March 18, 2021

Lawmakers upset at Senate Judiciary bottleneck


New Mexico State Senate.

In the sometimes Byzantine world of the New Mexico Legislature, there might be nothing that rankles a lawmaker more than when their bill lingers in a committee, waiting days or even weeks for a hearing.

Many delays are caused by the sheer number of bills lawmakers consider in a legislative session. More than 900 were introduced in this year’s unprecedented 60-day session, held amid a pandemic that prompted remote proceedings and other precautions.

But some holdups are intentional, two Democratic state lawmakers said in a virtual news conference Wednesday.

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Rep. Patricia Roybal-Caballero, both Albuquerque Democrats, accused Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat, of deliberately obstructing a pair of environmental-protection measures they believe he doesn’t support.

While disputes among lawmakers from the same party are not uncommon in the Legislature, it’s rare for lawmakers to host a media event to air them.

“The chair of judiciary has a lot of power in deciding which bills go forward,” Sedillo Lopez said, speaking at an event with representatives of environmental advocacy groups, including WildEarth Guardians and Food & Water Watch.

“Some chairs are power sharers and some are not,” she added.

Environmental advocates speaking at the news conference said there were at least 100 pieces of legislation awaiting a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee — a critical stop for many measures aiming for a vote on the Senate floor.

Cervantes did not respond to messages seeking comment on the accusations.

Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, a member of the committee, defended its process. She said the committee “prides itself on getting bills right — it’s often the last stop.”

A logjam in the committee is “typical” at this point in the session, she said, with little time to get a measure to the finish line.

The session ends at noon Saturday, heightening the sense of urgency at the state Capitol.

Noting there were some 20 bills scheduled for the committee’s Wednesday evening hearing, which was expected to go late into the night, Stewart said it’s difficult to “do a good job vetting them in five or six hours. I don’t know if that’s even enough time.”

A pair of bills that would legalize recreational cannabis for adults — a high-profile issue for this year’s session — were lingering at the bottom of the agenda.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, another member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, agreed the bottleneck is usual at the session’s end. “It’s the legislative process,” he said.

“And just because you introduced legislation doesn’t mean it’s good legislation,” he added.

Asked if he thought Cervantes was deliberately delaying legislation, Moores said, “No, he’s not holding up bills.”

At stake, Sedillo Lopez and the environmental groups said, are Senate Bill 149, which would impose a yearslong ban on new fracking operations, and Senate Joint Resolution 3, which would let voters decide on a change to the state constitution giving residents the right to clean air and water and a healthy environment. Sedillo Lopez is a co-sponsor of both of bills.

Roybal-Caballero, another co-sponsor of SB 149, said committee chairpersons control agendas. If a bill doesn’t fit within a chairperson’s vision, she said, “then somehow … it isn’t given a priority on the agenda-setting process.”

Some environmental group leaders noted Cervantes receives campaign support from the New Mexico oil and gas industry.

A 2020 Common Cause report said oil and gas businesses gave $12,250 to Cervantes’ 2018 gubernatorial campaign and $5,450 to his 2020 campaign for state Senate.

Margaret Wadsworth, a Food & Water Watch organizer, said, “There is no doubt this is influencing his scheduling bills in the committee.”

The same report said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Lt. Gov. Howie Morales received close to $240,000 in oil and gas donations in that period.

Sedillo Lopez said her efforts to find out why the environmental bills have not had a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee have led nowhere.

“You get little response or a very unsatisfactory response,” she said.

“There’s a lot of ‘pass the buck,’ ” she added, “and that’s unsatisfactory, too. … People say, ‘Go to the chair, talk to the chair. You have to have consensus. We prioritize bills based on whether they’re ready. We prioritize bills on whether they are divisive.’ ”

Stewart said people call her every week to ask for help moving their bills through the process more quickly. She said she always tells them to call the committee chairperson.

“There are way too many bills,” Sedillo Lopez said. “… They created an environment in which they had to prioritize bills.”

During Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, the committee members took about 75 minutes to debate and vote on the first bill. The committee then went through three or four House bills in quick succession, quickly voting to move them on without much debate.

Cervantes, no doubt aware of the criticism, said to the House members — virtually, of course — “Whatever you’ve heard about this committee, it’s just not true. We’re very efficient!