By Scott Wyland, The Santa Fe New Mexican
A proposal to embed the right to a clean and healthy environment in the state Constitution has stalled in its third go-round in the Legislature — though this time it’s because of what the sponsor calls misinformation attached to the measure.
Senate Joint Resolution 6, called the “green amendment” by its supporters, is one of several measures to crack down on polluters or to combat climate change to have stalled this session, amid mostly united Republican opposition to such efforts and a divided Democratic caucus.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of Democrats that should be supporting some of this legislation … and they’re siding with the Republicans,” said Charles de Saillan, a longtime environmental attorney in New Mexico. “I think it is inexcusable that we are close to the end of another 60-day session, and we still do not have comprehensive climate legislation in New Mexico.”
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said she hasn’t put SJR 6 up for discussion because the fiscal impact report accompanying the resolution was filled with misstatements about the measure and she didn’t want to present the false information. As a result, the measure has sat in the Senate Rules Committee all session without a hearing.
“It’s so frustrating and disappointing,” she said. “I don’t mind debating anything, but it’s very hard to debate lies and misinformation.”
She and other proponents had high hopes that this year’s session would provide ample time to move it through both chambers of the Legislature so it could be put before voters in 2024 to decide whether environmental protections should be a constitutional right.
But correcting the erroneous statements in the impact report is taking a lot of time, which means the proposed amendment won’t make it to the finish line this session, Sedillo Lopez said.
One of the falsehoods in the report, Sedillo Lopez said, is that the amendment would eliminate legislators’ ability to pass environmental laws because it would repeal a section of the state Constitution that gives them that authority. In truth, she said, lawmakers are empowered to pass environmental laws under a different article of the Constitution than the one SJR 6 would replace. She said the Attorney General’s Office read the report and agreed there were many misstatements in it.
“That was just a wrong statement,” Sedillo Lopez said. “That was just one example of problematic language.”
Although efforts to pass similar constitutional amendments have been undertaken in other states, it has proven an uphill battle in most places. So far, only New York, Montana and Pennsylvania have adopted them.
Three additional states have environmental provisions in their constitutions, but the green amendment differs in that it is placed in the Bill of Rights to the state Constitution, giving it greater legal armor. Sedillo Lopez said it would ensure environmental protection is durable and not based on who’s in the governor’s mansion.
Advocates say the amendment would compel the state to enforce current laws and enable it to draw on constitutional authority when regulations don’t adequately cover specific threats to the environment or public health. It also would give citizens more leverage to sue polluters. The intent, Sedillo Lopez said, is not to shut down or hurt businesses but to bolster enforcement and accountability.
“It’s intended to make sure they operate cleanly,” Sedillo Lopez said. “If they comply with the regulations, they shouldn’t be worried.”
Opponents contend it could lead to government overreach that would hurt the state’s industries — such as fossil fuel, agriculture, timber and mining — and the communities that depend on the jobs in those sectors.
In New Mexico, no Republicans have voiced support for it. However, not all Democrats have been eager to embrace environmental legislation this session either, leading a few other green bills to stall.
On Tuesday, Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, joined the Republicans on the Senate Conservation Committee to sideline Senate Bill 520, which would have codified Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s executive order to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050.
De Saillan pointed to two other environmental bills that were tabled earlier this session the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee. One would have cracked down on bad actors in the oil and gas industry, while the other, House Bill 242, would have made it easier for private parties to take action against polluters.
“This allows private individuals, when they’re suffering harm … to step in and protect themselves under existing law,” committee chairman and sponsor Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, said at the committee hearing on the bill a month ago. “So I view this as a really modest step forward.”
However, representatives of the energy industry and business groups spoke against the bill, worried it would lead to frivolous lawsuits and discourage businesses from locating in New Mexico. Two Democrats joined the committee’s Republicans to table the measure.
“A stable and predictable regulatory environment is key to development and growth,” said J.D. Bullington, a lobbyist with the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.