March 18, 2023

Lawmakers churn out rush of bills on last full day of session

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

The New Mexico Legislature careened toward a finish late Friday, passing both key and lesser-known legislation while trying to hash out a deal on a massive tax package.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate pushed full steam ahead from mid-morning to night, working their way through dozens of bills as the deadline for legislative passage — noon Saturday — closed in.

Many of the issues prioritized by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislative leadership this year — the budget, public education investments, water conservation initiatives and codifying a woman’s right to have an abortion — had by this point already found safe passage through both the House and the Senate.

In an interview with The New Mexican on the Senate floor around 5:30 p.m., Lujan Grisham appeared in good spirits. She said she walked down to the first floor of the Roundhouse to deliver coffee to Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, after he gave her a basket of coffee when she joked she’s only allowed to drink “old Folgers” on the fourth floor.

“It’s early still,” she said when asked how the session was progressing.

“There isn’t a single New Mexican, at least in my opinion, that doesn’t wish the Legislature would give them all their priorities earlier than tonight or tomorrow,” she said. “And with the tax package, you know, not put to bed and a couple other key things — I’m still working on a prescription drug bill — it’s hard to say.”

While strolling through the first floor, Lujan Grisham posed for photos and signed a 2023 gubernatorial inauguration poster at the request of Sen. Leo Jaramillo, D-Española.

“If you can end the session with all that work that we have to do — and it’s a sizable list — and we’re signing each other’s posters and providing mutual respect and admiration, that’s really important and valuable to me,” the governor said.

“Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m probably not going to have one or two vetoes, and it’s not going to mean I’m going to get everything upstairs that I want, but as I’ve said before, I try to get to yes. … I’m going to be here all night, and I weigh in as much as I can because the goal should be for us to get to yes,” she added. 

The governor has already signed a number of bills into law, including Senate Bill 64, which ends life without parole as a sentencing option for juvenile offenders, and House Bill 7, which prohibits local governments from restricting access to abortion and gender-affirming care. On Friday, she issued her first veto of the year on House Bill 125, which would have created a task force to study dual credit offerings in New Mexico schools.

Surrounded by staffers as he walked out of an afternoon conference committee to resolve differences in the tax package, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said he was feeling “really good” about what lawmakers had accomplished so far.

“I feel like we’ve worked really hard the last couple of weeks to do lots of the big bills, so I’m not feeling like we’re looking at a call of the Senate tonight or spending all night long [in a floor session], the craziness that can happen,” he said.

“That’s really the result of the work going in and the bipartisan work, which set a really good tone,” he added.

Other lawmakers echoed that point.

Sen. Harold Pope, Jr., D-Albuquerque, said because the state Capitol was totally or partially closed to visitors during the 2020 and 2021 sessions because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s session had more energy and focus because of the influx of visitors.

“It just felt better interacting with the public,” he said.

Pope said many bills that were priorities for Democrats passed this year. Sen. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, agreed, saying seven or eight “major bills,” including the budget, had already passed both chambers and were on their way to the governor’s desk for a signature.

However, Friday’s proceedings were also defined by legislation not considered as lawmakers realized time was running out and some issues had to be jettisoned in favor of others.

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, described the session as a roller coaster, saying she’s celebrated “great highs” one moment and experienced “lows” the next.

“I really cared about the ‘green amendment’ this year,” she said, referring to a bill to codify the state’s zero-emissions goal that failed when Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, voted with the Republicans to kill it in committee.

The Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee has recommended raising alcohol taxes 5 cents per drink for beer, wine and spirits, although the overall tax bill was still the subject of negotiations late Friday. Sedillo Lopez, who co-sponsored a bill calling for a flat 25-cent tax per serving on alcohol, was unhappy with this proposal.

“I cared about changing consumption patterns with the alcohol tax, and that was huge for me, and I’m really upset about what’s happening [with the tax package] right now,” she said.

Baca said “the biggest story of the session” was a compromise bill passed this year to cap medical malpractice payouts for independent outpatient clinics at $1 million.

“We proved that we can do better than kick the can down the road and provide real stability for this state’s current and future medical practitioners,” he added. “I am grateful for Senator Wirth and the governor’s help in brokering one of the most important pieces of legislation that will impact the life of every New Mexican.”

Lujan Grisham, who called for an assault weapons ban in her State of the State speech, said she is disappointed a couple of gun control bills, including ones that would have imposed a 14-day waiting period on gun sales, didn’t advance. Efforts to “professionalize” the Legislature, as supporters call it, by paying lawmakers and extending the length of legislative sessions didn’t pass either. Supporters said they plan to bring these proposals back back next year. 

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.