February 19, 2023

Lawmakers anticipate intense debates as session crosses midway mark

Kendra Chamberlain

By Robert Nott and Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Rushing from one room to another on a recent hectic day at the state Capitol, Rep. John Block paused to consider a question lawmakers themselves have been mulling.

How was the freshman Republican from Alamogordo feeling at the midway point of this year’s 60-day legislative session?

“Fine,” he said. “At least I haven’t killed anybody yet.”

Sardonic joking aside, a sense of civility, bipartisanship and focus on legislation has been apparent in both the House of Representatives and the Senate at the 30-day mark.

“Nobody came in to fight,” said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup.

House Speaker Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, said it’s the same in his chamber. House Democrats and Republicans have developed a good working relationship this session, he said.

“You can feel it on the floor,” he said. ‘We have tough debates as we should, tough disagreements as we should, but without being disagreeable.”

Sure, there have been a couple of “inside baseball” surprises that rocked the Roundhouse: the removal of longtime House Appropriations and Finance Committee Chairwoman Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, on the session’s opening day; a switch-up in one of the three House Republican leadership posts when Greg Nibert, a Republican from Roswell, suddenly stepped up to take on the position of minority whip after Republicans voted him in and voted out Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho.

But overall, the energy in and around the Roundhouse since the session began Jan. 17 has been one of anticipation, like waiting for the Super Bowl kickoff.

Well, the Super Bowl has come and gone, and with less than 30 yards — make that 30 days — to go, expect lawmakers to now rush for the finish line as they grapple with more than 1,200 pieces of legislation.

With the clock winding down and contentious bills inching closer to hearings on the floor of each chamber, frustrations, tensions and intense debates are certain to materialize.

“As you narrow in on the light at the end of the tunnel, the pressure goes up for sure,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe said. “Things get a little more tense.”

‘Moving at a good pace’

Wirth, who watched as the sessions in 2021 and ’22 became as notable for their rancor as their productivity, said the public looks to the Legislature to set an example by which both sides can articulate their positions without making it personal.

“I’m encouraged that after two kind of really challenging years, it feels like we’re kind of back to something that’s more like the way the state Senate [used to be] — where you can disagree passionately, but at the end of the day, the person who voted against your bill is the person who’s your co-sponsor on the next bill.”

The stakes, legislators say, are vast in 2023, with crime, public education, voter access, water, modernizing the Legislature and approving a multibillion-dollar state budget still to be decided.

“I think we’re moving at a good pace,” said Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca of Belen. “There’s a tremendous amount of legislation as there is every 60-day [session], and we’re trying to balance those bills that have priority to us.”

Baca said Republicans, badly outnumber in both the House and Senate, are not going to back down.

“We’re trying to preserve individual freedoms once again, Second Amendment freedoms, right to bear arms,” he said. “We’ve introduced some very commonsense legislation regarding very late-term abortions, and we hope that would be accepted through the body.”

Wirth, however, said he doesn’t expect the Republican-sponsored abortion bill to move past its first committee.

It’s one of many measures that could drive a wedge in the newfound sense of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans.

Either way, the pace will begin to speed up this week.

The Senate Finance Committee is poised to review a proposed $9.43 billion budget the House approved last week.

The budget proposal calls for average 5% pay raises for all state government employees, increases in Medicaid provider rates and injecting more than $1 billion into funds that are designed to grow through investment and spin off revenues to pay for water, conservation and other projects.

The spending plan leaves room for more than $1 billion in tax changes, such as eliminating the tax on business-to-business services, known as pyramiding.

One-time rebates for taxpayers also are on the table, though possibly not as high as initially envisioned since the spending bill sent to the Senate increased capital spending from $650 million to more than $1 billion.

The overall budget proposal would increase spending in the upcoming fiscal by more than 12% — a concern among Republicans.

“We’re trying to basically influence the budget to focus on infrastructure projects and nonrecurring expenses rather than growing government,” Baca said.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who develops a separate executive budget recommendation, has raised a number of concerns about the spending bill, including what she called “insufficient” funding for the Opportunity Scholarship, a taxpayer-funded tuition program she has championed..

“There’s some things that we’re going to have to work on on the Senate side, specifically the Opportunity Scholarship,” said Wirth. “But there’s a real willingness on our side to find recurring dollars [for the scholarship], so I think we can close that gap, and that’s certainly something the governor has indicated as a priority for her, and it’s a priority for us on the Senate as well.”

Don’t expect a final budget to appear on the Senate floor anytime soon, though.

Muñoz, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said it will spend weeks dissecting and rebuilding the budget while working with members of the governor’s staff to find consensus. 

He said he expects debate to heat up on some issues, including a proposal to establish paid family medical leave. 

Other issues, including gun safety proposals, a reproductive rights bill codifying the right to access an abortion and a push to enact automatic voter registration through transactions at the Motor Vehicle Division are likely to set Republicans against Democrats on the chamber floor.

“There’s still a lot of bills out there,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to pass and what’s not going to pass.”

Wirth anticipates the gun safety bills and a string of election bills will “elevate the temperature” at the Roundhouse. He said other bills won’t be as “fiery but will be the subject of lots of debate.” 

Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who is pushing for paid family medical leave, said in a brief interview she is worried about its chances, though she did not elaborate other than to say she wishes it were moving along faster. 

Ryan Lane, the House minority leader, said in an interview lawmakers have been spending more time vetting bills in committee hearings, resulting in improved pieces of legislation before they reach the floor. 

“Yeah, things are slower than in past years, but that’s probably a good thing for New Mexico” because lawmakers are taking more time to contemplate bills, he said. 

Looking ahead

So where do issues listed as priorities at the start of the session stand now?

Here, there and everywhere, though some are bound to fizzle.

  • A move to set a higher minimum wage has died in committee after some lawmakers said the state should not legislate such increases that would cost businesses more money. 
  • Two bills designed to modernize the Legislature — extending the time lawmakers spend in session and paying them salaries — have advanced out of committee and are awaiting action on the floor. The proposed constitutional amendments have garnered support from Democrats and opposition from Republicans.
  • House Democrats have slowly battled to enact a number of gun control bills, including enacting a 14-day waiting period on gun purchases and prohibiting the ownership, use and transfer of automatic weapons. Those measures already have made their way through several House committees and will likely find their way to the House floor for debate.
  • Another gun safety bill that would hold adults criminally responsible if children or teens accessed their firearms already cleared the House — but with enough Democrats joining Republicans in opposing the bill to suggest similar gun safety measures may be tough to get through in the face of concerns over Second Amendment rights.
  • A bill that would revamp high school graduation requirements for students is likely to hit the floor of the House sometime in the next week. The bill includes a provision to lower the number of credits needed to graduate from 24 to 22, though it gives school districts the option to add more unit requirements if they like. 

With time now a factor as the Legislature heads to the home stretch, Wirth said he was hopeful solid work would continue.

“After two years of COVID lockdowns and fences around the building and redistricting and political cycles, [this 60-day session] just has a very different feel than we’ve had for a while,” he said. “Lots of collaboration going on, and I really appreciate have folks fully in the building again to be able to participate. You know, it’s feeling more like a normal session, and that’s a good thing.” 

The optimism wasn’t universal.

Asked how she felt with 30 days still to go, Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, wasted no time in her reply.

“I wish it were 30 hours,” she said.