January 18, 2022

Green amendment once again goes before legislature

(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by J. N. Stuart

Beaver-created marsh on Willow Creek at Pecos River confluence, near Tererro.

Several Democratic state legislators are looking to amend the New Mexico Constitution to guarantee future generations the right to a clean environment. 

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, are the lead sponsors on a joint resolution that nearly two dozen of their colleagues have already voiced support for.

The legislative session starts Tuesday and the joint resolution is among the pieces of legislation filed prior to the start.

This is the second year that they have sponsored a joint resolution seeking to amend the state’s bill of rights to include environmental rights. This is colloquially dubbed the “Green Amendment.”

Because it is a constitutional amendment, voters would have to approve it if it passes the Legislature. 

If approved by voters, the bill of rights section of the state’s constitution would be amended to include the rights of future generations to clean water and air and a stable climate and healthy environments. It would also recognize the environment’s cultural, natural and human health values.

Last year, the joint resolution stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

One difference between this year’s joint resolution and the one introduced last year is that it now states that “monetary damages shall not be awarded for a violation of this section.” Sedillo Lopez told NM Political Report that the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which allows people to seek monetary damages capped at $2 million for violation of the bill of rights, required the legislators to exclude money damages. And, she said, the point of the constitutional amendment is not to have the state pay damages. If it is approved, it would allow permits to be reversed or officials held accountable and forced to comply if the environment is jeopardized by an action.

“The intent of this amendment wasn’t about suing the state for money,” she said. “This is about making the state do the right thing. And protecting the environment.”

Sedillo Lopez said the amendment would allow people to sue the state if agencies failed to fulfill their duties to protect the environment, including clean air and clean water.

Sedillo Lopez pointed to policies put in place under Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration that were reversed under Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration. She said that the Green amendment will make it harder for environmental policies to be reversed when administrations change. It would also allow the court to reverse permits that were issued without proper environmental protections.

New Mexico won’t be the first state to pass such an amendment. Sedillo Lopez highlighted Montana and Pennsylvania as an example of states with Green Amendments.

While some critics are concerned that it will lead to an increase in lawsuits brought to the courts, Sedillo Lopez said there have been about a dozen challenges in Montana and Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, Ferrary, who is leading the effort in the House of Representatives, said that the state is at a pivotal moment.

“We are facing challenges to the quality of our water from threats like PFAS contamination; the quantity of water available for drinking water, ecosystem support, and business operations of all kinds is a growing challenge; wildfires due to a growing climate crisis; air pollution in our urban centers but also around fossil fuel industrial operations; and other threats to our State’s water, air and natural resources essential for the health, safety and economy of our people and communities,” Ferrary said in a statement. “I believe this resolution will help us provide critical, missing and needed protections. Of greatest importance, passage of the proposed amendment through our legislature does not result in an automatic change to the constitution, what it means is that we are entrusting this most important decision to the people of our state – the constitution belongs to them and it is just and right that we are giving New Mexicans the opportunity to decide.”