Lawmakers poised to start a strange legislative session

The 2021 legislative session begins Tuesday at noon, against a bizarre backdrop that’s never been contemplated, much less seen. The Capitol building remains surrounded by fencing, concrete barriers and blocked roads. On Monday, it was guarded by state police officers and at least a dozen National Guard soldiers, who were seen patrolling the facility and manning entrance checkpoints. The annual State of the State speech, which usually highlights the opening day of the session, is off, at least on Tuesday. A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said it eventually will be delivered, “likely remotely,” due to ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Report outlines deficiencies in education for Native American students

While Native American students in New Mexico are showing improvement in graduation rates, third-grade reading and math proficiency, they continue to perform well below their peers on state and national measures of achievement. As a result, a report released Monday makes several recommendations to help close the gap. They include asking the Legislature to reduce or eliminate the so-called Impact Aid credit from the state’s public education funding formula, freeing up the money for affected school districts to spend on evidence-based interventions. “If the Legislature were to remove the Impact Aid credit from the public education funding formula, Impact Aid districts could locally decide to spend the additional operational funding on added supports for facility needs, instruction, tribal collaboration activities, or tribal education departments,” the Legislative Finance Committee wrote in a progress report on the implementation of the Indian Education Act, which was passed in 2003. Federal Impact Aid compensates school districts and charter schools for the loss of property tax from tribal lands and other tax-exempt federal property within their boundaries.

Lawmaker wants high-ranking administration positions to address Hispanic education

An Albuquerque lawmaker wants the state to do more to help Hispanic students who are falling behind. 

Toward that end, Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, plans to file a bill this week asking the state to appoint two assistant cabinet secretary positions for Hispanic education at both the K-12 and college levels. Among other goals, the new administrators would work on developing multicultural education materials and curriculum, plus hiring bilingual teachers to best meet the needs of Hispanic students. 

Trujillo, who asked the Legislative Education Study Committee to endorse her bill heading into the 2021 legislative session, said Monday it’s an update of a legislative proposal pitched by former Rep. Rick Miera,  the onetime head of the House Education Committee, some 10 years ago. 

She said her bill is directly tied to the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico court case, in which a number of plaintiffs sued the state, contending it was not providing enough resources to offer a quality education for certain groups of students, including Hispanic children. 

A state district judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the state to find ways to meet the needs of those students. 

“This bill institutes what the judge wanted in terms of supporting children of color — in this case, Hispanic students,” Trujillo said Monday. 

Traditionally, Hispanic students have lagged behind their white counterparts. State data from 2019 shows just 30 percent of New Mexico’s Hispanic students were proficient in reading, compared to 48 percent of white students. In math, the differences are even more stark, with just 16 percent of Hispanic students reaching proficiency levels, compared to 34 percent of whites. 

Her bill includes a number of components to support Hispanic students in both public schools and colleges, including working out a five-year strategic plan to improve student enrollment and achievement at the college level. Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo and a member of the committee, said he supports Trujillo’s bill.

Redistricting to be pushed back because of Census delays

New Mexico lawmakers hoping to tackle a major state redistricting plan in a September special session got some surprising news Monday. 

They may have to wait until November or December, due to census data delays. Albuquerque pollster Brian Sanderoff, whose company Research & Polling Inc. plans to help compile data for the redistricting effort, told members of the Legislative Council the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the 2020 U.S. census, which will hinder New Mexico’s process of drawing new voting district boundaries based on population changes. “We can’t do our work until we get that data,” Sanderoff said. Voting districts in New Mexico were last drawn in 2012 by a state District Court after then Republican Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a redistricting plan drafted by a Legislature with a majority of Democrats following the 2010 census. New Mexico has more time than some other states to meet a requirement for redistricting based on updated census data.

An A-Z guide to the 2021 legislative session

The 2021 legislative session opens this week amid the most unusual circumstances imaginable: fences and barriers around a vulnerable Capitol building, plans for extensive online participation from lawmakers and even a suggested five-bill introduction limit in the state House of Representatives. And it hasn’t even gotten interesting. Yet. The 60-day session begins Tuesday. Here’s a letter-by-letter primer on issues, people and possibilities as the marathon begins.

Lawmakers and others want to make budget process more transparent

Susan Boe still remembers the surprise she felt when she discovered the door was locked. Looking through the small window of a legislative hearing room in the state Capitol, she could make out the members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee within. She had been tipped off that they were talking about the budget, and she wanted to sit in on the meeting, which she assumed was open. Boe, then the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, was in for a rude awakening. 

The meeting was closed, off limits to outsiders. “It was pretty frustrating,” Boe said earlier this week, recalling that day nearly five years ago when she tried to get a sense on how lawmakers were finalizing the state budget.

Governor signs revised budget, vetoes items

Governors don’t usually sign a budget twice in one year. But this is no normal year. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gave her blessing to New Mexico’s revised budget legislation Tuesday, but she also used her veto power to cancel some of the cuts legislators approved during the special session. “We must recalibrate our state’s budget to meet these challenging times,” Lujan Grisham wrote in a letter to the state House of Representatives upon signing House Bill 1. “However, we should not lose sight of the important work that is still needed to create lasting opportunities for all New Mexicans.”

The budget plan uses a combination of spending cuts, reserves and federal funding to deal with a projected $2 billion drop in state revenue for the next fiscal year, which begins Wednesday.

Bill requiring police to wear body cams while on duty heads to governor

Amid calls for increased scrutiny of law enforcement, the House of Representatives voted 44-26 to approve a measure that would require all New Mexico police officers to wear body cameras. 

The legislation, passed by the House two days after the state Senate concluded its business and departed a special session that focused on shoring up the state budget, now heads to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk. Lujan Grisham praised the work of the Legislature during the special session, but noted it is only the start as New Mexico looks to the 60-day session in January amid a severe economic downturn brought on by falling oil prices and the COVID-19 crisis. “Let me be clear: The work of rebuilding our state economy has only begun,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “But we will, I have no doubt, construct a more robust and inclusive economy than ever before as we continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic with everything we’ve got. “And the work we’ve begun on civil rights and public safety reform and election accessibility and small business relief will remain a chief priority of my administration,” she added.

Senate sends budget to governor, adjourns

The New Mexico Legislature finished its main task of mending the state’s huge fiscal shortfall Saturday, but the special session wasn’t over as the House of Representatives still had work to do. 

The Senate approved 30-12 a modified budget planthat uses a combination of spending cuts, reserves and federal funding to deal with a projected $2 billion drop in state revenue for the next fiscal year. “It’s certainly not the perfect response, but it darn well may be the only response we can give right now,” Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told his fellow legislators. After approving the budget, senators adjourned “sine die” and promptly left the Capitol, with several members eager to hit the road home. But the special session continued on. A long debate and dramatic revote on an election reform bill delayed the House’s proceedings, and representatives said they would need to return Monday to finish up.

Election changes pass House after revote

A scaled-back election overhaul lacking a key provision that would have allowed clerks to mail every registered voter a ballot for the November general election is on its way to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk following a dramatic revote after first failing to pass the House. After three hours of debate, the House rejected Senate Bill 4 in a 38-32 vote Saturday that included many Democrats opposing the measure despite it being a priority of Lujan Grisham and other Democrats. But a subsequent vote to “reconsider” the legislation passed, and after hours of closed-door caucus meetings, a second vote on the legislation cleared the House floor 44-26 without any amendments, rescuing the bill from the legislative graveyard. House Speaker Brian Egolf and other Democratic leaders persuaded fellow Democrats to support legislation they opposed just hours earlier byreminding them of other provisions in the bill that are meant to help ensure a safe election during the pandemic. “We basically decided to [prioritize] a safe election, an election where absentee ballot programs can be meaningfully done without late-arriving ballots, without vendors and processing being such a problem like in the primary we just went through,” Egolf said in an interview after the House adjourned.