Senate approves bill requiring background checks on all gun sales

The state Senate narrowly approved a bill Thursday that would require just about anyone buying a firearm to undergo a background check. This legislation has been a priority for gun control advocates, but all 16 Republicans and four Democrats in the Senate said it would not prevent the sort of mass shootings that have spurred calls for such laws. Scheduled for the first anniversary of a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead, the Senate’s vote was the biggest test yet for gun control during this legislative session. Majority Democrats won the day on a 22-20 vote. Senate Bill 8 now heads to the state House of Representatives, which already has passed a law on background checks this year and might approve this measure.

Bill to shift federal education funding pits urban schools against tribes

Two state senators who represent rural districts hope to topple a long-standing system that uses the lion’s share of a federal grant program to help fund urban schools. Operational money from the grants initially goes to 25 school districts and five charter schools. But then the state shortchanges these needy districts, said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, who called what happens “a shell game.” That’s because the state takes the equivalent of 75 percent of that Impact Aid money and reduces it from those districts’ general fund support for schools. Districts receiving Impact Aid say that means they only get a quarter of the federal money.

Lawmaker aims to ease burden for independents to run for office

If you wanted to run for governor as an independent last year, you would have needed to get more than 15,000 registered voters to sign a petition to get your name on the ballot. It was a nearly impossible goal. New Mexico law sets a high bar for independent candidates to even qualify for an election. A new state legislator wants to make it easier for independents to run for office by drastically slashing the number of signatures they need to file with election officials. While the Legislature has consistently shot down past proposals to loosen up New Mexico’s notoriously tight ballot access laws, one top Democrat appears to be on board with the idea.

Governor backs plan for outdoor recreation agency

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday threw her support behind legislation establishing a state office of outdoor recreation, which an unlikely coalition of backers say would boost an industry they view as key to diversifying New Mexico’s economy. The newly elected Democrat did not just put her political muscle behind the idea, either. She put her calf muscles behind it, bicycling from the governor’s mansion to the Capitol in a show of support for Senate Bill 462. “Montana, you’re done. We’ve got it all right here,” Lujan Grisham later told reporters.

Another attempt to ‘ban the box’ hits the Roundhouse

The toughest question on a job application can be pretty short. Have you ever been convicted of a felony? For job seekers with criminal records, checking that box can make all the difference in landing an interview with a prospective employer. Now, lawmakers are reviving a years-long effort to “ban the box” by prohibiting employers from asking about criminal convictions on an initial job application. Even as crime has become a flash point between Republicans and Democrats, Senate Bill 96 is one idea that has rallied bipartisan support.

Minimum wage hike advances despite restaurant industry’s fight

Democrats campaigned last year on a promise to raise New Mexico’s minimum wage, which has remained at $7.50 an hour for a decade. How high it will go, exactly, is a question that quickly has become wrapped in a battle waged by the restaurant industry and could get caught in a tug-of-war between the state House and Senate. The issue has raised a series of other questions as well. Should there continue to be a lower minimum wage for workers who traditionally earn tips from customers, such as restaurant servers? Should employers be allowed to offer a lower minimum wage to younger workers, like high school students?

Gov. names choice to lead Corrections Department

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has tapped former Florida prison system leader Julie Jones to run the New Mexico Department of Corrections, an agency plagued by short staffing and aging facilities that are quickly approaching capacity. Lujan Grisham said during a news conference Thursday at the Capitol that Jones was seen as a reformer when she was hired in 2015 to run Florida’s massive corrections system — which has more than 10 times the budget and number of inmates as New Mexico’s. She’s hopeful Jones can play the same role here, the governor said. If confirmed by the state Senate for the Cabinet-level corrections secretary job, Jones will take over a department described by the state auditor in 2017 as “rife with mismanagement and financial control problems” and “one of the “poorer run departments in the state.” Jones will be responsible for overseeing 11 state prisons, which hold more than 7,000 inmates, and the Probation and Parole Division, which monitors more than 17,000 convicted criminals.

Bill to raise penalty for school threats blocked

The divide over how best to punish those who threaten to commit violence in schools widened Thursday, as a panel of Democrats blocked a bill to make the crime a fourth-degree felony. Rep. Randal Crowder, R-Clovis, said he introduced House Bill 115 to create a specific crime for leveling terrorist threats at a school or other public building. He said it would be a means of deterring juveniles and adults alike from feeling emboldened in targeting schools. Democrats countered that his bill was so broad it could turn teens who do something stupid into felons for life. More important, a legislative staff analysis of Crowder’s proposal found that the state already has other laws that can be used to prosecute people who make threats.

Election Day voter registration clears first committee

A bill to allow voters to register on the same day they vote cleared its first House committee Wednesday. The House, State Government, Elections & Indian Affairs Committee advanced the proposal on a party-line vote. The bill aims to let voters register or update their voter registration during early voting or on Election Day, and vote on the same day. Currently, voters must register four weeks before the election to be eligible to vote. One of the bill’s Democratic co-sponsors, Patricia Roybal Caballero of Albuquerque, said the legislation “is the ultimate access bill to allow voters to access the electoral process as openly as possible.”

The bill would allow new voters to register on Election Day and those already registered to change their address.

Governor appoints two to lead tax agency, Department of Indian Affairs

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday named Santa Fe County’s finance director as secretary-designate of the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department and appointed a member of Sandia Pueblo with a background in tribal law as head of the state Department of Indian Affairs. The Cabinet-level appointments of Stephanie Schardin Clarke to lead the tax agency and Lynn Trujillo to lead Indian Affairs leave the Democratic governor with two remaining Cabinet positions to fill — secretaries of the Department of Corrections and the Public Education Department. 

Lujan Grisham, who has made public education one of her top priorities, indicated Tuesday that an appointment for public education secretary could be coming soon. In the interim, Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, a former educator, is overseeing the department. Santa Fe County Finance Director Stephanie Schardin Clarke was appointed Tuesday as the new Cabinet secretary-designate of the state Taxation and Revenue Department. Among Schardin Clarke’s goals, the governor said, will be to make the tax agency’s Motor Vehicle Division more “responsible, accountable and customer friendly.”