Legislative session ends on collegial notes

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

In the end, as Dean Martin liked to sing, everybody loves somebody — at least, sometime. That was true in the waning minutes of this year’s legislative session as lawmakers from opposing parties and with markedly different views of political philosophy bid goodbye to one another with hugs, handshakes and fare-thee-wells. Absent was any sense of partisan conflict as legislators, weary after 60 days of debates, decisions and defeats — as well as victories, of course — bid adieu to it all for another year at noon Saturday. In the House of Representatives, there was a more collegial feeling of mutual respect, even if the two parties’ respective legislative goals were often at odds. 

After debating and voting on a broad omnibus tax package that had curved its way through the last week of the session like a hard-to-catch serpent, members of the House took on about six Senate bills, approving them rapidly in the last hours of the floor session. The House benefited from an influx of new vitality courtesy of over 15 new members in both major political parties as well as the energy of two new floor leaders — House Speaker Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, and House Minority Leader Ryan Lane, R-Aztec.

Governor on crime legislation: `I’m going to keep trying’

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

As Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham started her post-session news conference Saturday, she already knew the score. Of the roughly 40 public safety bills introduced this year, the governor said she championed 10. “We have about a handful up, and out of 40, it’s 10 [that passed], and not all of those would really constitute what I think are strong public safety measures,” she said. “I know that is an area that you want me to say I’m disappointed,” Lujan Grisham added. “I’m motivated.

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.

Supporters, including governor, vow to bring back paid family and medical leave

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Supporters of a proposal to establish a paid family and medical leave program in New Mexico gathered Thursday in the Capitol’s Rotunda to deliver a message about its failure. They’re bringing it back next year with backing from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “We have come closer to the finish line than we ever have,” said Rep. Christine Chandler, a Los Alamos Democrat who has been pushing for paid family and medical leave since taking office in 2019. “We all know in this Rotunda that transformational change is difficult, but it can happen, and it will happen,” she said. “We plan on pursuing it next year as vigorously as we did this year, and we will continue to do so until this becomes the public policy of the state of New Mexico.”

House passes compromise bill on medical malpractice payouts

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

A bill brokered this week by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state Senate leaders from both parties — hailed as a compromise in an emotional debate over rising medical malpractice costs — passed the House of Representatives in a 63-0 vote Thursday. 

Senate Bill 523, drafted in a deal with trial lawyers and health care professionals, will cap medical malpractice payouts for independent outpatient clinics at $1 million, which they say will allow them to obtain malpractice insurance and keep their doors open. Under a law that passed in 2021, some clinics were swept into the same category as hospitals and were set to see the cap on their potential payouts in medical malpractice cases rise to $6 million by 2027 from $750,000 now. Many doctors and other medical professionals whose practices would be affected by the steep increase said they wouldn’t be able to obtain or couldn’t afford to obtain insurance with a cap that high. They warned smaller operations — including ambulatory surgical facilities, standalone emergency rooms and urgent care clinics — would have to close or move out of state to survive. They urged the Legislature to act.

Governor signs bill expanding school learning hours

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

With just a little over a day to go in the 2023 legislative session, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill into law expanding learning time for students in the state’s public schools. House Bill 130 will mandate an increase in learning time in public schools to 1,140 hours, plus additional professional development time for teachers, while allowing districts some flexibility in when to add the hours. “With COVID and parents and so many kids struggling, it’s a challenging environment to make sure kids are getting their focus they need [in school],” Lujan Grisham said in an interview at the state Capitol Thursday. At stake is the potential for students who have fallen behind — even before the COVID-19 pandemic — to bridge learning gaps while their teachers learn new skills to do their job to help students succeed. 

Under the provisions of HB 130, teachers in elementary schools would have 60 hours of professional development programming while those in middle or high schools would have 30 hours. 

The bill lets districts decide how and when to add the extra instructional hours. 

New Mexico has long ranked near or at the bottom in national reports on the state of public education in the country. The landmark 2018 Yazzie/Martinez court ruling said New Mexico must do more to provide enough resources for at-risk student populations — impoverished children, second-language learners and special-needs students — to ensure they have an equal chance to succeed academically. 

Rep. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, a high school teacher who introduced HB 130, said in an interview Thursday the extra learning time is “not just about opening up seat time but creating enrichment time for students to reinforce lessons they need to learn in class and providing more time within the school day for mental and social health.”

House sends budget bill to governor

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

The state House of Representatives voted Wednesday to send a $9.57 billion budget bill to the governor for her approval. On a voice vote, the chamber concurred with the Senate’s amendments to House Bill 2, the last procedural step to send the bill to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk. The Senate amendments include, among other changes, an additional $130 million in recurring spending for initiatives to address hunger and new investments in the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship college tuition fund. But concerns were raised on the House floor about the way the Senate Finance Committee made some extra budget adjustments just a day after the committee had already approved the bill. That action, which took place Sunday morning, annoyed Republican senators on the committee and raised questions about behind-the-scenes deals and political pressure for changes that may have come from the Governor’s Office.

Senate passes bipartisan bill to address medical malpractice payout caps

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

With less than 72 hours left in the 60-day legislative session, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill Wednesday designed to address concerns over looming changes to New Mexico’s medical malpractice law, which doctors and other providers have been pleading with lawmakers to resolve for weeks. Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe described Senate Bill 523 as a hard-fought compromise between the New Mexico Medical Society and the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association that will allow independent clinics to obtain medical malpractice insurance. “It took everything we had over the last three weeks to get these parties to the point where they could settle,” Wirth said. “Am I frustrated that it happened in the last three days? Yeah, because it puts us in a place where we do have to expedite this,” he added.

Finance chair: Lawmaker pay unlikely to pass

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said the chances lawmakers will approve a proposal to ask voters to pay them are “very tough.” Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, made the comment after a lengthy morning debate about the pros and cons of House Joint Resolution 8, which would allow voters to approve a constitutional amendment to create a citizens’ commission to study the issue of paying lawmakers. The commission would also suggest salary ranges for lawmakers, though the salaries would not kick in until July 2024. Among other issues, Muñoz questioned whether the current Legislature could constitutionally bind a future Legislature to be paid. He also said the resolution does not clarify how lawmaker salaries would impact pension plans for former state employees who now serve as lawmakers.

Senate confirms Romero to lead PED

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

The Senate unanimously confirmed the appointment Wednesday of Dr. Arsenio Romero as Cabinet secretary of the Public Education Department, the fourth person to lead the agency under the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “I’m here for the long haul,” Romero, a longtime educator, said during his initial confirmation hearing before the Senate Rules Committee. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to take on this challenge, and we’re going to steer this ship in the right direction,” he said. Senators lauded Romero as the right man for the job.