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.

Scaled back budget heads to Senate

Over the objections of Republicans who wanted to cut more, House Democrats pushed through a scaled back state budget to shore up a $2 billion budget shortfall caused by the pandemic and oil price crash that devastated state coffers. The House approved the roughly $7 billion budget in a 46-24 vote along party lines, with Republicans opposing the budget plan. In extended budget talks over the past several days, lawmakers continuously described the spending reductions as difficult decisions in the face of massive hits to state revenue. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has referred to the cuts as “austerity” for the state, but supported them at slightly different levels. The bill now only needs to be approved by the full Senate to get to the governor’s desk, as the Senate Finance Committee approved the House’s version Friday.

Higher education cuts could jeopardize research funding, freeze hiring

Proposed cuts to higher education spending in New Mexico could jeopardize some research funding for state universities and lead to a hiring freeze at Santa Fe Community College, advocates say. Universities and colleges in New Mexico are denouncing proposed cuts to higher education spending as lawmakers trim budgets across state government to fill a $2.4 billion budget hole wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and a devastated oil and gas market. A draft House bill seeking to blend recommendations from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and an influential budget committee would slash roughly 6 percent from research and public service projects at universities and 4 percent for broader university and public college funding from the state. That would represent the steepest reductions for any state-funded department or agency eyeing potential cuts as lawmakers address the budget shortfall. The Legislature is still debating the proposed cuts.

Senate approves key change to New Mexico primary election process

New Mexico senators approved a new measure Friday that would allow independent voters to cast ballots in primary elections by registering with a major party on Election Day, potentially opening up primaries to a wider swath of the population. The surprise amendment was added to an elections reform bill that aims to streamline the voting-by-mail process if the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing during November’s general election. The amendment, which was proposed by Sen. John Sapien and passed with bipartisan support, would allow voters not registered with a major party to affiliate with one when they arrive at polling stations to vote. Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, who was the lead sponsor on the main bill, said the change would prevent situations that take place under current law, in which voters unaffiliated with a major party arrive to vote in primaries but aren’t able to. “Right now, you’ve got people who in their mind affiliate a certain way, who may want to show up to vote but right now their only option is to be turned away,” said Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.

Watered-down version of election reform bill clears Senate panel

A Senate panel significantly watered down a bill late Thursday that aims to streamline the voting-by-mail process if the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing during November’s general election. Senate Bill 4, which is backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, had proposed to allow county clerks to automatically send mail-in ballots to registered voters without requiring people to request them. But after a three-hour debate, the Senate Rules Committee voted to strike that provision from the bill. Under the revised bill, people would still need to apply for absentee ballots before receiving them. Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, proposed the amendment after Republicans on the panel expressed concerns that automatically mailing ballots would put election security at risk.

Technical delays, long debate over new House rules as session starts

If the world ends with a whimper rather than a bang, the House began Thursday with a sputter. For hours, Republicans in the state House debated new rules on whether lawmakers should be allowed to vote remotely — a debate that was delayed because of trouble with the webcast, in turn delaying committee hearings scheduled for that afternoon until after representatives’ 6 p.m. dinner. Complying with state rules on open meetings, lawmakers paused the debate for close to 30 minutes as the tech team scrambled to get the internet video feed back online before resuming. The resolution passed the House 43-24 along party lines. But not before prolonged debate about the rules within the resolution and other, tangentially-related topics.

State senator self-isolating after COVID-19 exposure

State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez was self-isolating at her hotel in Santa Fe Thursday after being exposed to a person who tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said she received a call from the state Department of Health notifying her she had contact with someone who tested positive. The senator said she was feeling fine and had no symptoms associated with the virus. She was given permission to travel to Santa Fe for the special legislative session, but isolated in her office at the Capitol and then moved back to her hotel. “I came to my hotel because my committees aren’t meeting today,” she said Thursday.