other.

Padilla, D-Albuquerque, soldiered on, championing the bill for the new department of early childhood education. He might go no higher in politics, but he was unfailingly prompt, polite and professional in his legislative work.

Code Talkers: Every legislator admires Sen. John Pinto, a 94-year-old veteran of World War II. This year, Pinto’s fellow senators added money to their admiration.

They collectively donated more than $500,000 of their allocation for public works projects to Pinto’s initiative — creation of a museum honoring the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham contributed another $500,000 from her budget so the project can move forward.

But beyond the brick-and-mortar project, the Senate wanted to honor Pinto, D-Gallup, for a lifetime of service.

He became a code talker in 1943, stationed in the South Pacific. Now Pinto is the senior member of the Senate. He has been in office since 1977.

Leadership styles

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, ran his chamber with a clear vision, a firm hand and a sense of humor that often became infectious among lawmakers in the chamber. He limited debate on memorials, which have no force of law. He regularly called evening floor sessions to keep legislation moving, though bills still piled up.

Republicans carped about fast-moving procedures and bills that were not vetted properly. They hold only 24 of 70 seats in the House of Representatives and were outgunned when it came to the final vote on most issues. 

National popular vote: New Mexico legislators voted to join the national compact whose goal is to elect the president by popular vote.

For the electoral college to be junked, states with a collective total of 270 electoral votes would have to join the movement. New Mexico has five electoral votes.

Democrats supported the change, saying the person with the most votes should be president. Both Donald Trump and George W. Bush won the presidency without getting the most popular votes. Republicans in the Legislature said the electoral college works just fine.

End of life act: Rep. Deborah Armstrong withdrew a measure to allow people who are terminally ill but mentally competent to request drugs to take their own lives. Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, said she didn’t have enough votes to move it forward.

Nine-year streak: Yet another attempt to draw more money from the state’s $18 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund failed. House Joint Resolution 1 would have tapped the endowment to expand early childhood education.

Similar proposals have failed for nine consecutive years. Proponents of early childhood education say they will try again next year.

Talking the Talk

Not everything was deep, droning or dramatic. Here’s what some legislators and Cabinet members — and oh, yes, the governor — said during lighter moments of the session.

“It’s like a clown car where all these people get out.” — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, joking about the long line of people who followed her as she introduced her public education secretary, Karen Trujillo, four deputy secretaries and a special adviser to the department.

“I’m a veteran of World War II. I served in the South Pacific. That’s where I lost my hearing when they started shooting at me.” — Sen. John Pinto, 94, who was a Navajo Code Talker, during the Senate’s observance honoring military veterans.

“Representative, I really like you. I really do not like this bill.” — Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, to Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, about his proposal to prohibit people under 18 from using indoor tanning salons.

“I’ve been a used-car salesman, a politician and a lawyer. I’m rounding out the bottom end.” — Sen. Gregory Baca, R-Belen, during debate on a bill about continuing education requirements for car dealers.

“One less hour? Good. That’s one less hour of debate.” — A House of Representatives staffer, upon learning that New Mexicans had to turn their clocks ahead an hour overnight.

“This is a liberal-free zone. Know the boundaries.” — A handwritten sign on Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell’s desk on the floor of the House of Representatives. Ezzell, R-Roswell, has voiced opposition to a number of Democrat-led initiatives, including some that she says violate the Second Amendment.

“It’s a lonely life if you can’t read.” — Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, talking to members of the House Education Committee about the plight of New Mexico adults who are illiterate.

“Some folks have asked me how I’d do in front of the Senate. The good thing is they know me. The bad thing is they know me.” — Former state Rep. Bill McCamley, who was confirmed Monday by the Senate as Cabinet secretary of the Workforce Solutions Department. He had nothing to fear. The vote was in his favor 35-0.

Correction: This story originally said some Democrats in the Senate joined with Republicans to strike down an old law that made it a crime to perform an abortion. Some Senate Democrats joined with Republicans to defeat legislation to repeal the law.