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.

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.

Key legislative committee endorses revised $8.4 billion spending plan

The Senate Finance Committee put its stamp of approval Sunday on an amended $8.4 billion spending plan for the state of New Mexico that includes additional funding for criminal justice initiatives, road projects and a school of public health. The overall budget proposal, which the committee advanced to the full Senate in a unanimous vote, increases spending by nearly 14 percent, or roughly $1 billion, over the current fiscal year ending in June. The proposed level of spending represents an all-time high for the state. 

“Everybody in New Mexico seems to have gotten something,” Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, who chairs the committee, said Saturday after a series of amendments were presented to the committee. “We put a lot of money in economic development, and it had better be fruitful as we move forward or New Mexico is going to be looking at cuts again,” he said. “We ride the rollercoaster of oil and gas, and as long you want to continue that, we better plan carefully.”

Voters’ Rights Provisions bill headed to Senate floor

The Senate Finance Committee passed the Voters’ Rights Provisions bill by a narrow vote of 6-5 on Thursday after a tie vote failed to strike a $20 million allocation into a state election fund. State Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, sided with Republicans to vote against the bill. This was the third Senate committee hearing for the bill. The previous committees amended the bill, striking some voter expansion provisions including allowing 16-year-old individuals the right to vote in local and statewide elections and backend automatic voter registration. Muñoz introduced the amendment to strike the provision allowing the Secretary of State’s office to create a permanent election fund of $20 million.

Legislature sends spending bill to Governor’s desk (Updated)

Updated: The House concurred on HB 2 as amended by the state Senate by a voice vote on Thursday. This sends the legislation to the Governor’s desk for signature. HB 2 appropriates $478 million of the ARPA funds into various projects, such as road work, broadband expansion and conservation projects. The Legislative Finance Committee staff put the spending bill together based on requests from state agencies made during interim legislative committee hearings. The spending for some of the money, such as $10 million for smaller airports around the state, has not been appropriated in specific terms and will be left up to the agencies, in this case the Department of Transportation, to make the final decisions on the best use of the funds.

Senate Finance Committee passes amended appropriation bill, reducing allocation to $478 million

The Senate Finance Committee approved an amended version of a bill to allocate some of the American Rescue Plan Act immediately to various agencies. The amendment to HB 2, which passed unanimously, removed $26 million appropriated for broadband and reduced the overall funding package to about $478 million. The vote of approval for the amended bill was unanimous and bipartisan. State Sens. Jacob Candelaria, I-Albuquerque, and Bobby Gonzales, D-Ranchos de Taos, were absent.

Changes coming to appropriations bill after Senate Finance Committee hearing

During a two-hour Senate Finance Committee hearing on HB 2, the committee learned of issues with the bill that will likely require change to the legislation. Department of Game and Fish Director, Michael Sloane, told the committee during the hearing that the department did not request the $5 million appropriated in the bill for property acquisition. He said the department is not currently considering any property acquisition projects. This led to concern among some committee members who brought up Bar L Ranch in Sandoval County, that the money was appropriated for that purchase but Sloane said any talk about the state purchasing that land was premature. Senate Finance Chair George Muñoz, D-Gallup, clarified how the appropriation happened by saying that the Legislative Finance Committee had reached out to the department but, he said, didn’t hear back.

Senate committee hears discussion on $35 million of relief act money

The state Senate Finance Committee heard from two departments that will receive one-time funds of $35 million total if HB 2 passes. The state Senate Finance Committee did not take action on HB 2, as the bill still sits in the  House Appropriations and Finance Committee which originally intended to meet Wednesday to vote on the bill. But state Rep. and HAFC Chair Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said during the House floor meeting Wednesday that HAFC would not meet that day. Lundstrom said on Tuesday that HB 2 needed some language cleanup, and appeared to be willing to consider a new appropriation to help the state’s chile farmers with the red chile harvest. HB 2 appropriates the federal American Rescue Plan Act money of $1.1 billion into a contingency fund of the state’s general fund.

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.

Civil rights bill passes Senate but must return to House (Updated)

The New Mexico Civil Rights bill passed the state Senate 26 to 15 but with only three-and-a-half days until the end of the legislative session, the bill must return to the House floor for concurrence because the Senate amended the bill. Update: On Wednesday afternoon, the House concurred with the Senate changes on a 41-26 vote and sent it to the governor’s desk. This story continues as originally written below. HB 4 would end qualified immunity as a defense in state civil courts and allows individuals whose civil rights have been violated to bring a case for remedy in state court. State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who is the lead sponsor for the bill in the Senate, amended the bill to make attorney’s fees subject to judicial review and added that a claimant suing law enforcement must notify the police of the lawsuit within one year after an alleged event occurs.