NM Ethics Commission dismisses ethics complaint by DOH secretary against state senator

The New Mexico Ethics Commission effectively dismissed a complaint filed by a state cabinet secretary against a state senator. 

In a letter to New Mexico Department of Health Secretary Tracie Collins, the commission’s executive director Jeremy Farris wrote that the commission would not consider Collins’ complaint against Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque as the issue is out of the purview of the Ethics Commission. According to Farris’ letter, Collins accused Candelaria of violating the state’s Governmental Conduct Act “by voting on a bill that clearly affected the outcome of a litigation matter concerning [Candelaria]’s client, and filed by [Candelaria].”

The bill in question was SB 340, a failed proposal in the regular legislative session that aimed to limit medical cannabis reciprocity. The client in question is medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, which has taken the department to court numerous times and is currently suing the state over medical cannabis plant limits. The latest suit from Ultra Health also accuses the department’s former secretary of discriminating against the medical cannabis producer. 

But the litigation Collins mentioned in her complaint against Candelaria is a suit from Ultra Health that alleged the Department of Health erroneously implemented an emergency rule to limit medical cannabis reciprocity. In 2019, the Legislature passed a law that allowed registered medical cannabis patients from other states to purchase, use and possess medical cannabis in New Mexico.

More contentious debates over cannabis legalization expected during the special session

The New Mexico Legislature is slated to start a special session Tuesday to address economic development and full cannabis legalization. But there is still a question of how much support cannabis legalization will garner from both Republicans and Democrats. 

About an hour after the regular 2021 legislative session ended, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, flanked by Democratic legislative leaders in a news conference, announced that she would call legislators back for a special session to pick up where they left off with recreational-use cannabis legalization. The session started out with five legalization bills, but by the last week there was only one proposal: HB 12. Sponsored by Democratic Reps. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque and Andrea Romero of Santa Fe, HB 12 quickly became the favored bill for many Democrats, but hit a rough patch as it passed the Senate Judiciary Committee.

2021 legislative session historic for LGBTQ causes

With six openly queer legislators participating in the 2021 New Mexico legislative session, many in the LGBTQ community said this past session was important in the advancement of equal rights. But also, legislation that would repeal the state’s ban on abortion, remove qualified immunity as a legal defense and enable individuals whose civil rights have been violated to seek financial remedy through the courts and require employers to provide paid sick leave to employees are major highlights for the LGBTQ community as well as the reproductive justice community because the two intersect. The New Mexico Civil Rights Act, which made the changes on qualified immunity, and the Healthy Workplaces Act, which imposes the paid sick leave requirement, passed both chambers but await Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s signature. Lujan Grisham has already signed the Respect New Mexico Women and Families Act, on abortion, into law after it passed both chambers in February. Related: Governor signs bill repealing abortion ban into law: ‘a woman has the right to make decisions about her own body’

But there were other moments, such as an informal “gay pride night” in the state Senate, when two bills sponsored by openly queer Senators passed in mid-March, that were noted by members of the LGBTQ community.

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.

Limitations on medical cannabis reciprocity heads to House floor

While two efforts to legalize and regulate recreational-use cannabis are coming down to the wire, legislation aimed at limiting medical cannabis reciprocity appears to be on a fast track to the governor’s desk. 

SB 340, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, passed the House Judiciary Committee unanimously on Wednesday.  

Ortiz y Pino, joined by New Mexico Department of Health officials, argued that the integrity of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program is at risk unless the law is changed to limit who can qualify as a reciprocal medical cannabis patient. 

“Our reciprocity arrangement has been taken advantage of by people who are using the internet to secure letters, not licenses, but letters from physicians in a third state,” Ortiz y Pino said. “California is the most likely, but it could be anywhere that they have loose medical cannabis programs.”

Aryan Showers with the Department of Health served as one of Ortiz y Pino’s expert witnesses and told the committee that medical cannabis reciprocity was intended to give medical cannabis patients enrolled in a “bonafide state program” the opportunity to buy, possess and consume medical cannabis in New Mexico. Instead, Showers said, there is currently a “loophole” that allows people to “circumvent the enrollment requirements” of New Mexico’s program. 

“We didn’t foresee this loophole, but it’s causing the program significant strain,” Showers said. “And we’re actually just concerned about the potential impact this could have on those New Mexicans who truly depend on the program for their medicine.”

There was no debate among committee members and only two members made supportive comments about the bill. 

Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, jokingly asked Ortiz y Pino where to find a $30 medical cannabis card. 

“I think there are places on the internet where you can get one very quickly,” Ortiz y Pino answered. “There’s only a five minute interview with a physician in California who has a very broad understanding of how medical cannabis can be used.”

This is the second consecutive year that Ortiz y Pino sponsored a bill to amend a law he helped pass in 2019 that made broad changes to the state’s medical cannabis statute.

Senate approves effort to clarify medical cannabis reciprocity

The New Mexico Senate approved on Monday a bill that would more narrowly define medical cannabis reciprocity by a 28-10 vote. 

Sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, SB 340 would specify that reciprocal cannabis patients in New Mexico cannot be a local resident and that reciprocal patients must reside in the state where they are approved by a medical professional to use medical cannabis. Ortiz y Pino said since New Mexico began honoring reciprocity with other states that have legalized medical cannabis, a number of people from Texas started obtaining authorization to use medical cannabis in California and then using that authorization in New Mexico as reciprocal patients. 

“This is a bill that is an effort at preventing some of the abuses that have begun creeping into our medical cannabis program in the state,” Ortiz y Pino said. 

While most of the comments from Senators were in support of the bill, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, who has also served as legal counsel for the medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, took issue with the proposal. 

Candelaria, who has also been open about being a medical cannabis patient, shared his struggles with PTSD as a victim of rape when he was a child. Candelaria also said he took issue with comments from Senate Republicans inferring that many of the 108,000 patients in New Mexico are using the state’s medical cannabis program as de facto legalization. 

“I encourage us to stop making assumptions about people’s motives,” Candelaria said. 

Candelaria also unsuccessfully offered up an amendment to the bill that would have increased the amount of cannabis qualified patients can buy each day. Currently, Department of Health rules allow patients to purchase 230 units in a rolling 90-day period. The department defines a unit as one gram of flower or bud or 250 milligrams of concentrate.

Legislative roundup on bills that advance equity

Three bills passed the state Senate Sunday night that will, if they become law, advance equity for the LGBTQ community and people of color. SB 213, called the panic defense bill, passed by a vote of 41 to 0 with no debate. Sponsored by state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, the bill would prevent someone who commits a violent crime from using the victim’s sexual orientation, gender expression or identity as a legal defense in court. State Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Los Cerrillos, who is a co-sponsor on the bill, said she knew a man in the 1980s who was violently murdered because of his sexual orientation. The man who perpetrated the crime used the panic defense, Stefanics said.

Senate passes bill protecting hair and hair styles in schools and workplace

A bill to protect people in school or the workplace from discrimination based on their hair or hairstyles passed 37 to 0 in the Senate Thursday. SB 80 would amend the New Mexico Human Rights Act to prevent discrimination based on cultural or religious headdresses and protective hairstyles and would prevent school districts and charter schools from disciplining children based on their hair, hairstyle or cultural or religious headdresses. Sponsored by state Sen. Harold Pope Jr., D-Albuquerque, who talked about discrimination he faced as a child because of his hair, the bill received virtually no debate on the Senate floor. Pope is the first Black state Senator in New Mexico history. State Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said he supported the bill but asked if a school coach or referee would be able to address safety issues if the bill passed.

State gets improved revenue projections

The prospect of additional state funds brought welcome news for New Mexico’s college students Wednesday. Based on an improved revenue outlook, New Mexico will have an additional $373 million to spend, bringing the state budget to $7.436 billion, financial experts said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing. 

The extra money would include a one-time appropriation of over $20 million to make college more affordable for New Mexicans. 

Some $11 million of the new money would go into the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gives residents the chance to attend college tuition-free. An additional $10.5 million would shore up the New Mexico Legislative Lottery Scholarship Program so that it would cover 90 percent of tuition for eligible students headed to college. 

“Increasing lottery [scholarship] tuition really reduces the requirement for the opportunity scholarship [program] and expands its reach,” Legislative Finance Committee Director David Abbey told committee members. 

“That’s a pretty significant supplement to financial aid, over $20 million.” A combination of recurring and one-time expenditures would also benefit the public school system, giving it over $3 million in extra funding. Another $1 million is aimed at supporting athletic programs at the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University to help offset lost revenue because of the pandemic. 

Another $34 million in state funding would be available to increase the employer contribution rate to the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board by 1 percent a year for the next four years.

Senate passes bill creating state division to upgrade broadband system

Schoolchildren are still sitting in cars to access Wi-Fi hotspots to take part in virtual lessons, a leading Democratic senator told his colleagues Wednesday. That’s one reason Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, urged the Senate to support Senate Bill 93, which would create a central state office to develop and upgrade New Mexico’s broadband system. The state currently doesn’t have a blueprint for broadband, said Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque and co-sponsor of the legislation. He said creating a plan is the key focus of the bill. 

“Broadband will never happen until we put that plan in place,” Muñoz told the Senate, which voted 33-6 to support the bill following about an hour of debate Wednesday, sending the measure to the House. 

Citing a 2020 report that said despite investments of hundreds of millions of dollars, access to broadband services has remained spotty for many New Mexicans, Padilla said only by creating an agency to focus on the problem will the state solve it. 

Among other functions, the new entity would work to draw matching federal funds for every dollar New Mexico invests in its broadband system — a goal that could bring in somewhere between $9 and $13 for every dollar spent by the state, Padilla said. 

Though improvements and new investments — a total of $325 million between 2015 and 2018 — have been made in offering and expanding broadband, the fact so many state agencies play a role in the effort leads to gaps in data and service, that 2020 report said. 

That report suggested New Mexico create an anchor agency to address the issue. New Mexico often ranks near or at the bottom in national studies when it comes to broadband capability.