Proposal to tap land grant permanent fund for early childhood education suffers another setback

For years, it was one of the most talked-about proposals in the Roundhouse. 

There was repeated excitement, momentum, controversy and resistance — all over legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to tap more of the state’s nearly $20 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood education. But this year, the atmosphere is more one of muted neglect. That’s likely because there’s a new kid on the block, a proposal to create an early childhood trust fund with other revenue streams. The idea has traveled further in its first year than the land grant proposal ever has — it reached the governor’s desk after being passed by the full Senate on Friday. A big setback for the land grant proposal came on Saturday in the Senate Rules Committee, where most members walked out before the legislation, known this year as House Joint Resolution 1, was heard. Many legislators had been in the room for other matters earlier that morning, yet only four were left when HJR1 was taken up, depriving its supporters of a quorum needed for a vote. 

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Medical cannabis qualified patient bill moves to the House

A Senate bill that would specify that only New Mexico residents are eligible to enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program is headed to the House. 

SB 139, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, passed the Senate floor Saturday night by a 32-8 vote. Ortiz y Pino told other Senate members that the bill is an attempt to “plug the hole” that was created in a bill he sponsored last year that was signed into law. 

The bill he sponsored last year, among other changes to the state’s medical cannabis laws, removed the words “resident of New Mexico” from the definition of a qualified patient and replaced them with “person.” Shortly after the law was changed last year, Duke Rodriguez, the president and CEO of medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, along with two Texas residents, took the state to court after the three were denied medical cannabis patient cards. Rodriguez is an Arizona resident, but according to court documents owns a home and vehicle in New Mexico. Arizona has a medical cannabis program and Texas has a medical program with limited conditions and only allows cannabis with half a percent of THC—a psychoactive substance in cannabis. 

After a state district judge ruled in favor of the three petitioners, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office and the Department of Health took the issue to the Court of Appeals, where it remains pending. 

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, took issue with the bill and repeated some of the same concerns he brought up in a previous committee hearing. He told a story about a friend of his who suffered through cancer treatment and was unable to benefit from medical cannabis because he lived in Texas.

Senate approves money for early childhood dept. fund

The full state Senate approved legislation Wednesday that would create a new revenue stream for early childhood programs.

By a vote of 40-0, senators passed Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Sen. John Arthur Smith and Rep. Doreen Gallegos. The legislation calls for an appropriation of $320 million to start a new Early Childhood Education and Care Fund that would draw on two other funding sources in future years. The proposal aims to help the state leverage unprecedented oil revenue to boost spending on early childhood education, which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has emphasized since taking office, without causing volatility in the general fund. “This gives us a reliable revenue stream,” Smith, D-Deming, said on the Senate floor. “If you have only hills and valleys, you’re not talking about a plan, you’re talking about a political deal.”

Smith, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, also thanked the windfall from the oil boom in the Permian Basin for giving the state the money to create the new fund. “We still would have been waiting except for the generous returns of oil and gas that have allowed us to do this,” he said.

Two contraception bills advance

A bill that would go beyond both the governor’s and Legislative Finance Committee’s appropriation recommendations for long-acting reversible contraceptive training to medical professionals passed the Senate Public Affairs Committee 4-2 Thursday. The vote fell along party lines for SB 40, which would provide $1.2 million from the general fund to the state Department of Health to mentor health care providers on long-acting reversible contraception. Democratic Senators Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez of Albuquerque, Elizabeth “Liz” Stefanics of Cerrillos, Jerry Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque and Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces voted in favor. Republican Senators Candace Gould of Albuquerque and Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho opposed the bill, while Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle was absent. Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, is sponsoring this bill as well as another, SB 41, which provides $500,000 to the Department of Health to raise public awareness on long-acting reversible contraception.

Cannabis legalization bill passes first committee on party lines

A cannabis legalization bill passed its first committee Tuesday. The Senate Public Affairs voted 4-3 along party lines to pass SB 115 after hours of public comment and debate between lawmakers. 

Even though a number of people spoke against legalization, they were largely outnumbered by those in favor of it. 

For the most part, those who spoke out in opposition said they were concerned about safety and health issues like driving while impaired and addiction. 

The bill’s sponsor and the committee chair, Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, did not present the bill. Instead, legalization proponent and medical cannabis patient Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, took the lead on selling the bill to the committee

Candelaria answered some concerns about testing drivers for cannabis use. There is no test for levels of cannabis like there is for alcohol. “Just because there is no test, doesn’t mean people won’t get caught for DWI,” Candelaria said.

NM cannabis producer, two from Texas asks court to rule on medical cards

Three people, who are not residents of New Mexico, are asking a state district judge to compel the New Mexico Department of Health to allow them to receive New Mexico medical cannabis cards. 

The court filing is the latest in a back-and-forth between New Mexico medical cannabis producer Ultra Health and DOH. While Ultra Health is not one of the petitioners, the companies’ president and CEO Duke Rodriguez is one of the three seeking a New Mexico card. 

Rodriguez, a resident of Arizona, and two Texas residents argue that state law allows them access to a New Mexico medical cannabis card and that DOH cannot deny access to the program based on non-residency alone. 

“As of the date of this filing, the Department of Health’s Medical Cannabis Program has refused to issue registry identification cards to eligible qualified patients, and in so doing it has failed to perform a ministerial non-discretionary duty,” the court filing states. The issue goes back to a bill passed in the 2019 legislative session, and later signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, which made sweeping changes to the state’s medical cannabis law. One change was in the definition of “qualified patient.” Prior to the changes this year, the law defined a qualified patient as a “resident of New Mexico.” Now, it simply defines a qualified patient as a “person.”

Both  Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, and Lujan Grisham’s office told NM Political Report that the intention of the wording change was to allow for reciprocity with other states with medical cannabis programs. The new law also has a section outlining reciprocity and gives DOH until next year to come up with rules regarding that. 

But the three petitioners argue that the law change would accommodate those in the state for long work assignments, college students or those who spend long periods of time in the state, but do not qualify as a resident. Rodriguez falls in that last category.

Bill grows medical cannabis program

More New Mexicans would qualify for medical marijuana, and the 70,000-plus patients already in the state’s medical cannabis program would have to deal with less paperwork under legislation approved by the state Legislature and sent to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. On Friday, the House passed Senate Bill 406, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, which would add more qualifying conditions for medical marijuana use and would allow patients in the program to renew their medical cannabis registry identification cards every three years instead of every year as now required. The Senate passed the bill the previous week. Also last week, the House passed Senate Bill 404, sponsored by Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque. which also would make medical cannabis cards good for three years.

Late-night deal reached on minimum wage

The state’s lowest-paid workers are likely to get a raise of $1.50 an hour effective Jan. 1, and their wages will rise each year until 2023. After weeks of debate and disagreement over competing bills to raise the statewide minimum wage of $7.50 an hour, the Senate and House of Representatives were on course Thursday night to settle on a wage scale. A conference committee of three senators and three representatives reached an agreement in what appeared to be a well-orchestrated presentation. As late as Thursday afternoon, Democrats in the House and Senate were at odds over the minimum wage.

House passes sweeping education bill, with funding boost for adult learners

State lawmakers, facing an outcry over legislation defining “school-aged” students as those under the age of 22, voted Tuesday to provide a year of funding for programs that help adults get a high school education. The provision limiting the age of a public school student would cut off services for some older students who already have been left far behind, opponents argued, and could spell doom for schools like Gordon Bernell Charter School, which serves many students over 21 — including inmates in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque. Sen. Mimi Stewart, a Democrat from Albuquerque and a sponsor of a broad Senate education package, Senate Bill 1, proposed keeping the student age limit in place but also setting aside a year’s worth of funds for schools hit by the change. The age limit provision was just a piece of sweeping education measures in both the House and Senate that would expand a summer program for low-income elementary school students, steer more money to schools serving at-risk students and raise the minimum salaries for teachers and principals. Each chamber passed its version of the legislation Tuesday with bipartisan support, and sent the bill on to the other side.

Minimum wage bills advance, but Dems back off tipped wage increase

Democrats are backing off a proposal to phase out the lower minimum wage for tipped workers like restaurant waiters with a Senate committee voting Saturday to keep the separate rate in place but raise it. House Bill 31 would have eliminated the tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour. Employers can currently pay that rate to workers as long as those workers receive tips amounting to the statewide minimum wage of $7.50 an hour. The restaurant industry says the tipped minimum wage is key to its survival and has launched an intense lobbying campaign against proposals to abolish it. But others argue that raising or eliminating the lower tipped wage would amount to a significant boost in the base pay for many restaurant workers.