ByRobert Nott and Daniel J. Chacón, Santa Fe New Mexican |
Here’s what happened with notable legislation during the 30-day session that ended Thursday. Budget: Lawmakers got the job done with about a day to spare. They approved a nearly $8.5 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2023 — a 14 percent increase over the current fiscal year, with raises for all state workers, including teachers, state police officers and judges. The budget also includes funding to increase the minimum wage for state workers to $15 an hour. Tax cuts: House Bill 163 made a late dash across the finish line.
This year’s 30-day legislative session ended with a surprise. Or, more accurately, a series of bombshells. As the Legislature concluded its business at noon Thursday, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe — considered a key architect of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing and one of its most influential players — announced he is not seeking reelection this year. That was one one of the day’s rapid-fire shockers, as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced only an hour or so later she was rescinding New Mexico’s indoor mask mandate. Though most legislators seemed wrung out by a difficult month, punctuated by a nearly daylong marathon in the House of Representatives, the session’s conclusion was anything but anticlimactic.
After an eleventh-hour dispute between the House and Senate, New Mexico’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 — the largest on record — is back on track. A conference committee made up of three members from each chamber brokered a compromise over spending disagreements during a Wednesday morning meeting that lasted less than 10 minutes. By the afternoon, the deal won bipartisan support in both chambers, advancing the nearly $8.5 billion spending plan to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The budget agreement was critical as the session rolls to a conclusion, but as of late Wednesday night, several key issues — crime, tax cuts and expanding voting access — remained unfinished, with both the House and Senate debating bills past midnight. Lawmakers have expressed concerns about tackling such an aggressive agenda in a short session meant to focus on legislation dealing with budget and tax issues, though the governor has the authority to place any item on the agenda.
The state Senate late Wednesday debated a sweeping crime bill that includes stiffer penalties for violent offenders and recruitment and retention stipends for police officers — all part of a larger effort to combat a wave of lawlessness that has been plaguing New Mexico. The push to aggressively fight a rising crime problem that has emerged primarily in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, comes as the unrest has become a major political talking point leading up to the November general election. “What’s important about this bill is it recognizes that attacking the crime problem requires a multifaceted approach,” said Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who has been one of the lead architects of the crime package. “It requires us looking at law enforcement on the streets, law enforcement officers’ needs, and it requires us looking at prosecutors and public defenders. It requires us looking at the court system.
As the clock on the legislative session continued winding down to the noon Thursday deadline, a battle over New Mexico’s proposed $8.48 billion budget blew up. The House of Representatives on Tuesday voted against a motion to concur with amendments adopted by the Senate. “I urge the body to vote no” on concurrence, said Rep. Patty Lundstrom, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, before the House voted overwhelmingly against the Senate’s changes to House Bill 2. The spending plan, the highest on record, is poised to go to a conference committee made up of three members from each chamber with a goal of working out differences before the end of the session. It was unclear late Tuesday when the committee would meet.
Advocates calling for teacher pay raises have reason to celebrate.
The House of Representatives voted unanimously late Monday night to approve Senate Bill 1, which would increase the minimum pay at each level of the state’s three-tiered teacher licensing system by $10,000. The measure is one strategy aimed at addressing a crisis-level teacher shortage across New Mexico. SB 1 now heads to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who put her support behind the legislation early on. She called it the largest educator pay raise in recent years and announced after the House vote she planned to sign the bill into law. That means starting teachers will see their pay rise to $50,000 from $40,000, while middle-tier teachers will see a jump in the base pay to $60,000 from $50,000.
With just a few days to go before the end of this year’s legislative session, members of both the Senate Finance Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously voted to approve a broad crime reform bill — though it isn’t keeping critics from lambasting Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. But rather than focus on imposing stricter laws and penalties, Senate Bill 231 targets providing stipends to recruit and retain police officers; adding more officer training programs; creating a statewide database through which state and federal law enforcement agencies can share information; and generating three additional judgeships to increase trial capacity. The bill now goes to the Senate floor for a vote.
The vote came in the same week police arrested two people, including a man with a lengthy criminal record, in the nonfatal shooting of a state police officer near Edgewood, and the random stabbings of 11 people in Albuquerque Sunday. Some lawmakers alluded to those events as they discussed the merits of SB 231 during a Monday morning joint committee hearing held on the floor of the Senate.
Initiatives included in the legislation, its supporters said, will do more to prevent crime than locking criminals up for longer periods of time. Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said longer incarcerations are an “overly simple” approach to fighting crime, and did not deter Caleb Dustin Elledge, the suspect in the shooting of the state police officer, from committing more crimes.
“He wasn’t too concerned about serving the original sentence or an enhanced sentence,” Cervantes said of Elledge, who is from Los Lunas.
The so-called Second Chance bill will have no chance during this year’s legislative session. Sponsors of Senate Bill 43, which would’ve banned life without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, have pulled the proposed piece of legislation from consideration. “In the final week of the session, it has been frustrating to watch a chorus of voices drowned out by a handful of District Attorneys and other parties who have misrepresented this issue to victims of tragedy across our state,” the sponsors wrote in a joint statement. “We negotiated in good faith but the goalposts kept moving, and we cannot accept changes that undermine the intent of the bill.” The sponsors plan to bring the bring the bill back next year.
One of the most contentious bills in this year’s legislative session is dead. House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, on Monday announced he was moving House Bill 228 — aimed to help New Mexico become a hub of clean hydrogen energy — to the “Speaker’s Table,” where it will remain on hold until the session ends. Camile Ward, spokeswoman for House Democrats, wrote in an email “the bill will not be considered further this session.” The bill’s chances of making it through the session at this point were slim, as the session concludes at noon Thursday. Even if the House had approved the legislation and sent it to the Senate, it had to pass through at least one committee hearing before getting a vote in the full chamber.
Egolf permanently tabled a previous incarnation of the legislation, House Bill 227, last week.
State Rep. Georgene Louis, a prominent Democrat from Albuquerque, is the latest lawmaker to face drunken-driving allegations in recent years. She was booked into the Santa Fe County jail early Monday morning on suspicion of aggravated DWI and other charges. Louis, who has been a member of the New Mexico House of Representatives since 2013, chairs the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee, which canceled its meeting at 8:30 a.m.
She issued a remorseful statement late Monday through her attorney, Kitren Fischer. “I am sorry and I deeply regret my lapse in judgment,” Louis’ statement said. “I know I let so many people down.