January 20, 2023

Modernizing the Legislature to be discussed during this year’s session

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In some ways, the New Mexico Legislature operates the same way it did at statehood more than a century ago. The legislative session itself is the shortest in the nation and New Mexican legislators are the only ones not paid for the job of to producing, debating and approving legislation.

One of the organizations behind the movement to update the legislative session for modern times is Common Cause, which hopes to have a state constitutional amendment placed on the ballot that would extend the session and add a five day recess after 30 days that would not count against the session’s active days.

Common Cause New Mexico Executive Director Mario Jimenez, III spoke to New Mexico Political Report about this and other issues the organization is pursuing.

“We often see legislation that is hastily run, and we often have to come back and fix those in future legislation because of a few things that the legislature may have missed over some conflicts within other sections of law or sections of the Constitution,” Jimenez said. “And, so we want to make sure that our legislators have the time that is needed to properly vet legislation and get the input from the experts.”

Rep. Natalie Figueroa of Bernalillo County and Rep. Linda Serrato of Santa Fe, both Democrats, prefiled House Joint Resolution 2 earlier this week. It addresses making the odd-numbered year legislative session 60 days. Currently, those sessions last just 30 days. .

The resolution would also have unheard legislation carried over to the next regular legislative session.

“The days of the recess pursuant to this subsection shall be excluded in computing the number of days of a regular session. Members of the legislature shall receive per diem for days in which the legislature is in recess,” the resolution states.

The resolution proposes the state constitutional amendment referenced by Jimenez.

Another of Common Cause’s legislative priorities is to allow full-time year-round staff for legislators and add salaries for the legislators.

New Mexico is the last state not to pay its legislators.

“We currently only provide them with a stipend in order to come up and participate in the legislative process,” Jimenez said. “And by providing them with a paid legislature we can hold true to what the creation of our state originally intended, and that was to have a citizens-led legislature.”

Having an unpaid legislature “may have worked over 100 years ago during the creation of our state when we were horse-and-buggy but in our modern day, we need to have a paid legislature because right now really the only people who can afford to legislate and participate in the legislative process are often individuals who are retired or independently wealthy,” Jimenez said. 

As to the full-time staff question, legislators largely handle their own correspondence which may have been sufficient 100 years ago before the proliferation of internet communication; however, legislators receive thousands of correspondences across several different platforms including email, social media, calls, texts and snail mail, Jimenez said.

“It’s just impossible for them to weed through each and every single one and get back to their constituents,” Jimenez said.” At the heart of our legislature, at the heart of our government is constituent services and if we do not provide our legislature with the appropriate tools necessary to provide the public those constituent services, we’re not getting a full breadth of the needs of our communities.”

Campaign finance updates

The Campaign Reporting Act relating to campaign finances may be updated to prevent candidates from loaning themselves money without a paper trail and disclosing funding from independent sources.

Democratic State Sen. Katy Duhigg of Albuquerque pre-filed a bill that would update the Campaign Reporting Act.

“Since the CRA was overhauled in 2019 to require more disclosures of independent expenditures, the State Ethics Commission, the Office of the Secretary of State, good government groups, and candidates participating in elections have witnessed dark money groups taking advantage of gaps in the CRA’s requirements to avoid disclosure of the fundings sources that back independent expenditures. This bill closes those gaps,” Duhigg told NM Political Report via email. 

For the loan issue, Duhigg cites the U.S. Supreme Court case Federal Election Commission v. Ted Cruz for Senate as a catalyst for reviewing New Mexico’s laws about loans candidates make to their own campaigns.

“Upon review, there are hardly any guardrails,” Duhigg said. “To prevent candidates from either reporting false loans or making loans at interest and then using campaign contributions to pay themselves, the bill puts in some sound anticorruption guardrails. 

“These rules prevent both opportunities for quid pro quo corruption and the appearance of quid pro quo corruption by preventing persons from making campaign contributions that a candidate could use to pay interest on a loan they made to their own campaign (effectively paying themselves). By prohibiting charging interest on loans that candidates make to their campaigns, the bill follows the examples set by California and Nebraska,” Duhigg continued.

Jimenez agreed that there are no document requirements for loans given to campaigns.

Polling place safety 

Poll worker, election official and candidate harassment and intimidation are further issues expected to be addressed at the session.

Election official harassment has increased since the 2020 General Election when then-President Donald Trump lost re-election to now-President Joe Biden. False claims that Trump won the election led to the  Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection and allegations that the elections were tainted. Courts across the country ruled those allegations were false.

“For example, election officials across the country have reported receiving threatening phone calls and emails, internet trolling, and doxxing,” Duhigg said. “Multiple congressional hearings on the subject of threats to election officials were conducted last year, including one which featured Secretary Maggie Toulouse Oliver in which she recounted being doxxed and having to leave her home during the 2020 election. These threats are real and such threats can undermine our democracy by intimidating the professionals and poll workers we rely upon to run our elections.”

Doxxing is when a person’s private or identifying information is published on the internet, usually with malicious intent.

In the last couple of months, six elected officials’ homes or offices were fired upon. The shootings are being investigated and there is a person of interest in custody. The only link among the victims is they are all Democrats.

More: Another potential shooting at home of another ABQ Democrat

“We are going to work a little harder this year in ensuring that we can get the piece of legislation that was championed by Senator Duhigg,” Jimenez said. “That can go ahead and tighten up and provide additional penalties for those who threaten or attempt to harm or intimidate our elected officials, our poll workers and those who are serving the public in conducting elections. We need to make sure that those who are entrusted with upholding the Constitution and upholding our democracy are protected and can continue to serve the public in their capacity to make meaningful change for our communities.”

 Another election change is a bill that would prohibit firearms at polling locations.

“There’s no reason for an individual to have to carry a firearm with him to go vote,” Jimenez said. “There’s no reason for an individual to have a firearm standing near a polling location. And we need to ensure that that does not happen and then individuals are going to be presenting themselves in a threatening manner and showing up to a polling location with firearms.”

Redistricting

Redistricting happens every decade following the federal Census. 

This time, New Mexico had a Citizens Redistricting Committee, or CRC, which was only in place as an advisory committee and had no authority to create a map or use public input the committee gathered during the redistricting process, Jimenez said.

“Our citizens redistricting committee, you can take all the public input, create a map for redistricting and our legislature can simply disregard that and draft their own legislative boundaries,” Jimenez said. “We want to make sure that our legislators who were elected by the people… are listening to New Mexicans… And so we would like to put the power in the hands of our Citizens Redistricting Committee to ensure that the public’s input is not only heard, but it is moved forward without any kind of legislative changes to those boundaries.”

One of the issues Jimenez had with the CRC was there were no people of color in the committee nor were they any Native Americans or any representation south of Belen.

More: No decision yet after NM Supreme Court hears redistricting case oral arguments

The most recent debating point with redistricting is alleged gerrymandering concerning the state’s 2nd Congressional District  The Republican Party of New Mexico and others filed the suit. The New Mexico Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Jan. 9 wherein the Court did not issue a decision.

The 2nd Congressional District encompasses the southern part of New Mexico which tends to vote conservative, with the new redistricting, which is based on population, the district was expanded to include part of Bernalillo County which tends to vote liberal.

The Court chose to recess to deliberate on the issue prior to making a decision.

The NM Political Report reached out to the Republican Party of New Mexico for comment, but they deferred all legislative questions to Republican legislators.

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