Environment protections bill passes New Mexico Senate

A bill that would allow the state of New Mexico to adopt air quality and hazardous waste rules more stringent than federal regulations survived a challenge Friday from Senate Republicans, who had previously stalled the measure with a procedural maneuver that kept it in limbo for days. Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, the bill would amend the Air Quality Control Act and the Hazardous Waste Act to allow rules more rigid than federal standards. “In each case … there must be substantial evidence that the proposed state rules are more protective of public health and the environment,” said Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat. The bill passed along a mostly party-line 23-15 vote. Democrat George Muñoz of Gallup sided with Republicans in opposing the measure, which goes to the state House of Representatives for consideration. 

Wirth argued that Senate Bill 8 would provide what he called consistent, New Mexico-focused environmental oversight.

New Mexico ethics commission likely to dismiss 2 of 3 complaints against Egolf

The New Mexico State Ethics Commission will “likely” dismiss two of three complaints filed by a retired judge against House Speaker Brian Egolf, according to a letter the commission sent to the complainant Friday. But the third charge — that Egolf failed to communicate a potential conflict of interest — is still under review by the commission, according to the letter, signed by Jeremy D. Farris, the ethics commission’s executive director. The third complaint will be sent to the ethics commission’s general counsel for review. But, Farris wrote, the commission has no jurisdiction over the other two charges — that Egolf used his legislative office for personal gain and that he failed to discharge his legislative duties in an ethical manner. 

As a result, he wrote, those two complaints will probably be dismissed during the commission’s next meeting in April. 

In her complaint, former state Judge Sandra Price claimed Egolf stands to benefit if the New Mexico Civil Rights Act becomes law. 

The legislation would allow people to file complaints in state District Court over government violations of the state Bill of Rights. Currently, such cases are filed in federal court and cite violations of the U.S. Constitution.

Time grows thin for two redistricting bills for New Mexico

The legislative challenge to choose a process for redistricting still hasn’t been settled. Lawmakers have just one week to get the job done. 

On Friday, members of the House Judiciary Committee voted to advance two bills that each would create an independent commission to redraw election district boundaries for congressional and legislative seats. That means the competing measures both will move to the House of Representatives for consideration. The committee adopted some amendments for House Bill 211 and Senate Bill 15 that made them more closely aligned. But differences remain. 

Chief among them: The Senate bill does not include a provision prohibiting the committee from considering the current political makeup of existing districts as it drafts a new plan.

Legislation to fund early childhood education from Land Grant Permanent Fund gets hearing

In some ways, it was a historic legislative moment. The Senate Finance Committee — renowned as being the morgue for repeated efforts to draw permanent fund money for early childhood education — held a hearing Thursday to discuss that proposal, known as House Joint Resolution 1. But the committee did not vote on the legislation. Instead, as committee Chairman George Muñoz explained, the hearing was intended to educate members on the initiative before taking further action. 

What that action will be remains unclear, although compromise and change seem likely, based on Thursday’s testimony. 

The resolution has become one of the most vetted and publicized in recent years. HJR 1 would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment allowing for a 1 percent annual distribution from the $22 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund — almost $200 million a year — to pay for services for New Mexico’s youngest children. 

Critics, including those who served on the Senate Finance Committee in the past, have said any drawdown from that fund could hurt its future stability.

Senate passes clean fuel bill despite concerns about higher gas prices

A proposal to reduce New Mexico’s carbon footprint by going after greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector fueled a spirited debate Thursday in the state Senate. At issue is whether Senate Bill 11, which would create a statewide clean fuel standard, would lead to higher prices at the gas pump for consumers, who lately have been experiencing sticker shock when they pull up to the pump. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who disputed the notion that gas prices would shoot up, ultimately cleared the chamber on a party-line 25-14 vote — but only after a two-hour discussion that left some lawmakers wondering whether a push to protect the environment would cost consumers. “My biggest concern is what we’re going to do to gas prices in the state of New Mexico,” said Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs. “It will take a little while, but we’re going to get to a point where the people that it’s going to impact the most are low-income people.”

Some look to improve independent redistricting proposal

With just over a week to go before this year’s legislative session ends, the prospect of lawmakers coming through with an independent redistricting plan is looking more likely. But some involved in the process still have concerns about Senate Bill 15, which the Senate unanimously approved Wednesday. The measure would create a seven-member citizens’ committee to gather public input and then come up with three possible redistricting plans for the Legislature to consider by year’s end. 

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to discuss the bill Friday. Assuming the committee approves the measure, it would go to the House floor for a final vote before heading to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk for a signature. 

Some redistricting advocates want the legislation to include language that ensures tribal and pueblo governments are included in the process. 

“The redistricting activities have to take into consideration local governments and their role on the Navajo Nation,” said Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. Among his concerns: The bill as written says redistricting should not divide existing precinct boundaries.

State gets improved revenue projections

The prospect of additional state funds brought welcome news for New Mexico’s college students Wednesday. Based on an improved revenue outlook, New Mexico will have an additional $373 million to spend, bringing the state budget to $7.436 billion, financial experts said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing. 

The extra money would include a one-time appropriation of over $20 million to make college more affordable for New Mexicans. 

Some $11 million of the new money would go into the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gives residents the chance to attend college tuition-free. An additional $10.5 million would shore up the New Mexico Legislative Lottery Scholarship Program so that it would cover 90 percent of tuition for eligible students headed to college. 

“Increasing lottery [scholarship] tuition really reduces the requirement for the opportunity scholarship [program] and expands its reach,” Legislative Finance Committee Director David Abbey told committee members. 

“That’s a pretty significant supplement to financial aid, over $20 million.” A combination of recurring and one-time expenditures would also benefit the public school system, giving it over $3 million in extra funding. Another $1 million is aimed at supporting athletic programs at the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University to help offset lost revenue because of the pandemic. 

Another $34 million in state funding would be available to increase the employer contribution rate to the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board by 1 percent a year for the next four years.

Bill expanding New Mexico’s ‘red-flag’ gun law fizzles

A controversial bill to expand New Mexico’s so-called red-flag gun law appears to be a victim of more pressing priorities in this year’s 60-day legislative session. “For all intents and purposes, it’s gone, unless something really radical changes,” one of the sponsors, Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, said Wednesday. “But there are just too many other priorities this time.” Ely said he hopes to bring the measure back during the Legislature’s 30-day legislative session next year. “It’s a calendar management problem,” he said of the bill’s likely demise this year.

Independent redistricting commission bill clears Senate unanimously

Efforts to ensure New Mexico has an independent redistricting commission plan — once seen as an uphill climb at best — are now moving with momentum. The Senate voted 39-0 to approve a compromise bill that, if enacted into law, would play a major role in setting boundaries for Congress, the state Senate and House of Representatives, and the Public Education Commission later this year. 

The substitute bill for Senate Bills 15 and 99 would create a seven-member panel to come up with a redistricting plan for the Legislature to approve by the end of the year. Provisions of the bill include the ability for legislative leaders from both parties in the Senate and House to choose four members. The New Mexico Ethics Commission will choose the other three members, one of whom would be a retired justice of the state Supreme Court or a retired judge of the state Court of Appeals. 

“This citizens’ redistricting committee will go throughout the state and do a series of [public] hearings,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque and co-sponsor of the legislation. 

After taking public input, that group then will come up with three plans for redistricting and present them to the Legislature to consider during a special session slated for later this year. 

Ivey-Soto added an amendment Tuesday that requires the commission to be appointed and ready to go to work by June 1. The legislation prohibits one political party from holding a majority on the commission. 

There was little debate or discussion on the legislation, which started out as one of the slowest-moving bills of this year’s session.  It now goes to at least one committee in the House.

Senate Republicans stall environmental protections

A bill that would allow the state and certain local authorities to enact environmental protections more stringent than federal regulations stalled Monday when Republicans pulled a legislative maneuver that requires every member of the chamber to be physically present in the Roundhouse. “We’re gonna roll over this bill,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. “At this point, it doesn’t make sense to have us just standing in place.” Wirth, who is sponsoring Senate Bill 8, said the “call of the Senate” will remain on the measure. He noted that “this little procedural maneuver is certainly part of the rules.”