February 6, 2023

Legislative Roundup

Matthew Reichbach

Days remaining in session: 39

PRC salaries: The salaries of the newly reconfigured Public Regulation Commission would be tied to what state District Court judges earn under a bill the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee unanimously endorsed Monday.

After voters approved a constitutional amendment changing the PRC from a five-member elected body to a three-person panel appointed by the governor, “we found out there is no provision in statute for what the salary should be,” the sponsor of Senate Bill 136, Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, told the committee.

“This would put in statute a provision that they would earn the same thing as a district judge,” he said.

Neville said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham authorized a salary range of $180,000 to $190,000 a year for commissioners.

“Apparently the governor set the salary for the newly appointed officials to be $190,000,” he said. “Reasonable number. I don’t have any problem with that. But again, it’s not in statute.”

The bill would set commissioners’ minimum salary at $190,000.

Neville said a “convoluted formula” is used to determine the salaries of District Court judges, who currently earn about $163,000 a year but are poised to be paid more than $190,000 annually

“If this bill passes and the [state] budget goes as proposed, [the new PRC members] will get a small raise,” Neville said.

Legislative letterhead: An informal opinion issued by the New Mexico Ethics Commission to the Legislative Council Service on the use of legislative stationary is generating pushback from Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle.

The opinion by Walker Boyd, the commission’s general counsel, states that when a legislator is “acting for the benefit of a constituent,” the legislator “may not make reference to his or her legislative capacity outside matters of scheduling” or “communicate on legislative stationary.”

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe and Minority Leader Greg Baca of Belen wrote a letter last month to commission Chairman William Lang stating they respectfully disagree with Boyd’s conclusion. They asked for the commission to review and reverse the opinion.

Wirth said during Monday’s floor session the Legislative Council Service director attended Friday’s commission meeting and “was waiting to be let in and say a few words” but wasn’t allowed to participate in the hearing.

“I think you’ll see a bill move pretty quickly to address that issue, and we’re working with both sides,” he said.

Recess requirement: The Senate Education Committee called timeout Monday on a bill to require 30 minutes of supervised but unstructured recess time each school day for students in kindergarten through third grade.

Committee members said they appreciated the intent but tabled Senate Bill 137 over various concerns, including lack of local control.

“This is something we definitely ought to encourage districts to do … but I really believe that it’s up to the local body to decide these things and to set their calendar,” said Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho.

Under the bill, the mandatory recess time wouldn’t be counted as part of the required hours of education, forcing some schools to increase their instructional day.

“If we look at an average of somewhere around 190 days, that’s going to add 95 hours to the totals on that, and that’s fairly expensive and needs to be paid for,” said committee Chairman Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces.

Soules, a former public school teacher and elementary principal, said “more and more educational leaders” are understanding the importance of recess, but mandating it could be problematic.

“If there’s a day with an unexpected early release for whatever reason, then the school and teachers are in violation of the law, and that’s concerning,” he said.

The sponsor, Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, said most school districts provide young pupils at least 30 minutes of recess.

“Not all, and that’s the situation we’re trying to address,” he said.

Senate confirmations: All but one of the five state appointees up for Senate confirmation to various entities received unanimous support Monday.

The Senate also confirmed the appointment of Anne Beckett to the Small Business Investment Corp., but the vote was 33-4.

Four Republicans — Sens. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho, Greg Baca of Belen, Mark Moores of Albuquerque and Cliff Pirtle of Roswell — cast the dissenting votes.

During an initial hearing before the Senate Rules Committee, Pirtle noted Beckett, who lives in the tiny town of Youngville in Northern New Mexico, had been described as the rural voice of the corporation.

“Do you have any enterprises that include agriculture or rural-type businesses?” he asked.

“I don’t have agriculture,” responded Beckett, 73. “What I feel like I contribute to my community besides volunteering for this, that and the other thing is hiring local people to work.”

No is not enough: Members of the House voted 49-12q to approve House Bill 43, an initiative that would, among other initiatives, set affirmative consent to engage in sexual activity — defined as “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement” — as a standard in health classes for students in public high schools and middle schools.  

“Only yes means yes,” said Rep. Elizabeth “Liz” Thomson, D-Albuquerque, in describing the bill’s intent. “This will teach high school kids at an early age … that it’s OK to say no.”

The House’s one-hour debate on the bill was often full of emotion as several female lawmakers, including Thomson, told personal stories as they advocated for HB 43. Thomson said of the six sisters in her family, five have been sexually assaulted.

Speaking in a voice that sometimes trembled, Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, said, “Most of the sex that came into my life [as a young woman] was non-consensual.”

Some House Republicans said the wording of the bill was vague when it came to just how often “yes” needs to be said if a couple is in an ongoing relationship.

Others asked whether criminal charges could evolve out of the issue if a “yes” turned to a “no” after the fact — which Thomson said would not be the case.

While several Republicans voted for the bill, the 12 lawmakers who voted against it were Republicans. HB 43 will now go to the Senate for consideration. 

Quotes of the day

“Thank you, Father Rick, for your words this morning. I will correct you on one thing. We’re 20 days in, so we’re a third of the way through, not a half — and yes, we are counting. It does seem like forever.” — Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, after the Rev. Rick Iannucci, chaplain of the state Senate, guessed during Monday’s invocation the Legislature was half-way through the 60-day legislative session.

“We couldn’t have zombie bills from 50 years ago ambling around, could we?” — Rep. John Block, R-Alamogordo, referring to a provision in House Joint Resolution 2 that would make every legislative session 60 days long and allow lawmakers to take up unfinished legislation left over from the previous year’s session. Rep. Natalie Figueroa, D-Albuquerque, told Block the provision would only be applicable for two years.