For some, hand-shaking is on tap at special session

A House Republican said Tuesday he would likely shake hands with or hug fellow legislators from Southeastern New Mexico during the special session — prompting criticism from House Speaker Brian Egolf, who said he was worried such a practice could jeopardize the health of others later this week. Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said lawmakers from his part of the state plan to wear masks and use hand sanitizer during the upcoming meeting in Santa Fe and would keep their distance from legislators from other areas of New Mexico. But when it comes to interacting with members from his area of the state, Nibert said those representing the southeast intend to engage in physical contact with each other at the Capitol because their area of the state has not been heavily affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic. “When I see David Gallegos for the first time, I can pretty well guarantee you he’s going to stick his hand out to shake my hand and probably give me a hug,” Nibert said, referring to the Republican legislator from Eunice. “I’m not going to be offended by it and he’s not going to be offended by it because in our community that’s where we’re at.”

The comments came as a House committee is set to debate proposed rules changes on Wednesday that would allow the chamber to take greater health precautions during the session, such as allowing members to participate virtually.

Progressive Democrats defeat incumbents, with some races still pending

Tuesday night proved to be a night of historic upsets against state Senators who have long held onto their seats. Much of the action was on the Democratic side, though it appears two Republican incumbents also lost their primaries. State Sen. John Arthur Smith, after 32 years in the state Senate and the most powerful legislator as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is extremely likely to lose to grassroots challenger Neomi Martinez-Parra. Smith represents SD 35. He more than doubled Martinez-Parra in donations.

House OKs bill to revamp teacher evaluation system

For years many educators, public education supporters and teacher union representatives have said New Mexico’s teacher evaluation system is punitive and unfair. But immediately after taking office in early January, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order requiring the Public Education Department to retool that system. On Monday night, the House of Representatives took a step toward making that goal a reality when it voted 52-14 to give a “do pass” recommendation to House Bill 212, which would rework measures currently in place. While some proposed changes seem cosmetic, such as having four different evaluation levels rather than the current five, defining the best teachers as “distinguished” rather than “exemplary,” others are more significant. For example, House Bill 212 reduces the percentage of student achievement scores used in the ratings, to 15 percent from 35 percent.

Nearing midway point of a fast-paced session, Dem dominance chafes GOP

Brian Egolf, speaker of the Democrat-controlled state House of Representatives, says the body is moving legislation faster than ever, clearing the way for reform of every level of state government. The House minority leader, Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, says Egolf doesn’t ask for input or collaboration. He simply reveals what’s coming and how it’s going to play out, Townsend said. Welcome to the halfway point of this year’s 60-day legislative session. Proceedings in the House often are angry and combative, as outnumbered Republicans say their side is being ignored or steamrolled.

Dems push plan to tap the ‘permanent fund’ for early childhood education

A proposed constitutional amendment to draw more money from the state Land Grant Permanent Fund to expand early childhood education jumped its first hurdle with ease Wednesday. The House Education Committee voted 10-4 on party lines for the measure. Democrats supported the measure, House Joint Resolution 1. It would take another 1 percent — at least $150 million a year — from the $17.5 billion state endowment. The bill’s proponents, including Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, say early childhood education can transform New Mexico, often regarded as one of the worst states in the nation for public education.

Reproductive rights to come up this legislative session

This week in the Legislature may see some debate regarding abortions and whether or not doctors should have a role in family discussions. Earlier this month, Gov. Susana Martinez outlined her legislative priorities in her State of the State address. In addition to  presenting her six-point-plan to bolster the state’s economy, she also called for legislators to tackle certain issues during the 30-day legislative session. She encouraged them to pass bills related to education reform and expanded criminal penalties. Legislators have introduced a handful of bills related to abortion, but she skirted the issue in her speech.

Tax overhaul effort fails in committee

A complex tax overhaul bill failed to clear its committee, and that’s going to further complicate the special session in which legislators are supposed to address the budget in New Mexico. Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, presented his 430-page tax overhaul bill Thursday morning. It took him nearly an hour to describe the bill to the House Labor and Economic Development Department. “That in very high-level, broad terms is what is in this bill,” Harper said when he finished describing the bill and how it differed from a similar bill legislators already passed in March. After public comment and questions from the panel, the committee voted 6-5, on party lines, to table the bill.

Conversion therapy ban clears New Mexico House

After a contentious, hours-long debate, the state House of Representatives voted by a wide margin for a bill to ban conversion therapy for minors — the widely discredited practice of attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation. The measure cleared the House late Wednesday on a 44-23 vote. Nine Republicans joined 35 Democrats in backing it. Only one Democrat, Rep. Patricio Ruiloba of Albuquerque, sided with a bloc of mostly rural Republicans who opposed the initiative. That group of Republicans dragged debate on the measure deep into the night, raising concerns that it would trample freedom of religion and suggesting that homosexuality is a choice or even a mental illness.

Dems block ban on mandatory union fees after impassioned debate

New Mexico will not become the nation’s 29th “right-to-work” state, at least not this year. After testimony Saturday from a long line of union members and nearly two hours of debate, Democrats on a committee of the state House of Representatives killed a Republican bill that would have prohibited unions from imposing mandatory fees on workers. Republicans argue such policies take money from workers who do not wish to join a union. Republican lawmakers also say banning compulsory union fees would create a better business environment, drawing investors and boosting employment. Opponents counter that such a law would push down wages and unfairly require labor unions to represent workers for free.

Bill to label nuclear energy as renewable stalls

A bill aimed at classifying nuclear power as a renewable energy source in New Mexico stalled Thursday afternoon in committee on a tie vote. House Bill 406, sponsored by Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, would have amended the state’s Renewable Energy Act, which requires energy companies provide a certain amount of electricity from renewable sources. Brown told the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee she didn’t know of any definite plans to bring nuclear power plants to the state, but that she wanted to broaden the options for a “baseload power” to replace coal or gas. Currently, Brown argued, wind and solar energy can only serve as “intermittent” power. “Unless we can get the wind to blow 24 hours a day and the sun to shine day and night, we’re still going to have those intermittent sources,” Brown said.