January 30, 2023

Legislative roundup: Jan. 31, 2023


New Mexico State Senate.

Days remaining in session: 46

Committee considers San Juan cleanup: A bill to require state oversight of the cleanup of the San Juan Generating Station got its first hearing Saturday morning.

Sponsored by Rep. Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland, House Bill 142 would put the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and the Environment Department in charge of overseeing the remediation and restoration of the shuttered coal plant.

“If we fail to act, very serious injury to the health, land and water is foreseeable. … We failed our communities with the legacy pollution from the uranium mines. Let’s not make the same mistake again,” Allison told the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

Several people who live near the old plant on the Navajo Nation and advocates for environmental groups testified in favor of the bill, saying Public Service Company of New Mexico cannot be trusted to clean up its own mess and that coal ash from the plant could leach into the local water supply. 

“This bill is such an opportunity for our state to do the right thing and to be a really good steward for the people who … have lived near this plant and near this coal mine,” said Gail Evans, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The committee didn’t vote on the bill Saturday. Chairman Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, said there are legal problems with some of the language and some state agencies have concerns about how it would be implemented. He told Allison to work with them to address those questions.

Committee OKs injection control: The House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Saturday voted 6-4 to advance House Bill 174, which would add a section to the Water Quality Act creating a state-run underground injection control program with total appropriations of $2.4 million.

Four of the six Democrats present opposed it; two joined Republicans to get the bill through its initial hearing.

Representatives of several conservation groups testified against it, arguing the public’s money would be better spent on renewable technologies and other efforts to tackle climate change without encouraging more oil and coal extraction.

Time to diversify: A new report says New Mexico’s reliance on the oil and gas industry to raise revenue could be on shaky ground.

Ryan McNeeley, director of management and budgeting with PFM Group Consulting, which conducted the study, said Monday the oil and gas industry could peak within a decade and never reach the same heights again.

Despite current rosy forecasts for oil and gas — which makes up over a third of New Mexico’s revenue, according to McNeeley — “a decline in revenue could begin sooner than folks expect.”

If revenues dip quickly, it would give state leaders very little chance to respond, he said.

A series of events, including increases in oil and gas demand around the world and a rebound of the industry following the COVID-19 pandemic, have led the state to enjoy a windfall of more than $3 billion in so-called new money this year.

McNeeley cautioned this is not the time to add spending. Rather, he said the state needs to do a deep dive into its tax policies.

The report said New Mexico should consider reforming its personal income tax structure, increase its motor fuel tax rate and reestablish an estate tax, among other initiatives.

Free eats for kids: Members of the Senate Education Committee voted unanimously Monday to approve a measure appropriating $30 million to provide free school breakfast and lunch for each child enrolled in New Mexico’s public schools.

Senate Bill 4 also encourages school nutrition departments to use locally produced and healthy food products for school lunches. The bill, which next goes to the Senate Finance Committee, gives school districts two years to implement the program. 

Currently, about 70 percent of public school students in the state benefit from the federal free and reduced cost lunch program, according to a state Public Education Department spokeswoman.

Many other students pay for daily breakfast and lunch meals.

Mapping out the maps: While a Republican challenge to new congressional district maps is pending in state courts, two House lawmakers are pushing to remove the Legislature from the 10-year redistricting process.

House Joint Resolution 1, sponsored by Reps. Natalie Figueroa, D-Albuquerque, and Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, would create a nine-member Independent Redistricting Commission with total authority to redraw congressional, legislative and Public Education Commission districts without lawmakers’ say.

Figueroa told members of the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee on Monday her resolution would not take politics out of the process but would stop the practice of lawmakers drawing their own district lines.

If the Legislature approves the measure, state voters would decide the issue in the next general election.

Committee members voted 5-2 to support the initiative. Rep. Martin Zamora, R-Clovis — who voted against the measure — told Figueroa her resolution would be perfect if it charged the commission with making the maps and then sent the maps to the public to make the final decision.

Pretrial detention reform: Second Judicial District Attorney Sam Bregman and Public Safety Deputy Secretary Benjamin Baker testified Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of the governor’s proposal to reform the state’s pretrial detention system.

The proposal calls for keeping people jailed until their trial if they are accused of serious crimes, including murder, based on a presumption the defendant poses too great a risk of danger to be released because of the seriousness of the crime.

The determination would be “subject to rebuttal by the defendant,” according to Senate Bill 123.

“It’s incredibly difficult to explain to the victims of a violent crime why the perpetrator was allowed to go free on an ankle monitor before violently reoffending,” Baker said.

Critics have said such proposals shift the burden of proof from the state to the defendant.

Kim Chavez Cook, with the state Law Offices of the Public Defender, noted Monday a state Supreme Court opinion that charges alone don’t fulfill prosecutors’ burden of proving no conditions of release can protect the community from risks posed by a defendant.

“In my view, rebuttal presumptions based on probable cause of the charges, establishing the state’s burden of proof or even subject to rebuttal establishing the state’s burden, is exactly what the Supreme Court has said is not consistent with the constitution,” she told the committee.

Committee Chairman Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said he shared Chavez Cook’s opinion.

The proposal “is clearly unconstitutional and I think, frankly, the court has sent us signals as much,” Cervantes said. “So, I wonder whether we spent two years advocating this as one of the keys to solving our crime problem in New Mexico with something that is clearly never gonna pass any lawful scrutiny … whether we’d be better off spending our time and effort talking about things that are really going to make a difference as opposed to getting the public’s blood boiling.”

Committee did not vote on SB 123.

Quote of the day: “l left on my terms, so I would say, yes, those were good terms.” — Outgoing General Services Secretary John A. Garcia, when asked whether he and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had parted on good terms when he tendered his resignation.