Cannabis legalization runs out of time, governor will call for a special session

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham confirmed on Saturday that she plans to call a special legislative session aimed at fully legalizing cannabis and said it will begin “on or about” March 31. 

In a post-legislative session press conference, Lujan Grisham said the work lawmakers did to try and come up with an agreeable cannabis legalization proposal can serve as a good starting point during the special session. 

“If you look at all of the brokering of efforts to bring two sides of the issue together, and it happened over and over again, we have an incredible framework ready to go for adult use cannabis,” Lujan Grisham said. 

The governor’s announcement comes on the heels of a 60-day session that failed to send a cannabis legalization bill to Lujan Grisham’s desk. But the outlook for cannabis legalization during the last few days of the session was a stark contrast from the optimism just weeks earlier. About a week before lawmakers were set to adjourn, legalization seemed like it was going to stall in the Senate Judiciary Committee. But HB 12, sponsored by Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, ultimately made its way out of that committee, albeit with less than 72 hours before the end of the session and a warning from Chairman Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces. 

“There are a number of things in the bill that should be of great concern to you that, frankly, in many cases, are just contrary to law, existing law,” Cervantes said. “And I don’t think you want to do that.”

More specifically, Cervantes said the bill would unintentionally give parents the ability to give their children cannabis and that wording regarding personal possession limits was opposite of what the sponsors intended.

Paid sick leave passes Senate after lengthy, acrimonious debate including a filibuster

The state Senate passed the Healthy Workplaces bill 25 to 16 after a lengthy debate that stretched into the early hours of Friday during which Democrats sparred against each other on the chamber floor over the treatment of the bill’s sponsor, while Republicans railed against the bill and one even held a lengthy filibuster. HB 20 would mandate that all private sector employers provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Private sector employees could accrue up to 64 hours a year of paid sick leave. The bill would not go into effect until July 1, 2022. Advocates had pushed for mandated paid sick leave for years, including at the local level in Albuquerque.

In landmark vote, effort to increase early childhood education, K-12 funds passes Senate

State Rep. Moe Maestas sat quietly on a metal folding chair, his hands clasped together, as he watched the three-hour debate play out around him on the Senate floor. At stake was hundreds of millions of dollars for early childhood and public education programs. 

As the call to vote came around 5 p.m. Thursday, Maestas began twiddling his thumbs, tapping his right foot. He had been waiting for this moment for more than five years. Capitol insiders might say the outcome was never in question. The 42-member state Senate voted 26-16 in favor of a ballot question asking New Mexico voters to approve a constitutional amendment allowing the state to tap into its now $22 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to create an annual revenue stream for prekindergarten and K-12 programs.

After the vote, Maestas, who co-sponsored the effort with Rep. Javier Martínez, a fellow Albuquerque Democrat, said, “This is a victory for the children of New Mexico.

Ban on trapping on public lands narrowly heads to governor’s desk

A renewed effort to ban trapping on public land in New Mexico moved through the House of Representatives by a close vote of 35-34 and is now on its way to the governor’s desk for a signature. In addition to outlawing the use of traps, Senate Bill 32 would prohibit the use of snares and wildlife poison on public land. The proposal would establish misdemeanor penalties for violations of the anti-trapping measure. It contains exceptions, including all other types of hunting; ecosystem management; cage traps to protect property, crops or livestock; and religious and ceremonial purposes by enrolled members of a federally recognized Indian nation, tribe or pueblo. Trapping on private and tribal land would still be allowed.

House-backed cannabis legalization bill heads to Senate Floor

After a series of successful and attempted amendments and three hours of debate, a House-backed legalization effort passed its last Senate committee by a 5-4 vote and is now headed to the chamber’s floor. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee debate started Wednesday night and ended early Thursday morning, though Chairman Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, reiterated his belief that HB 12 was still not ready for the Senate floor. 

HB 12, sponsored by Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, went through a number of changes that include prohibiting cannabis producers from stacking licenses, an adjustment to how production is monitored and limited, a prohibition on cannabis producers testing their own products for potency and contaminants, and a change to how the cannabis excise tax would be structured.  

But even after an extensive debate and detailed amendments, Cervantes said the bill was riddled with errors and ambiguity. 

After Cervantes went through each section and pointed out numerous instances that he said would be problematic, Romero said she and Martínez would be willing to go through them and make changes during the meeting. But Cervantes said making those changes would take too long. 

“There are a number of things in the bill that should be of great concern to you that, frankly in many cases, are just contrary to law,” Cervantes said. Cervantes voted, along with the three Republican committee members, against the measure 

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, who sponsored a legalization attempt in 2019 agreed that the bill was not ready and called the current version “half-baked.” Moores criticized proponents of the bill for not working with him to come up with an agreeable bill. 

“My phone has been silent from the advocates on this for three years now,” Moores said. “It doesn’t seem like they wanted to get it right and there were agendas there.” 

Senate Minority Floor Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, praised the committee for meticulously going through the bill, but said there were still “glaring issues.”

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, did not offer any comments on the final bill that passed the committee, but he also sponsored a legalization bill this year. His bill, though, would still need to pass another Senate committee and the Senate floor before going through the process again in the House.

Senate sends amended $7.4 billion budget proposal to House

A $7.4 billion budget that would increase state government spending by 4.8 percent in the upcoming fiscal year cleared the New Mexico Senate along a mostly party-line vote Wednesday after an hourslong debate riddled with political potshots and last-minute amendments. “Not everybody’s going to like what’s in the budget,” said Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat who is the Senate Finance Committee chairman. “Not everybody can get everything they want, but we can try.” The proposed budget calls for $3.35 billion in public education spending, a 5.8 percent increase; $300 million for road projects around the state; $200 million in pandemic recovery grants for businesses; and $34 million to help shore up the pension fund for the state’s educators. The proposal also includes about $64 million for a 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment for all state government, public school and higher education employees.

Lawmakers upset at Senate Judiciary bottleneck

In the sometimes Byzantine world of the New Mexico Legislature, there might be nothing that rankles a lawmaker more than when their bill lingers in a committee, waiting days or even weeks for a hearing. Many delays are caused by the sheer number of bills lawmakers consider in a legislative session. More than 900 were introduced in this year’s unprecedented 60-day session, held amid a pandemic that prompted remote proceedings and other precautions. But some holdups are intentional, two Democratic state lawmakers said in a virtual news conference Wednesday. Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Rep. Patricia Roybal-Caballero, both Albuquerque Democrats, accused Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat, of deliberately obstructing a pair of environmental-protection measures they believe he doesn’t support.

Gov. Lujan Grisham signs liquor law change

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday signed into law what evolved into a sweeping change of state liquor laws. 

HB 255, sponsored by Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, was originally intended to allow alcohol deliveries and add a new type of liquor dispensing license. But through a series of amendments on the Senate floor, the law now bans miniature liquor bottles, broadens the hours when liquor can be sold and allows for a ban of liquor sales at gas stations and convenience stores in McKinley County. 

The bill proved controversial among many liquor license holders early on in the legislative process. Those existing license holders repeatedly argued that adding a new type of liquor license would devalue current licenses. For decades, New Mexico limited the number of liquor dispensing licenses which resulted in licenses being sold for upwards of half a million dollars. Many restaurant and bar owners said they used their licenses as collateral for loans. 

But instead of issuing more dispensing licenses, the new law actually creates a new class of liquor licenses for restaurants that requires a certain amount of food to be sold and those who obtain the new class of license cannot sell any more than three drinks, containing one and a half ounces of hard alcohol. 

Lujan Grisham, in a statement on Wednesday said the passage of the bill was the result of “productive and creating problem-solving” by lawmakers. 

“Like any bipartisan compromise, at the end of the day, most if not all will feel both that they got some of what they wanted and had to give some of what they didn’t,” Lujan Grisham said. 

During committee hearings many current license holders implied that the state could face lawsuits calling for state reimbursement to make up for a devalued license.

Limitations on medical cannabis reciprocity heads to House floor

While two efforts to legalize and regulate recreational-use cannabis are coming down to the wire, legislation aimed at limiting medical cannabis reciprocity appears to be on a fast track to the governor’s desk. 

SB 340, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, passed the House Judiciary Committee unanimously on Wednesday.  

Ortiz y Pino, joined by New Mexico Department of Health officials, argued that the integrity of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program is at risk unless the law is changed to limit who can qualify as a reciprocal medical cannabis patient. 

“Our reciprocity arrangement has been taken advantage of by people who are using the internet to secure letters, not licenses, but letters from physicians in a third state,” Ortiz y Pino said. “California is the most likely, but it could be anywhere that they have loose medical cannabis programs.”

Aryan Showers with the Department of Health served as one of Ortiz y Pino’s expert witnesses and told the committee that medical cannabis reciprocity was intended to give medical cannabis patients enrolled in a “bonafide state program” the opportunity to buy, possess and consume medical cannabis in New Mexico. Instead, Showers said, there is currently a “loophole” that allows people to “circumvent the enrollment requirements” of New Mexico’s program. 

“We didn’t foresee this loophole, but it’s causing the program significant strain,” Showers said. “And we’re actually just concerned about the potential impact this could have on those New Mexicans who truly depend on the program for their medicine.”

There was no debate among committee members and only two members made supportive comments about the bill. 

Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, jokingly asked Ortiz y Pino where to find a $30 medical cannabis card. 

“I think there are places on the internet where you can get one very quickly,” Ortiz y Pino answered. “There’s only a five minute interview with a physician in California who has a very broad understanding of how medical cannabis can be used.”

This is the second consecutive year that Ortiz y Pino sponsored a bill to amend a law he helped pass in 2019 that made broad changes to the state’s medical cannabis statute.

Bill to tap land grant permanent fund for early childhood education clears hurdle

Advocates behind a years-long effort to draw more money for early childhood programs from a multibillion-dollar state investment fund celebrated a major triumph Tuesday. Legislation is headed to the Senate floor for the first time following a 7-4 vote of approval by the Senate Finance Committee — known for stalling similar legislation dating back to 2014. After Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, a sponsor of House Joint Resolution 1, said he felt “fantastic, man, fantastic.” “It’s amazing — the committee finally held a hearing on it, they looked at the figures and realized the fund can handle it,” Maestas said in an interview. The Senate Finance Committee insisted on a compromise amendment that would increase the amount drawn from the now $22 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to provide additional support for K-12 schools, which already receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the endowment each year.