ByCody Nelson, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Emily Holden, for Floodlight |
Antoinette Sedillo Lopez quickly learned the harsh reality of New Mexico politics after she was appointed to fill an empty seat in the state senate two years ago. One of the first bills she pushed sought a four-year pause on new fracking permits on state lands, taking that time to study the environmental, health and safety impacts of the controversial oil and gas drilling technique. Sedillo Lopez believed it was a sensible piece of legislation, one that was tempered and looked out for New Mexicans. But almost right away, the bill died,never getting out of committee. The same thing happened to a similar measure she pushed earlier this year, with support from dozens of environmental and Indigenous organizations.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislators spoke about legislative successes and what they expect to happen with bills that didn’t cross the finish line, including a pending special session to pass recreational cannabis.
Lujan Grisham said she was proud of how much work was done in a session marred by a pandemic.
“It’s incredibly difficult and challenging, to debate, to draft, to engage in policy making,” she said. “It’s everything from economic relief, education and health care in an environment where you absolutely have to meet the COVID safe practices.”
Particularly, Lujan Grisham praised lawmakers for passing a liquor law reform, approving a proposed constitutional amendment to use state funds to pay for early childhood education and decriminalizing abortion.
Democratic House of Representatives leadership held a press conference a few minutes after adjourning sine die on the House chamber floor to discuss Democratic accomplishments for this session. Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, of Santa Fe, said the focus for this session was recovery.
The three-pronged approach to recovery, Egolf said, was education, health and the economy. Of the more than 170 pieces of legislation that passed this year, some of the bills highlighted during the press conference included passage of SB 10, the Respect New Mexico Women and Families Act, which repealed the 1969 statute banning abortion, as well as HB 4 the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, which ends qualified immunity as a legal defense in the state and allows for financial remedy up to $2 million and the potential to recover attorney’s fees if a person’s constitutional rights have been violated. Lujan Grisham signed SB 10 into law in February.
The New Mexico State Ethics Commission will “likely” dismiss two of three complaints filed by a retired judge against House Speaker Brian Egolf, according to a letter the commission sent to the complainant Friday. But the third charge — that Egolf failed to communicate a potential conflict of interest — is still under review by the commission, according to the letter, signed by Jeremy D. Farris, the ethics commission’s executive director. The third complaint will be sent to the ethics commission’s general counsel for review. But, Farris wrote, the commission has no jurisdiction over the other two charges — that Egolf used his legislative office for personal gain and that he failed to discharge his legislative duties in an ethical manner.
As a result, he wrote, those two complaints will probably be dismissed during the commission’s next meeting in April.
In her complaint, former state Judge Sandra Price claimed Egolf stands to benefit if the New Mexico Civil Rights Act becomes law.
The legislation would allow people to file complaints in state District Court over government violations of the state Bill of Rights. Currently, such cases are filed in federal court and cite violations of the U.S. Constitution.
With just over a week to go before this year’s legislative session ends, the prospect of lawmakers coming through with an independent redistricting plan is looking more likely. But some involved in the process still have concerns about Senate Bill 15, which the Senate unanimously approved Wednesday. The measure would create a seven-member citizens’ committee to gather public input and then come up with three possible redistricting plans for the Legislature to consider by year’s end.
The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to discuss the bill Friday. Assuming the committee approves the measure, it would go to the House floor for a final vote before heading to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk for a signature.
Some redistricting advocates want the legislation to include language that ensures tribal and pueblo governments are included in the process.
“The redistricting activities have to take into consideration local governments and their role on the Navajo Nation,” said Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. Among his concerns: The bill as written says redistricting should not divide existing precinct boundaries.
A bill that would end qualified immunity as a defense for claims under the state’s Civil Rights Act passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday night with a tie-breaking vote from the chairman of the committee. Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, broke the tie on HB 4, the New Mexico Civil Rights bill, when he voted in favor. All three Republicans on the committee voted against the bill, as did Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who said after the vote that he supports the aims of the bill but has concerns with the fact that the bill nearly aligns with the federal civil rights law “and yet there are differences.”
“I think we need to listen to some of the concerns of people who’ve tried to offer constructive commentary about the bill,” Ivey-Soto said. Testimony from the opposition came largely from county officials who continued to argue that counties will not be able to qualify for liability insurance. The bill allows lawsuits to be brought against a governmental agency if a plaintiff’s constitutional rights, as defined by the New Mexico bill of rights, has been violated.
Efforts to ensure New Mexico has an independent redistricting commission plan — once seen as an uphill climb at best — are now moving with momentum. The Senate voted 39-0 to approve a compromise bill that, if enacted into law, would play a major role in setting boundaries for Congress, the state Senate and House of Representatives, and the Public Education Commission later this year.
The substitute bill for Senate Bills 15 and 99 would create a seven-member panel to come up with a redistricting plan for the Legislature to approve by the end of the year. Provisions of the bill include the ability for legislative leaders from both parties in the Senate and House to choose four members. The New Mexico Ethics Commission will choose the other three members, one of whom would be a retired justice of the state Supreme Court or a retired judge of the state Court of Appeals.
“This citizens’ redistricting committee will go throughout the state and do a series of [public] hearings,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque and co-sponsor of the legislation.
After taking public input, that group then will come up with three plans for redistricting and present them to the Legislature to consider during a special session slated for later this year.
Ivey-Soto added an amendment Tuesday that requires the commission to be appointed and ready to go to work by June 1. The legislation prohibits one political party from holding a majority on the commission.
There was little debate or discussion on the legislation, which started out as one of the slowest-moving bills of this year’s session. It now goes to at least one committee in the House.
Lawmakers on the Senate Rules Committee came to a quick compromise Monday on a measure they hope will set the state’s sometimes controversial redistricting process on a smooth path via an independent, bipartisan panel of people to redraw voting district boundaries. A substitute bill introduced by Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat, gained the committee’s unanimous approval, replacing two competing Senate bills — including one sponsored by Ivey-Soto. Monday’s deal came only after Ivey-Soto took a verbal swipe at critics who accused him of opposing the idea of an independent redistricting committee because his initial bill called for a committee composed of legislators. “I take a little personal some of the comments that have been made about the perspective of the Legislature in the redistricting process,” he said.
He said his name had been used as a “barrier to independent redistricting. Shame on you, shame on you for doing that.”
Democrats in the House of Representatives voiced outrage over an email from an Otero County official they claim contains a threat against Speaker Brian Egolf. Democrats contend Otero County Assessor Steve Boyd, who also serves as president of New Mexico Counties, a group that advocates for counties’ needs statewide, wrote an email about a recent Albuquerque Journal story on Egolf’s Santa Fe-based law firm settling 10 legal cases against state agencies for more than $2 million over the past five years. According to the email, Boyd wrote: “Another Democrat getting rich off of the people rather than serving them. This is why New Mexico fights an uphill battle all the time. “If I had a list, he would be on it.”
New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf is facing sharp criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike over his opposition to having an independent commission oversee the state’s redistricting process. In particular, members of both parties were thrown by comments the Santa Fe Democrat made during a Zoom conference last week with Retake Our Democracy, an organization focused on social justice. Part of the discussion centered on bipartisan proposals in the Legislature to create a commission to take on the often controversial task of redrawing electoral district boundaries based on new census data. Egolf told panelists the plans could weaken Democrats’ advantage in the Legislature, “and the [Democratic] agenda goes out the window.” He said he did not understand why “Democrats want to unilaterally disarm and give advantage to the people who are trying to make the world a dirtier place, take rights away from people, make it harder to vote — all the things that we oppose.
Attorneys for House Speaker Brian Egolf submitted a motion Friday to dismiss an ethics complaint filed by a retired judge who claimed the Santa Fe Democrat stands to benefit if the New Mexico Civil Rights Act becomes law. Egolf’s 24-page motion argues the complaint — filed earlier this month with the state Ethics Commission by former Judge Sandra Price, who served 12 years on the bench in the 11th Judicial District — should be dismissed because it is frivolous and unsubstantiated, and also doesn’t state a “claim upon which relief can be granted.” In a brief statement, Egolf said he looks forward to the Ethics Commission’s decision. House Bill 4 would create the New Mexico Civil Rights Act. It has passed the House and is making its way through the Senate committee process.