Series of bombshells at the end of Legislature’s 30-day session

This year’s 30-day legislative session ended with a surprise. Or, more accurately, a series of bombshells. As the Legislature concluded its business at noon Thursday, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe — considered a key architect of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing and one of its most influential players — announced he is not seeking reelection this year. That was one one of the day’s rapid-fire shockers, as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced only an hour or so later she was rescinding New Mexico’s indoor mask mandate. Though most legislators seemed wrung out by a difficult month, punctuated by a nearly daylong marathon in the House of Representatives, the session’s conclusion was anything but anticlimactic.

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.

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.

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.

Environment protections bill passes New Mexico Senate

A bill that would allow the state of New Mexico to adopt air quality and hazardous waste rules more stringent than federal regulations survived a challenge Friday from Senate Republicans, who had previously stalled the measure with a procedural maneuver that kept it in limbo for days. Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, the bill would amend the Air Quality Control Act and the Hazardous Waste Act to allow rules more rigid than federal standards. “In each case … there must be substantial evidence that the proposed state rules are more protective of public health and the environment,” said Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat. The bill passed along a mostly party-line 23-15 vote. Democrat George Muñoz of Gallup sided with Republicans in opposing the measure, which goes to the state House of Representatives for consideration. 

Wirth argued that Senate Bill 8 would provide what he called consistent, New Mexico-focused environmental oversight.

Senate passes clean fuel bill despite concerns about higher gas prices

A proposal to reduce New Mexico’s carbon footprint by going after greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector fueled a spirited debate Thursday in the state Senate. At issue is whether Senate Bill 11, which would create a statewide clean fuel standard, would lead to higher prices at the gas pump for consumers, who lately have been experiencing sticker shock when they pull up to the pump. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who disputed the notion that gas prices would shoot up, ultimately cleared the chamber on a party-line 25-14 vote — but only after a two-hour discussion that left some lawmakers wondering whether a push to protect the environment would cost consumers. “My biggest concern is what we’re going to do to gas prices in the state of New Mexico,” said Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs. “It will take a little while, but we’re going to get to a point where the people that it’s going to impact the most are low-income people.”

New Mexico Senate passes bill to reduce cap on small-loan interest rates

Legislation aimed to rein in what critics call predatory lending passed the state Senate after a tense two-hour debate Monday that sparked accusations of untruths and assertions the bill’s sponsors are oblivious to the tough realities confronted by people who live paycheck to paycheck. Opponents contended Senate Bill 66, which would cut the maximum interest rate on small loans to 36 percent from 175 percent, would do more harm than good for struggling New Mexicans by causing high-risk lenders to shut down. The measure passed on a 25-14 vote and will be considered next by the state House of Representatives. Expect plenty of dissension and disagreement if Tuesday’s Senate floor session is any indication of what lies ahead. One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, said about a third of the people who called him about the legislation were angry it would cap the interest at so high a rate.

Lujan Grisham hails ‘really productive’ session

New Mexico’s 54th Legislature wrapped up Thursday amid congratulatory hugs and news conferences — a veneer of good cheer that masked a dose of sleep deprivation, early-morning procedural bickering, and finally, sighs of relief as key bills were passed just hours before the final gavel. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Democratic legislators touted the passage of a number of their priority proposals, including the creation of an early childhood trust fund, passing a high-profile firearms bill and shepherding through the state’s $7.6 billion budget for the 2021 fiscal year. “I think this was a really productive 30-day session,” Lujan Grisham said, surrounded by legislators and cabinet secretaries at a post-session news conference in  the Roundhouse. “We are building something new together. We’re investing for tomorrow and we’re delivering today.”

The governor won passage for the majority of bills she asked legislators to undertake — 80 percent of them, by her own count.

Senate prohibits firearms for big hearing on guns, cannabis

The state Senate’s Democratic leadership has banned firearms from a much-anticipated hearing set to take place Tuesday on a controversial gun bill, citing safety concerns. 

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen said on the chamber floor Monday that the public will not be able to carry guns while attending a Senate Public Affairs Committee hearing on legislation that would allow so-called extreme risk protection orders. “We want to make sure we don’t have any incidents,” Papen, D-Las Cruces, said in an interview. “Nationally, we have so much anger on this issue. We’re just trying to forestall any problems.” 

The legislation, filed as Senate Bill 5 and House Bill 7, is a marquee item on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s agenda and likely to be one of the most contentious bills heard during the session. The New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association has voiced strong disapproval of the proposal, which would allow law enforcement to obtain a court order to remove guns from people considered dangerous.

Lawmakers pass bill to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Goodbye, Christopher Columbus. New Mexico may observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead. The Senate voted 22-15 Friday to send Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham a bill that would rename the holiday commemorating the Italian explorer. The legislation comes as the holiday that took off in the late 19th century as a celebration of Italian-American heritage has in recent decades spurred debate over the real legacy of a man who represents the beginning of European colonialism in the Americas and how best to tell a fuller story of the continent’s history. “I see this as a reconciliation process, not only as New Mexicans but as Americans,” said Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo.