Guv says preparation, COVID-19 focus needed before special session

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signaled in a letter to legislative leaders Thursday that there will be a special session to deal with the budget situation from plunging oil and gas prices and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But first, Lujan Grisham said she wants new revenue projections, including a sense of what sort of federal aid will be provided to states as the country is gripped and increasingly shut down by the virus. House Republican leadership sent a letter to the governor on Thursday calling for a special session to adjust the budget. And Senate Finance Committee chairman John Arthur Smith told the Albuquerque Journal the state could be facing a billion dollar loss in revenue because of oil and gas prices. But Lujan Grisham said in a letter that her focus is currently on stemming the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic and that they need more time to fully assess the economic impacts.

As oil prices crash, line-item vetoes to state budget coming

A “perfect storm” is hitting oil and gas prices, impacting New Mexico and its reliance on the volatile industry’s tax money, according to the Senate Finance Committee chair. The collapse in the price of oil comes just weeks after the state Legislature passed a budget and days before the governor makes her final decisions on line-item vetoes and other decisions in the budget. As of now, the governor’s office says the budget will preclude the need for a special session to adjust spending. Oil prices dropped nearly 25 percent on Monday, the worst day since 1991. Senate Finance Committee chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said it was because of a “perfect storm” with a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Russia leading the Middle Eastern nation to slash prices and announce an increase in production.

Senate Finance chief says he’s OK with possible spending vetoes

Only two weeks after crafting and approving the state budget, the New Mexico Senate’s top finance chief has told Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham he would have no problem if she decides to pare back spending. “I’ve already sent word to the executive branch that if they feel vetos are necessary, I’m not going to be objecting to those,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, the influential chair of the Senate Finance Committee. “The last thing I want to do is go back into special session.”

Why such drastic talk only two weeks after the House and Senate agreed on a $7.6 billion budget for fiscal year 2021? To put it briefly, coronavirus. U.S. oil prices closed at their lowest point in almost four years Friday.

Guv signs a slew of bills

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gave her pen a workout Friday, signing a slew of public safety, child welfare, anti-discrimination, economic development and veterans bills. The governor signed into law a crime prevention package — House Bill 184 and House Judiciary Committee substitutes for House Bills 6, 35 and 113 — that will increase the penalties for being a felon in possession of a firearm and brandishing a firearm in the commission of a felony. In addition, the legislation will:

• Create funding for the training of school resource officers, including instruction on de-escalation techniques and adolescent-specific issues. • Increase funds available for training and equipment for police departments, county sheriff’s offices and university and tribal police officers. • Allocate up to $2 million to the Department of Public Safety to offset expenses for special deployments of state police in counties and cities across the state.

Guv signs solar tax credit, clean energy bills into law

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a slate of bills into law Tuesday afternoon aimed at expanding renewable energy and modernizing the state’s electricity infrastructure, including a bill that reinstates the solar tax credit that expired under the previous administration. SB 29, sponsored by Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque and Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, reinstates the solar tax credit that expired in 2016. The bill creates a personal income tax credit to cover 10 percent of the costs of a solar thermal or solar photovoltaic system for residential, business or agriculture applications. The new law is applicable to tax years starting on January 1, 2020. The tax credit will help more New Mexico families and small businesses “invest in solar, and will boost our statewide effort to move toward the goal of having a 50 percent renewable portfolio standard by 2030,” Stewart said.

Guv signs pension solvency bill into law

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed a bipartisan bill into law that aims to put New Mexico’s state pension system on a path to solvency. 

Senate Bill 72, one of the high-profile bills of the 2020 session, calls for increasing contributions from public workers and the state in a bid to eventually eliminate the Public Employees Retirement Association’s $6.6 billion unfunded liability. “By paying out more than it was taking in, PERA was on a path to eventual bankruptcy,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement on Monday. “Now we’ve reversed course, and I’m confident New Mexico can keep its promises to current and future retirees.” Lujan Grisham made the bill one of her priorities for the session after issuing an executive order last year to create a working group that drafted a pension reform proposal. Many of that task force’s recommendations were incorporated into the eventual bill, sponsored by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, and Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell.

NM expands free school meals

A bill signed into law Monday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will provide free breakfast and lunch to thousands of low-income public school students who have been required to pay a reduced fee for meals through a federal program. 

House Bill 10, funded through a $650,000 appropriation to the Public Education Department that was included in the main state spending bill for fiscal year 2021, will eliminate copays of 30 cents or 40 cents per meal for about 12,500 students across the state who qualify for federal reduced-price breakfasts and lunches. “A 40-cent copay should never come between a child and the food they need to grow and learn,” Lujan Grisham said in a news release. Her signature on HB 10 came on the first day of National School Breakfast Week. The national nonprofit Food Research & Action Center, in its recently released school breakfast scorecard, found New Mexico ranks third in the nation, behind West Virginia and Vermont, for the ratio of students receiving free or reduced-priced lunches who also take advantage of school breakfast programs.

For every 100 New Mexico students who eat subsidized lunches, 69.4 also eat breakfast at school, the nonprofit said. “This school year, New Mexico is on track to serve more than 13,500,000 school breakfasts,” said Public Education Cabinet Secretary Ryan Stewart said in a news release.

Pending cannabis card requests denied after law change

It seems a “typographic error” is to blame for confusion among some who tried to enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program. 

But besides an incorrect date, the letters themselves also added to the confusion for some who sought to become medical cannabis patients. The program sent a number of denial letters to potential patients who failed to provide proof of New Mexico residency. That’s because their applications were not processed in time.  

Last fall a state district court judge ordered the program to issue patient cards to those who had an approved qualified condition, regardless of whether or not they live in New Mexico. In less than six months, more than 600 people from outside New Mexico managed to get medical cannabis patient cards before Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a law which specifies the program is only for New Mexico residents. But two patients who reached out to NM Political Report said they were confused by the date on a letter requesting proof of residency sent by the program.   

“Our agency cannot process your application until we have received a New Mexico driver’s license or a New Mexico identification card in your name and a New Mexico mailing address,” the letters read. 

But the two letters NM Political Report reviewed were dated January 20, 2020, about a month before Lujan Grisham signed the law change.

Governor signs senior dignity fund into law

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed three bills into law Tuesday, including legislation aimed at improving services for seniors as a growing elderly population and rising costs have made it more difficult for New Mexico to meet needs. 

House Bill 225 sets up the Kiki Saavedra Senior Dignity Fund, which is named after a longtime state representative from Albuquerque. It will help address services like transportation, food insecurity, physical and behavioral health, case management and caregiving. The law, which goes into effect May 20, is designed to help New Mexico boost services, given the state is expected to have the fourth-largest senior population in the U.S. by 2030. The governor’s original proposal called for $25 million for the fund, but the budget bill passed by the Legislature only appropriated $7.3 million. The Aging and Long-Term Services Department will be able to request a maximum of $3 million in the fund’s first year, the agency said.

Lujan Grisham signs ‘red flag’ gun bill into law

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the extreme risk protection order, or ‘red flag,’ bill into law Tuesday, continuing the shift of gun laws since she was elected. New Mexico is now the 18th state, plus Washington D.C., with such a law on the books. The bill was one of the governor’s legislative priorities for this session and one of the most controversial pieces of legislation. No Republicans in either chamber supported the legislation, and it passed the House by nine votes before narrowly clearing the Senate by just two votes. The bill would allow law enforcement officers to petition a court for temporary removal of firearms from those who they believe are at risk of harming themselves or others. 

“New Mexico has balanced individual rights and public safety in a responsible way that will reduce our unacceptable suicide rate and other forms of gun violence,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement after signing the bill into law.