Key legislative committee endorses revised $8.4 billion spending plan

The Senate Finance Committee put its stamp of approval Sunday on an amended $8.4 billion spending plan for the state of New Mexico that includes additional funding for criminal justice initiatives, road projects and a school of public health. The overall budget proposal, which the committee advanced to the full Senate in a unanimous vote, increases spending by nearly 14 percent, or roughly $1 billion, over the current fiscal year ending in June. The proposed level of spending represents an all-time high for the state. 

“Everybody in New Mexico seems to have gotten something,” Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, who chairs the committee, said Saturday after a series of amendments were presented to the committee. “We put a lot of money in economic development, and it had better be fruitful as we move forward or New Mexico is going to be looking at cuts again,” he said. “We ride the rollercoaster of oil and gas, and as long you want to continue that, we better plan carefully.”

Proposal to increase pay of governor and other elected officials clears legislative committee

A proposal to give the governor and other statewide elected officials hefty raises while state employees are poised to receive average 7 percent pay increases under New Mexico’s proposed budget touched off a spirited debate Sunday at the Capitol. The Senate Finance Committee advanced Senate Bill 202 on a 7-4 party-line vote with Republicans expressing concerns about the optics and the need to boost the pay of elective offices that typically have no shortage of candidates. Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, said she’d be open to supporting the proposed pay increases if “contingencies” were part of the deal. “So, we’re trying to bring the governor’s salary from 44th up to 19th” in national rankings, she said. “Can we make that contingent upon her bringing New Mexico’s CYFD (Children, Youth and Families Department) child welfare from 50th to 19th?

Republicans block debate on Voting Rights Act

Senate Republicans pulled a legislative maneuver Saturday to successfully block debate on a governor-backed bill advocates say will expand voting rights in New Mexico but opponents contend Democrats are using for political gain. The procedure, a stall tactic known as a “call of the Senate,” requires every member of the chamber to be physically present in the Capitol for a bill to be considered. Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, unleashed the maneuver on Senate Bill 8, known as the New Mexico Voting Rights Act, at the start of the floor session before the bill was even brought up for debate. “Sergeant at arms, round up the members and lock the doors,” Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who was presiding over the floor session, said after Brandt made the motion for a call of the Senate. Around 3:30 p.m., Stewart said Sens.

Lujan Grisham gets a victory for tough-on-crime agenda

In many ways, it felt like high noon on the House floor for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Lawmakers on Friday debated one of the governor’s favored pieces of legislation — a crime reform bill that would do away with the six-year statute of limitations on second-degree murder charges. Moving the bill forward from the House of Representatives to the Senate with less than a week left to this year’s 30-day legislative session would provide a breakthrough — or at least movement — in what had been a succession of stalled measures. Fortunately for the governor, the drama was dispensed with quickly: It took the House less than 20 minutes to discuss and vote to approve House Bill 79, which now heads to the Senate for consideration. For Lujan Grisham, who has been pushing for tougher penalties for violent offenders and tighter pretrial release standards to keep those defendants behind bars, Friday’s action was a small victory.

Controversial hydrogen hub bill heads to House floor

A controversial bill that would help make New Mexico a center of hydrogen production as an energy source is on its way to the House floor for consideration. Members of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee voted 7-3 to approve House Bill 228, which would create a framework for a hydrogen industry and allow businesses and organizations to apply for public and private money to develop hydrogen production projects. “We’re trying to take advantage of a new industry, try to grow economics-based jobs,” said Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who co-sponsored the bill. “We’ve got a perfect location.” She cited the recently abandoned Escalante Power Plant in Prewitt, which would likely become the first hydrogen facility in the state if the bill becomes law.

Senate committee backs tax cuts supported by governor

In a bipartisan vote, a Senate committee late Thursday endorsed an omnibus tax bill that would free most seniors from New Mexico’s income tax on Social Security benefits and would reduce the gross receipts tax rate by a quarter percent. While the bill still faces other hurdles in the final days of the legislative session, the 9-1 vote by the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee marked a big win for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, whose legislative priorities include exempting Social Security benefits from the state’s personal income tax and cutting the gross receipts tax rate. “The governor is committed to putting more money back in New Mexicans’ pockets, and we’re glad to see her priorities moving forward,” Nora Meyers Sackett, Lujan Grisham’s press secretary, wrote in an email after the vote. The bill also would extend the sunset on the state’s new solar market development income tax credit by eight years and increase the cap to $12 million from $8 million. “This is a significant package of tax changes and incentives, and combined, they will help the economy, help the environment and help reduce the tax burden on our residents and businesses,” said Jon Clark, deputy secretary of the New Mexico Economic Development Department.

Senate approves bill easing access to rainy day funds

A bill that would make it easier for the Legislature to tap into rainy day funds cleared the Senate on Thursday over the objections of Republicans who accused Democrats of being fiscally irresponsible. Senate Bill 135, which passed 24-15 after an hourlong debate, changes transfers between the more restrictive Tax Stabilization Reserve and the less restrictive operating reserve. Under current law, when operating reserves exceed 8 percent of the prior year’s appropriations, the excess is transferred to the Tax Stabilization Reserve, said Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, who sponsored the measure. The bill would “keep that provision in place but it provides for the transfer to occur only if the balance of the Tax Stabilization Reserve is less than 20 percent of appropriations,” she said. “When the balance … exceeds 20 percent, no transfer will occur and the funds will stay in the less restrictive operating reserve.”

Correa Hemphill said the existing relationship between the two rainy day funds limits the Legislature’s ability to have the “flexibility” to deal with important needs when they arise.

Bill would require courts to assess ability to pay when imposing fines

A bill that would require courts to consider people’s ability to pay when imposing fines and fees and allow more ways for defendants to settle court debts has cleared the House of Representatives and is headed to the Senate for discussion. House Bill 81 would require courts to assess a person’s ability to pay before imposing fines for a conviction and would allow cost exemptions for people who are declared indigent. Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, the legislation’s sponsor, said the measure makes sense in part because of money wasted in an attempt to collect fines and fees from people who can’t pay. “In several court systems in New Mexico, we are spending a lot of tax dollars to chase down money New Mexicans frankly don’t have to begin with,” she told lawmakers during a recent hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. In Bernalillo County, for example, the government spent $1.17 on collection efforts for every $1 collected in fines, Cadena said in an interview Thursday.

Frustrations rise for some as ‘tough on crime’ measures stall

Less than a month after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham held a news conference to say she was going to push a “tough on crime” agenda in this year’s legislative session, district attorneys, Republican lawmakers and crime victims held their own gathering Wednesday to deliver a very different message. 

The governor’s crime reform platform, they said, is going nowhere. 

“We were promised it would be a tough-on-crime year,” said Nicole Chavez, whose teenage son, Jaydon Chavez-Silver, was killed in a shooting in Albuquerque in 2015. “That’s not what is happening,” Chavez said while standing outside the state Capitol. “Every single crime bill has been stopped or tabled.” One piece of legislation that did clear the Senate this week, a “second chance” bill which bans life without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, outraged the parents of homicide victims and some Republican lawmakers. The passage of Senate Bill 43 along party lines, with Republicans opposing it, led to Wednesday’s news conference by some of the governor’s critics.

Guv: Legislature’s inability to tackle crime ‘defies explanation’

A day after the mother of a teenage murder victim cried at the Capitol as lawmakers approved a bill said to be lenient on criminals, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham embarked on a public relations campaign that shifted the blame for lack of action on her “tough-on-crime” agenda to the Legislature. Lujan Grisham, a Democrat running for re-election this year, told reporters “it defies explanation” why lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled Legislature have been unable to reach consensus on bills meant to fight crime in New Mexico. “I don’t understand why they don’t want to tackle it head on, but I’m going to stay the course for as long as it takes because we all have a responsibility to our families and our communities to do everything we can about it,” Lujan Grisham said. 

A short time later, her office issued a news release stating the governor, along with Attorney General Hector Balderas and members of her public safety team, had met with the mothers of violent crime victims, including Nicole Chavez, who was in tears at the Capitol a day earlier as the Senate passed a controversial bill on a sentencing option for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. “Governor, Attorney General meet with family of crime victims, reiterate commitment to meaningful action,” the news release proclaimed. “I am deeply troubled and frustrated by the Legislature’s reluctance to take meaningful action — and New Mexicans should be outraged,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement in the news release, which included pictures of the governor sitting across from Chavez and Angel Alire, whose son also was gunned down in Albuquerque.