House, Senate resolve budget disputes; nearly $8.5B plan moves to governor

After an eleventh-hour dispute between the House and Senate, New Mexico’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 — the largest on record — is back on track. A conference committee made up of three members from each chamber brokered a compromise over spending disagreements during a Wednesday morning meeting that lasted less than 10 minutes. By the afternoon, the deal won bipartisan support in both chambers, advancing the nearly $8.5 billion spending plan to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The budget agreement was critical as the session rolls to a conclusion, but as of late Wednesday night, several key issues — crime, tax cuts and expanding voting access — remained unfinished, with both the House and Senate debating bills past midnight. Lawmakers have expressed concerns about tackling such an aggressive agenda in a short session meant to focus on legislation dealing with budget and tax issues, though the governor has the authority to place any item on the agenda.

Senate considers crime package

The state Senate late Wednesday debated a sweeping crime bill that includes stiffer penalties for violent offenders and recruitment and retention stipends for police officers — all part of a larger effort to combat a wave of lawlessness that has been plaguing New Mexico. The push to aggressively fight a rising crime problem that has emerged primarily in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, comes as the unrest has become a major political talking point leading up to the November general election. “What’s important about this bill is it recognizes that attacking the crime problem requires a multifaceted approach,” said Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who has been one of the lead architects of the crime package. “It requires us looking at law enforcement on the streets, law enforcement officers’ needs, and it requires us looking at prosecutors and public defenders. It requires us looking at the court system.

House votes no on state budget amendments adopted by Senate

As the clock on the legislative session continued winding down to the noon Thursday deadline, a battle over New Mexico’s proposed $8.48 billion budget blew up. The House of Representatives on Tuesday voted against a motion to concur with amendments adopted by the Senate. “I urge the body to vote no” on concurrence, said Rep. Patty Lundstrom, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, before the House voted overwhelmingly against the Senate’s changes to House Bill 2. The spending plan, the highest on record, is poised to go to a conference committee made up of three members from each chamber with a goal of working out differences before the end of the session. It was unclear late Tuesday when the committee would meet.

Acequia Association, state water office hope to see changes to cannabis clean-up bill in the final hours of legislative session

After nearly an hour-long debate Monday night about water rights and cannabis, the New Mexico Senate removed a water right verification provision from what has been presented as a cannabis law clean-up bill. Even with compromise language regarding legal water access added on the Senate floor, one water advocacy group and a state water official say the bill could prove problematic if passed in its current form. 

The bill didn’t originally aim to change any water requirements in the state’s Cannabis Regulation Act, which legalized cannabis last year. But, after debate in a Senate committee and a subsequent debate on the Senate floor, lawmakers eliminated a requirement that cannabis growers verify they have legal access to water as a condition of state licensure. 

The current version of SB 100, sponsored by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, includes language that allows the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department and its Cannabis Control Division to revoke a license “if a licensee is using water to which the licensee does not have a legal right.” 

On Tuesday morning, the New Mexico Acequia Association issued a statement of frustration.  

“We are disappointed that water protections enacted in 2021 have been gutted,” association president Paula Garcia said. “Having water rights verified as part of the licensing process is essential to good water management.”

The Legislature added the requirement to prove legal access to water to the Cannabis Regulation Act during the 2021 special legislative session after a push from the Acequia Association. During debate on the bill, in both a committee hearing and on the Senate floor, Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, argued that proving water rights during the cannabis business application process would create an unnecessary barrier to entry and added that it is already illegal to use water without proper approval from the state for any type of agricultural use. 

John Romero, who oversees the state’s Water Resources Allocation Program, which is part of the state’s Office of the State Engineer, previously told NM Political Report that his office would have a hard time finding illegal water use among cannabis growers without a requirement that growers verify water access on the front end of the process.

House committee passes ‘comprehensive’ voting bill that includes voting rights provisions

The House Judiciary Committee passed an omnibus voting bill, SB 144, that includes provisions of two other voting bills, SB 8 and SB 6, on a party line vote of 9-3 Tuesday evening. After Senate Republicans blocked a Senate floor debate and vote on SB 8 over the weekend, House Democrats moved the provisions from that bill into another voting bill, SB 144. SB 144, sponsored by state Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, initially aimed to protect election workers from intimidation, threat or use of force or violence, damage or harm while carrying out their duties during an election. The penalty for the crime is a fourth degree felony. The bill also has already passed the Senate, removing a barrier with less than two days left in the session.

Low-income energy efficiency bill passes Senate, heads to Governor’s desk

A bill intended to lower how much low-income residents pay in utility bills passed the Senate on Tuesday on a 26-14 party-line vote. HB 37, the Community Energy Efficiency Development Block Grant, would allow communities to apply for funding to help lower-income areas with energy efficiency upgrades such as weatherization or replacing old appliances. It passed the House of Representatives on Feb. 5. Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, co-sponsored the measure and presented it on the Senate floor.

Teacher pay increases head to governor

Advocates calling for teacher pay raises have reason to celebrate. 

The House of Representatives voted unanimously late Monday night to approve Senate Bill 1, which would increase the minimum pay at each level of the state’s three-tiered teacher licensing system by $10,000. The measure is one strategy aimed at addressing a crisis-level teacher shortage across New Mexico. SB 1 now heads to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who put her support behind the legislation early on. She called it the largest educator pay raise in recent years and announced after the House vote she planned to sign the bill into law. That means starting teachers will see their pay rise to $50,000 from $40,000, while middle-tier teachers will see a jump in the base pay to $60,000 from $50,000.

Senate passes cannabis law changes, adds new water rights language

The New Mexico Senate approved a bill late Monday night that aims to clean up language of the state’s Cannabis Regulation Act, increase production limits for small cannabis companies and allow those smaller companies to wholesale cannabis to and from other cannabis businesses. 

The most significant changes SB 100 proposes are increasing plant limits for cannabis microbusinesses from 200 to 1,000, allowing those types of businesses to buy, sell and transport cannabis from other companies and allow medical cannabis companies that were previously required to be registered as nonprofits to become for-profit companies. 

After an amendment in a committee hearing the day before, nearly all of the debate on the Senate floor was devoted to water issues, even though the original bill did not address any changes related to water.    

Earlier this week, a Senate committee approved an amendment that stripped a water right verification section from the Cannabis Regulation Act. 

During a Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, proposed removing the section, calling it “unnecessary red tape.”

“There’s one instance of a constituent of mine that was trying to get licensed and they tried to transfer ownership into a separate business so that it didn’t put his farm into liability,” Pirtle said on Sunday. “And it became problematic to prove who has the legal right, who’s supposed to have it, who’s leasing from whom.”

Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, who works as a cannabis attorney, agreed with Pirtle. 

“We have hamstrung this industry with the approach that we took to water in the bill last year,” Duhigg said on Sunday. “I think we got it wrong, frankly, last year, with what we did with water.” 

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, unsuccessfully tried to further amend the bill to include what she said was a compromise in verifying legal water access. Her amendment, she argued, would only require that a cannabis company “demonstrate” that it has legal access to water. But after about an hour of debate, her amendment failed on a 19-20 vote, with a number of Democrats voting against it. 

Most of the pushback on the amendment came from Pirtle who reiterated his comments from the previous day, arguing that it’s already illegal to use water for any agricultural use without legal access to it. 

“You have a water right or you don’t have a water right,” Pirtle said.

Joint Senate committee advances broad crime reform bill to floor

With just a few days to go before the end of this year’s legislative session, members of both the Senate Finance Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously voted to approve a broad crime reform bill — though it isn’t keeping critics from lambasting Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. But rather than focus on imposing stricter laws and penalties, Senate Bill 231 targets providing stipends to recruit and retain police officers; adding more officer training programs; creating a statewide database through which state and federal law enforcement agencies can share information; and generating three additional judgeships to increase trial capacity. The bill now goes to the Senate floor for a vote. 

The vote came in the same week police arrested two people, including a man with a lengthy criminal record, in the nonfatal shooting of a state police officer near Edgewood, and the random stabbings of 11 people in Albuquerque Sunday. Some lawmakers alluded to those events as they discussed the merits of SB 231 during a Monday morning joint committee hearing held on the floor of the Senate. 

Initiatives included in the legislation, its supporters said, will do more to prevent crime than locking criminals up for longer periods of time. Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said longer incarcerations are an “overly simple” approach to fighting crime, and did not deter Caleb Dustin Elledge, the suspect in the shooting of the state police officer, from committing more crimes. 

“He wasn’t too concerned about serving the original sentence or an enhanced sentence,” Cervantes said of Elledge, who is from Los Lunas.

Bill to end life sentences without parole for youth pulled amid pushback

The so-called Second Chance bill will have no chance during this year’s legislative session. Sponsors of Senate Bill 43, which would’ve banned life without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, have pulled the proposed piece of legislation from consideration. “In the final week of the session, it has been frustrating to watch a chorus of voices drowned out by a handful of District Attorneys and other parties who have misrepresented this issue to victims of tragedy across our state,” the sponsors wrote in a joint statement. “We negotiated in good faith but the goalposts kept moving, and we cannot accept changes that undermine the intent of the bill.” The sponsors plan to bring the bring the bill back next year.