February 21, 2020

Lujan Grisham hails ‘really productive’ session

New Mexico’s 54th Legislature wrapped up Thursday amid congratulatory hugs and news conferences — a veneer of good cheer that masked a dose of sleep deprivation, early-morning procedural bickering, and finally, sighs of relief as key bills were passed just hours before the final gavel.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Democratic legislators touted the passage of a number of their priority proposals, including the creation of an early childhood trust fund, passing a high-profile firearms bill and shepherding through the state’s $7.6 billion budget for the 2021 fiscal year.

“I think this was a really productive 30-day session,” Lujan Grisham said, surrounded by legislators and cabinet secretaries at a post-session news conference in  the Roundhouse. “We are building something new together. We’re investing for tomorrow and we’re delivering today.”

The governor won passage for the majority of bills she asked legislators to undertake — 80 percent of them, by her own count. Her list of successes also included a measure aimed at shoring up the state’s pension system, a package of crime-related measures, a fund to help seniors and a plan to import cheaper prescription medication from Canada.

“I think we’re in a place we’re all proud of,” House Speaker Brian Egolf told reporters on the floor after the session ended. “The old attitude in New Mexico that we are a poor state, that we can’t have great achievements, that we can’t do great things — those days are over.”

After several days of wrangling, the final budget landed nearly exactly between the executive and legislative branches’ recommended increases of 8.4 and 6.5 percent, respectively, and gave both much of what they asked for. More than $700 million in one-time capital outlay funding also was approved, the majority coming in a $528 million bill largely backed by state severance tax revenue.

“Something that doesn’t get talked about enough in politics these days — compromise,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. “That’s what got us across the line with a responsible budget and that is the result of hours in the trenches to get it done.”

All bills passed by the Legislature still need to be signed by Lujan Grisham in order to become law.

But there were big-ticket items that stalled along the way, most notably Lujan Grisham’s bid to legalize recreational marijuana and an attempt to restructure the  Public Regulation Commission. Other high-profile initiatives were pared back, such as the governor’s Opportunity Scholarship, which was only allocated around half of the $35 million the administration originally asked for.

Lujan Grisham praised the cannabis debate for “building a foundation” and said she expected to push for legalization again in the future.

“New Mexicans and this incredible body should expect us to bring that again,” she said. “I don’t see any of that as a failure.”

Many lower-profile bills also crossed the finish line, including legislation prohibiting workplace discrimination related to pregnancy; raising the age of tobacco use in New Mexico to 21; allowing law enforcement to apprehend traffickers of endangered wildlife; preventing out-of-state residents from obtaining medical marijuana licenses in the state.

Other successful economic- and finance-related bills included an initiative to help McKinley County deal with the closure of the coal-fired Escalante Generating Station near Grants, and another that will transfer money from the state’s enormous Tax Stabilization Reserve fund into its operating reserve.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, House Republicans were largely unhappy with the results of the session, again blasting Democrats for spending too much and criticizing the controversial “extreme risk protection order” gun bill, which would allow law enforcement to take away firearms from people considered dangerous.

“This was a session of different value systems, different priorities and missed opportunities,” Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said in a separate news conference Thursday. “Regular New Mexicans lost out.” 

While the list of approved bills is long — 94 bills and resolutions on the Legislature’s website as of Thursday evening — the road to get there was bumpy.

For one, the budget process was marked by a standoff between the two houses’ respective finance chiefs, though they’re both Democrats. Senate Finance  Committee chairman John Arthur Smith said a week ago he was “annoyed” at a House budget he said lacked financial discipline, while Egolf later countered the Senate conducted its fiscal process in “complete and total secrecy.”

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup and chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, conceded after the session the Senate enacted “good amendments” that made the budget a “better document.” Yet she also said the rhetoric between the two sides was stronger than in the past.

“HAFC will not be the little sister to Senate Finance,” Lundstrom said, referring to her committee. “We’re not subservient to one another.”

The Smith-Lundstrom tension was tame compared to the fireworks between Republicans and Democrats on the floor.

Republicans, minorities in both chambers, employed numerous strategies in a bid to derail the Democratic agenda, from three-hour delays on non-contentious bills in the House to rambling filibusters in the Senate.

The quarreling intensified as the session entered its home stretch, with Egolf claiming the GOP was trying to “gum up the works” and Republicans countering that the Santa Fe Democrat was a “bully.”

Things really came unglued in the final 24 hours, with Legislative Council Service Director Raúl Burciaga being called on multiple times to resolve impasses over procedural disputes.

On Wednesday night, Minority Leader Jim Townsend and Democratic Rep. Daymon Ely got into an argument over whether parliamentary procedure was properly followed.

Around midnight, after the House voted to concur with the Senate’s budget changes, Republican leadership came charging onto the floor, accusing Egolf of calling a vote while knowing “damn well” GOP leaders were in the other room.

“The entire session you have done this. You can’t keep your word for five minutes,” Montoya shouted at Egolf from the floor, referencing an unspecified agreement the two parties made. “We were talking about working this out. Instead this is the route you decide to go.”

Egolf then agreed to hold a new debate and vote on the budget bill so those Republicans could participate. That was held more than an hour later, after the body took up other bills.

The House ended up passing the bill for a second time around 1:15 a.m., after only several minutes of debate. 

Shortly after the budget debacle, senators meeting on the other side of the Roundhouse commented on the “dysfunction” in the House, as Sen. John Sapien put it.

“From time to time, I’ll go over there and just watch the circus,” Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, said.

However, partisan antics would soon ensue on the Senate side Thursday morning, as Sen. William Sharer embarked on a filibuster to prevent the chamber from returning to an elections bill Republicans opposed. When Democrats tried to cut Sharer off as the noon deadline drew closer, Republicans cried foul.

“This will be something that every member of this floor will regret,” Minority Leader Stuart Ingle said. “This Senate will be in a very abysmal place.”

Wirth yielded to the criticism and responded by giving the floor back to Sharer. The elections bill was never brought back.

Egolf said later on Thursday he did the best he could to accommodate Republican members during the budget situation.

“Everyone felt good about that decision so we were all in the room,” Egolf said about the second vote. “It was a budget so nice we concurred on it twice.”