Multiple cannabis legalization bills expected during the NM Legislative session

New Mexico’s 2021 legislative session will surely be marked with debates over education issues, state finances and abortion rights. But the Legislature is also set to weigh the pros and cons of recreational-use cannabis. In recent years,  generally speaking, Democrats have pushed for legalization while Republicans have opposed it. This year, though, Democratic lawmakers expect to see multiple legalization bills, with some technical differences. 

Senate leadership, along with at least two expected sponsors of legalization proposals, told NM Political Report that the goal this year is collaboration and to avoid bogging down the process. 

In the House, all eyes are on Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque. 

Martínez has sponsored a bill aimed at legalization nearly every year he’s been in office. His 2019 attempt arguably saw the most progress.

New Mexico Legislature opens 2021 session with little pomp and circumstance

After all the concerns about a potential demonstration (or worse) interrupting the proceedings, the 2021 session of the New Mexico Legislature began quietly and peacefully Tuesday. At times, it didn’t seem like a session at all. Certainly not an opening like veterans have come to know. Yes, legislators trooped into the Capitol, but there were few others. No lobbyists.

Gallup Democrat Muñoz will head powerful Senate Finance Committee

State Sen. George Muñoz hasn’t slept very well since he found out he had been selected to serve as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, an appointment that comes with as much influence as it does responsibility. “There are people in New Mexico that need help, and we’re going to make sure that we try to get them the help they need,” said Muñoz, a 53-year-old Gallup Democrat who was officially appointed to the position Tuesday, the first day of the 2021 legislative session. “It’s different for every part of the state and for every New Mexican, so there’s a lot of responsibility, and it’s left me sleepless for a few nights,” he said. Muñoz succeeds former Sen. John Arthur Smith, a conservative-leaning Democrat from Deming who served as committee chairman for more than a decade. Smith, who lost his reelection bid to a more progressive candidate in last year’s primary, earned the nickname “Dr. No” for his refusal to fund various initiatives, even those championed by his own party, over the years.

Lawmakers poised to start a strange legislative session

The 2021 legislative session begins Tuesday at noon, against a bizarre backdrop that’s never been contemplated, much less seen. The Capitol building remains surrounded by fencing, concrete barriers and blocked roads. On Monday, it was guarded by state police officers and at least a dozen National Guard soldiers, who were seen patrolling the facility and manning entrance checkpoints. The annual State of the State speech, which usually highlights the opening day of the session, is off, at least on Tuesday. A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said it eventually will be delivered, “likely remotely,” due to ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Report outlines deficiencies in education for Native American students

While Native American students in New Mexico are showing improvement in graduation rates, third-grade reading and math proficiency, they continue to perform well below their peers on state and national measures of achievement. As a result, a report released Monday makes several recommendations to help close the gap. They include asking the Legislature to reduce or eliminate the so-called Impact Aid credit from the state’s public education funding formula, freeing up the money for affected school districts to spend on evidence-based interventions. “If the Legislature were to remove the Impact Aid credit from the public education funding formula, Impact Aid districts could locally decide to spend the additional operational funding on added supports for facility needs, instruction, tribal collaboration activities, or tribal education departments,” the Legislative Finance Committee wrote in a progress report on the implementation of the Indian Education Act, which was passed in 2003. Federal Impact Aid compensates school districts and charter schools for the loss of property tax from tribal lands and other tax-exempt federal property within their boundaries.

Redistricting to be pushed back because of Census delays

New Mexico lawmakers hoping to tackle a major state redistricting plan in a September special session got some surprising news Monday. 

They may have to wait until November or December, due to census data delays. Albuquerque pollster Brian Sanderoff, whose company Research & Polling Inc. plans to help compile data for the redistricting effort, told members of the Legislative Council the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the 2020 U.S. census, which will hinder New Mexico’s process of drawing new voting district boundaries based on population changes. “We can’t do our work until we get that data,” Sanderoff said. Voting districts in New Mexico were last drawn in 2012 by a state District Court after then Republican Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a redistricting plan drafted by a Legislature with a majority of Democrats following the 2010 census. New Mexico has more time than some other states to meet a requirement for redistricting based on updated census data.

An A-Z guide to the 2021 legislative session

The 2021 legislative session opens this week amid the most unusual circumstances imaginable: fences and barriers around a vulnerable Capitol building, plans for extensive online participation from lawmakers and even a suggested five-bill introduction limit in the state House of Representatives. And it hasn’t even gotten interesting. Yet. The 60-day session begins Tuesday. Here’s a letter-by-letter primer on issues, people and possibilities as the marathon begins.

Renewable energy bills on tap for the 2021 session

The Legislature will be considering a handful of renewable energy-related legislation in the upcoming session. Here are some of the bills we’ll be watching. 

Clean fuel standard: Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that a clean fuel standard is one of her legislative priorities for the upcoming 60-day session. The fuel standard would only apply to the producers of fuel, not retailers such as gas stations. The fuel standard would reduce the state’s transportation emissions by 230,000 metric tons of CO2 annually, the governor said in a press release. 

Local Choice Energy Act: Las Cruces Democratic state Senator Jeff Steinborn prefiled a bill that would enable communities to source their own electricity providers. Steinborn, who introduced similar legislation in 2019, said the bill would inject more competition into electricity markets. 

“The reason for it is, it’s just good old-fashioned free market,” Steinborn said.

Lawmakers and others want to make budget process more transparent

Susan Boe still remembers the surprise she felt when she discovered the door was locked. Looking through the small window of a legislative hearing room in the state Capitol, she could make out the members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee within. She had been tipped off that they were talking about the budget, and she wanted to sit in on the meeting, which she assumed was open. Boe, then the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, was in for a rude awakening. 

The meeting was closed, off limits to outsiders. “It was pretty frustrating,” Boe said earlier this week, recalling that day nearly five years ago when she tried to get a sense on how lawmakers were finalizing the state budget.

Lawmakers to introduce criminal justice reform bills

Attempts at criminal justice reform are not new for the New Mexico Legislature, but success in lessening criminal penalties and revamping processes has seen mixed results. But reform advocates and some lawmakers said they are confident this is the year criminal justice reform proposals will gain more traction and possibly be signed into law. 

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, who has been a long-time advocate for criminal justice reform said a politically progessive shift of the Legislature could help move those types of bills forward.  

“I think a lot of champions have emerged,” Maestas said. “So I anticipate a whole slew of criminal justice type bills to increase public safety and make the system more accountable”

One issue Maestas said he plans to address is language in state law that gives law enforcement officers who are under investigation arguably more rights than other citizens under investigation have been afforded in practice. 

The law Maestas plans to address details rights of officers subjected to internal investigations and includes things like limiting interrogations to two in a 24 hour period, limiting interrogation time limits and requiring no more than two interrogators at a time. Maestas said the language in the law is unusually similar to language in most police union contracts. 

“It’s like an HR protection in state statute,” he said. 

Maestas said the law itself is antithetical to basic freedoms afforded by the U.S. Constitution. 

“It’s even referred to in popular culture as the peace officer bill of rights,” Maestas said. “Which totally contradicts the premise of the U.S. Bill of Rights, which is protections against the government not protections for government.”

Maestas said he also wants the regulation of law enforcement licensure moved from the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy to the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department and plans to sponsor a bill to do so. 

Maestas said law enforcement is one of the few professions, including teachers and lawyers, in the state that is self-regulated. 

“The Law Enforcement Academy has to be re-reworked,” he said.