Liquor law overhaul headed to Senate floor

A sweeping liquor license reform bill is on its way to the Senate floor after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 to move it forward Wednesday. But the committee approved a number of amendments that changed some aspects of the bill. 

Gone is a provision that would have given a $100,000 tax break to retailers who currently hold liquor licenses. 

But a clause giving longtime liquor license owners who run restaurants and bars a $200,000 tax break — $50,000 per year for four years — remains. Gone, too, is a deal that would have waived all future annual license renewal fees for those longtime liquor license owners. 

But much of House Bill 255, which passed through the House of Representatives earlier in the session, remains intact. The bill still allows for home delivery of alcohol along with food orders. 

The bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said the bill is meant to update the decades-old liquor license law that has increased liquor license fees to well over $500,000. It is also meant to encourage new restaurateurs to get into business at an affordable price.

Some liquor sellers leery of booze tax to fund license overhaul

As J.R. Palermo sees it, the year has been bad enough for restaurants, bars and patrons. He’s none too happy with a proposed 2 percent excise tax the state could impose on alcohol sales as part of a sweeping liquor law reform bill. Palermo, the owner of Tiny’s Restaurant & Lounge, a fixture in Santa Fe since 1950, has been an outspoken critic of New Mexico legislators’ efforts to overhaul what many people call an outdated and cost-prohibitive liquor license system. He said House Bill 255 is “not friendly to the industry.” At the top of his many objections to the bill is a plan to allow restaurateurs to purchase new licenses to serve liquor at a fraction of the costs paid by longtime business operators.

Liquor license change, alcohol delivery proposal moves forward

A House bill aimed at allowing some alcohol deliveries as well as adding a new class of liquor licenses for restaurants on Wednesday passed its first committee 6-3. 

HB 255, sponsored by Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, would, besides allowing certain alcohol deliveries, allow restaurants a chance to sell spirits the same way they currently can under a beer and wine license. 

“The task before us is how do we open up these markets, while not disrupting current investors and folks who relied on that existing statutory scheme,” Maestas said. “That’s our task, and I think we’ve accomplished that in a great and reasonable and conservative way today.”

For decades, New Mexico law has limited the number of package or dispensing licenses in the state, which has inadvertently put a premium on those that are issued. Over the years, the value of those licenses have only increased. During Wednesday’s hearing, as well as previous hearings in the past few weeks, current liquor license holders spoke out against adding more licenses because it would devalue current licenses. Dozens of liquor license holders pleaded with lawmakers on Wednesday to not pass the bill to the next committee. 

Gary Skidmore, owner of Holiday Bowl bowling alley in Albuquerque, said the liquor law change combined with the COVID-19 pandemic would be detrimental to his business. 

“The timing of this bill under our current economic situation for our business is terrible in that we have been closed more months than we have been open,” Skidmore said.

Decades of limited liquor licenses makes them high commodities

Since the early part of the 20th century, the number of liquor licences in New Mexico have largely been finite. As a result, those licenses are now worth roughly half a million dollars. In recent years, state lawmakers have tried various ways to reconfigure the state’s liquor laws that would both make it less costly for potential new liquor license holders while also not devaluing current licenses. 

This year, there are a handful of bills aimed at creating a new type of liquor license for restaurants to add spirits to their menus, instead of adding more liquor licenses to the mix. The general idea is that restaurants would be able to obtain a license to sell mixed drinks as long as a certain percentage of sales is for food, much like a beer and wine license. But even the idea of increasing the number of restaurants that can serve alcohol beyond beer and wine has some current liquor license holders concerned.

Bill to let college athletes earn money from their likeness clears committee

A piece of legislation designed to create a cash flow for New Mexico’s college student-athletes cleared its first significant hurdle Wednesday. Introduced by a bipartisan trio of two state senators and a high-profile member of the House, SB 94 cleared the Senate Education Committee with unanimous approval Wednesday morning. According to one of its authors, it has gained the kind of momentum required to make it become a law before the end of the session. Similar measures have been adopted in California and Colorado, which have five schools in the Mountain West Conference, 10 in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and one in the Western Athletic Conference — leagues that are home to, respectively, the University of New Mexico, New Mexico Highlands and New Mexico State. “In this day and age of politics, this is a bill that passed unanimously with Republicans and Democrats in California,” said Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque.

Lawmakers adjust to a largely virtual session

Two weeks into the 2021 legislative session, it looks like no one is home at the state Capitol. The hallways and hearing rooms — which normally would be bustling with activity by this time in a 60-day session — were empty Tuesday, aside from the rare sighting of a staff member or New Mexico State Police officer. Perhaps more surprisingly, Tuesday’s House floor session ran quickly and quietly, with no sign of the partisan rancor of the previous week, when party leaders bickered. House Republicans have questioned and criticized rules for running the session in a hybrid format, which allows members to participate in person or to log in online from home or their Capitol offices. And late last week, some members of the House GOP petitioned the New Mexico Supreme Court to halt those rules, arguing they are unconstitutional.

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.

Technical delays, long debate over new House rules as session starts

If the world ends with a whimper rather than a bang, the House began Thursday with a sputter. For hours, Republicans in the state House debated new rules on whether lawmakers should be allowed to vote remotely — a debate that was delayed because of trouble with the webcast, in turn delaying committee hearings scheduled for that afternoon until after representatives’ 6 p.m. dinner. Complying with state rules on open meetings, lawmakers paused the debate for close to 30 minutes as the tech team scrambled to get the internet video feed back online before resuming. The resolution passed the House 43-24 along party lines. But not before prolonged debate about the rules within the resolution and other, tangentially-related topics.

Democrats introduce police ‘use of force’ reporting requirements

Four Democratic state lawmakers plan to introduce legislation during the special session this week that they say would offer greater transparency and more accountability when it comes to police use of force. Amid calls from protesters in New Mexico and nationwide to defund law enforcement agencies and stop insulating officers from possible consequences over excessive and lethal use of force, state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and others have asked Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to prioritize the bill. The measure would increase oversight of officers’ use of force, including requiring reports to the district attorney, attorney general and Governor’s Office following an incident in which a law enforcement officer’s action causes “great bodily harm” or death to an individual. The proposal also would allow the top prosecutor of a judicial district where an incident has occurred to request selection of a district attorney from another jurisdiction to review the case and decide whether to bring charges against an officer. Investigations into police use of force would be handled by the state Department of Public Safety, according to the legislation, which has not yet been assigned a bill number.

PERA reform bill clears House

A plan that would increase contributions from public workers and the state to the Public Employees Retirement Association to get the pension system on a path to solvency is nearly on its way to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk. The House approved the legislation in a 40-28 vote Monday after hours of debate. Senate Bill 72 calls for a rise in contributions and a temporary suspension of cost-of-living increases for some retirees in an effort to ensure PERA can continue pension payouts well into the future, supporters say. It also calls for reduced cost-of-living increases in the years after the suspension ends. The House made a technical change to an amendment to SB 72, so the measure will need to return to the Senate for approval before going to the governor’s desk, said Daniel Marzec, a spokesman for the House Democrats.