Gov. signs bill to eliminate fines for juvenile offenders

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday signed a bill into law that will eliminate certain fines and fees for juvenile offenders, “aligning with the juvenile justice reform efforts of the Children, Youth and Families Department,” the Governor’s Office said in a news release. Juveniles convicted of possession of marijuana will no longer be fined, but will face a modified penalty of up to 48 hours of community service. Previous fees could be as high as $100. The bill also removes a nonrefundable “application fee” for a public defender to represent a juvenile charged with a crime. These fines and fees are “disproportionately painful” for low-income families, Lujan Grisham said in the statement.

A dramatic finish to New Mexico’s legislative session

New Mexico’s 2021 legislative session had ended only about an hour before the governor said she plans to bring lawmakers back to the Capitol in coming days. Talk of a special session to wrap up a cannabis bill — a high priority for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and many Democratic lawmakers — was just the pinnacle of a dramatic end to a legislative session like no other amid the coronavirus pandemic. There was last-minute maneuvering by House Republicans to jam up Democrats’ bills, allegations of bullying in the Senate and complaints of power players obstructing bills in the final days and hours of a session held mostly via online Zoom meetings, with a security fence around a Capitol surrounded by New Mexico State Police officers and National Guard members. The building was closed to the public during the 60-day session due the pandemic and concerns of violent protests in the wake of the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol.

What passed, what didn’t during the legislative session

What prevailed

State budget: Near the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, state economists projected a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall in the fiscal year that starts July 1. Thanks to an infusion of federal pandemic relief money and much more optimistic revenue projections from oil and gas, the state government will increase spending by 4.8 percent, or $373 million. The proposed $7.4 billion budget passed both chambers in the final days of the session and is now headed to the governor. Pandemic relief: Those hit hardest by the pandemic will benefit from Senate Bill 3, which the governor signed into law. It offers long-term, low-interest loans up to $150,000 to eligible New Mexico businesses and nonprofits.

After dustup, accusations of bullying, senators will undergo sensitivity training

After a floor confrontation in the final days of the legislative session that some lawmakers described as “abusive” and “demeaning,” Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart said Saturday members of the typically civil chamber will have to undergo sensitivity training from now on. “We’ve all seen what’s happened when we devolve. It’s ugly,” Stewart, D-Albuquerque, told senators at the conclusion of the 60-day session. “No one [wants] to see that. We can all improve in this regard, and I want to help lead this effort for our chamber.”

In landmark vote, effort to increase early childhood education, K-12 funds passes Senate

State Rep. Moe Maestas sat quietly on a metal folding chair, his hands clasped together, as he watched the three-hour debate play out around him on the Senate floor. At stake was hundreds of millions of dollars for early childhood and public education programs. 

As the call to vote came around 5 p.m. Thursday, Maestas began twiddling his thumbs, tapping his right foot. He had been waiting for this moment for more than five years. Capitol insiders might say the outcome was never in question. The 42-member state Senate voted 26-16 in favor of a ballot question asking New Mexico voters to approve a constitutional amendment allowing the state to tap into its now $22 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to create an annual revenue stream for prekindergarten and K-12 programs.

After the vote, Maestas, who co-sponsored the effort with Rep. Javier Martínez, a fellow Albuquerque Democrat, said, “This is a victory for the children of New Mexico.

Ban on trapping on public lands narrowly heads to governor’s desk

A renewed effort to ban trapping on public land in New Mexico moved through the House of Representatives by a close vote of 35-34 and is now on its way to the governor’s desk for a signature. In addition to outlawing the use of traps, Senate Bill 32 would prohibit the use of snares and wildlife poison on public land. The proposal would establish misdemeanor penalties for violations of the anti-trapping measure. It contains exceptions, including all other types of hunting; ecosystem management; cage traps to protect property, crops or livestock; and religious and ceremonial purposes by enrolled members of a federally recognized Indian nation, tribe or pueblo. Trapping on private and tribal land would still be allowed.

Senate sends amended $7.4 billion budget proposal to House

A $7.4 billion budget that would increase state government spending by 4.8 percent in the upcoming fiscal year cleared the New Mexico Senate along a mostly party-line vote Wednesday after an hourslong debate riddled with political potshots and last-minute amendments. “Not everybody’s going to like what’s in the budget,” said Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat who is the Senate Finance Committee chairman. “Not everybody can get everything they want, but we can try.” The proposed budget calls for $3.35 billion in public education spending, a 5.8 percent increase; $300 million for road projects around the state; $200 million in pandemic recovery grants for businesses; and $34 million to help shore up the pension fund for the state’s educators. The proposal also includes about $64 million for a 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment for all state government, public school and higher education employees.

Lawmakers upset at Senate Judiciary bottleneck

In the sometimes Byzantine world of the New Mexico Legislature, there might be nothing that rankles a lawmaker more than when their bill lingers in a committee, waiting days or even weeks for a hearing. Many delays are caused by the sheer number of bills lawmakers consider in a legislative session. More than 900 were introduced in this year’s unprecedented 60-day session, held amid a pandemic that prompted remote proceedings and other precautions. But some holdups are intentional, two Democratic state lawmakers said in a virtual news conference Wednesday. Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Rep. Patricia Roybal-Caballero, both Albuquerque Democrats, accused Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat, of deliberately obstructing a pair of environmental-protection measures they believe he doesn’t support.

Bill to tap land grant permanent fund for early childhood education clears hurdle

Advocates behind a years-long effort to draw more money for early childhood programs from a multibillion-dollar state investment fund celebrated a major triumph Tuesday. Legislation is headed to the Senate floor for the first time following a 7-4 vote of approval by the Senate Finance Committee — known for stalling similar legislation dating back to 2014. After Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, a sponsor of House Joint Resolution 1, said he felt “fantastic, man, fantastic.” “It’s amazing — the committee finally held a hearing on it, they looked at the figures and realized the fund can handle it,” Maestas said in an interview. The Senate Finance Committee insisted on a compromise amendment that would increase the amount drawn from the now $22 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to provide additional support for K-12 schools, which already receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the endowment each year.

Aid-in-dying bill poised to become law in New Mexico

The New Mexico Senate passed a controversial bill Monday that would allow terminally ill patients who are of sound mind to take their own lives with the aid of a physician. The bill will soon head to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is expected to sign the measure into law once the state House of Representatives, which already has approved the bill, concurs with a number of amendments. “The governor has been a lifelong advocate for seniors and their independence, as well as for the importance of dignity and respect in making choices about one’s own health and treatment,” Nora Meyers Sackett, Lujan Grisham’s press secretary, wrote in an email. Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, described the measure as “compassion for the suffering” and said nine other states and the District of Columbia have passed similar legislation. “A 2020 Gallup poll indicates 74 percent of Americans support an end-of-life option,” Stefanics said at the end of a 2½-hour debate.