Rep. Lewis will end reelection run, retire at end of term

State Rep. Tim Lewis announced he will retire at the end of his current term and will not continue his run for reelection. The Republican from Rio Rancho was unopposed in the Republican primary and has no opponent in the upcoming general election. 

The schoolteacher said in a statement that he is leaving the Legislature after ten years to spend more time with his family. “Serving these last ten years has been a privilege and great honor, and I will always be grateful for the support that the people of Rio Rancho have given me over the years,” Lewis said. “The decision to withdraw now has not been an easy one for me. My family is the primary reason, but I also recognized early on that the office is best served by those who do not make a career out of politics.” 

House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, praised Lewis’ time in the Legislature.

Bill requiring police to wear body cams while on duty heads to governor

Amid calls for increased scrutiny of law enforcement, the House of Representatives voted 44-26 to approve a measure that would require all New Mexico police officers to wear body cameras. 

The legislation, passed by the House two days after the state Senate concluded its business and departed a special session that focused on shoring up the state budget, now heads to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk. Lujan Grisham praised the work of the Legislature during the special session, but noted it is only the start as New Mexico looks to the 60-day session in January amid a severe economic downturn brought on by falling oil prices and the COVID-19 crisis. “Let me be clear: The work of rebuilding our state economy has only begun,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “But we will, I have no doubt, construct a more robust and inclusive economy than ever before as we continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic with everything we’ve got. “And the work we’ve begun on civil rights and public safety reform and election accessibility and small business relief will remain a chief priority of my administration,” she added.

Offensive phone calls disrupt House rules committee meeting

A House committee charged with creating rules for running the special session got an earful Wednesday when some telephone callers into the meeting criticized social protests and uttered racial epithets. The scene, legislators on both sides of the aisle said, pointed to the challenge of running a nontraditional session of the Legislature. Members of both political parties expressed outrage at the calls, which effectively ended any effort to take public comment by phone during Wednesday’s meeting of the House Rules and Order of Business Committee at the Roundhouse. “What we just heard is pretty disgusting,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. Rep. Jim Townsend, the minority leader in the House, agreed. 

“I am the strongest proponent of public involvement that there is, but when I hear comments like that … that’s uncalled for,” said Townsend, R-Artesia.

GOP lawmakers advocate different approach on budget fix

New Mexico House Republicans presented a starkly different plan for fixing the state budget Monday, calling for lower spending levels than the governor and a key legislative panel have proposed. Minority Whip Rod Montoya said the state shouldn’t use federal stimulus funding to help mend its huge budget shortfall during the upcoming special session because the U.S. government hasn’t approved the use of those funds for that purpose. “If we do pass this budget in the next several days with that in place, we will have passed an illegal budget,” said Montoya, R-Farmington. The proposal from GOP legislators differs from the solvency plans presented last week by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislative Finance Committee, which both call for using at least $700 million in federal funding to help the state shore up the shortfall caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Guidance issued by the U.S. Treasury Department regarding the coronavirus relief act passed by Congress states the stimulus funding allocated to states must be used to cover costs that “are necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease 2019.”

It also says “funds may not be used to fill shortfalls in government revenue to cover expenditures that would not otherwise qualify under the statute” and that “revenue replacement is not a permissible use of fund payments.”

GOP opposes mail-in primaries

The Republican Party of New Mexico and members of both the House and Senate Republican caucuses filed a motion on Tuesday to intervene in an attempt to block an effort by county clerks and the Secretary of State to move to a primarily mail-in election for June’s primaries. Update: The state Supreme Court accepted the motion to intervene and set a hearing for April 14, with responses from the governor of New Mexico,t he legislature, Democratic party of New Mexico, Libertarian Party of New Mexico and the League of Women Voters filed by April 8. The motion argues that the current absentee system, which does not require an excuse to request an absentee ballot, would suffice for mail-in elections. The petition from the clerks and Secretary of State says that a mail-in election would be necessary to protect the public, election workers and election administrators from COVID-19, in light of strict measures the state has implemented to slow the spread of the disease that has already caused five deaths in New Mexico and thousands nationwide. The Republicans’ motion to intervene calls the clerks’ effort “one of the most audacious in recent memory” and says it asks the state supreme court “to violate separation of powers by making new law (in conflict with existing statute) in an area that is the acknowledged constitutional ‘providence of the Legislature.’”

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House minority leader takes issue with special process for medical cannabis bill

An unconventional process for a somewhat controversial medical cannabis bill provoked the ire of the House Republican floor leader Sunday afternoon. 

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, told acting Speaker of the House Daymon Ely, D-Albuquerque, he felt like House Democrats have been changing rules for the majority’s benefit. 

The bill in question, SB 139, would change state law to only allow New Mexico residents to enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program. The problem is, the bill is also directly tied to a state Court of Appeals case where Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, represents the appellees. In attempt to eliminate the perception of a conflict of interest, Egolf said in a letter last week, he would remove himself from the legislative process for that bill. Egolf’s letter asked leaders from the House majority and minority to make the decision about what sort of House committee assignments the Senate bill would get. 

Ely, who Egolf assigned as Speaker Pro Tempore for the assignment process of the bill, told the body on Sunday afternoon that Townsend declined to take part in the process. 

“There was a process proposed that the minority leader and majority leader would try to reach an amicable arrangement as to what committee or committees Senate Bill 139 would be referred to,” Ely said. “The minority leader, as is his right, has decided not to recommend that, so I as the presiding officer will make the referral.”

Townsend took issue with how Ely characterized the letter.

House Republicans say Dems overspending with budget

With a week left to this year’s 30-day legislative session, House Republicans in a Thursday news conference again complained their Democratic counterparts are spending too much, claiming if a “messed up” budget proposal isn’t trimmed, the state may come up short by as much as $200 million. 

Leaders on the Democratic side immediately countered, calling Republican claims  “ridiculous,” “absurd” and “wrong.” Welcome to the Roundhouse, day 23. During a Thursday morning news conference, Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, and Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, pointed to a Legislative Finance Committee financial update this week that indicated projected revenues would fall short of the proposed expenditures by $200 million. “It’s just another example of the crazy spending going on in your Capitol,” Townsend said. Republicans have recommended a 4.3 percent increase to the 2021 fiscal year budget, far smaller than the 7.5 percent increase passed in the House more than a week ago. 

The planned expenditures in the proposed budget, said Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, “are a concern.

House committee approves ‘red-flag’ bill

Despite the freezing cold, Stefani Lord wore a T-shirt that read “Pro-Gun Women” as she waited in line to speak against passage of gun-control legislation known as a “red flag” bill. 

“Rural people feel differently from those who live in urban cities,” said Lord, who lives in a rural part of Bernalillo County. “We feel disenfranchised … like Santa Fe is not listening.” Opponents of Senate Bill 5, perhaps the most controversial piece of legislation in this year’s session, made what may have been their last stand Tuesday during a House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee hearing. Though the outcome was not unexpected — the Democratic-controlled committee moved it to the House floor by a 3-2 vote along party lines — the frustration felt by the bill’s detractors remained as palpable as it was last week, when it passed the Senate by a narrow 22-20 vote. 

If the House approves Senate Bill 5 — which is likely, since Democrats who favor the bill outnumber Republicans by a ratio of almost 2 to 1 — it will then go to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has been pushing for the bill over the past year. 

Many people came to the Capitol to speak about the bill, but their mood, and perhaps words, were more about lifestyle than mere votes.

Democrats, Republicans clash over length of debate on bills

Relations between Democratic and Republican leadership in the New Mexico Legislature were quite balmy through the first two-thirds of this year’s session. Not anymore. As the streets of Santa Fe froze over during a winter storm that blew in early this week, so did dialogue between the two parties. 

House Speaker Brian Egolf on Tuesday accused Republicans of deploying a strategy of extending debate on bills with bipartisan support to decelerate the process of passing legislation they don’t like. “They have told me point blank that they are going to try to slow everything down,” said Egolf, D-Santa Fe. “The other party just wants to gum up the works.”

Minority Leader Jim Townsend shot back that Egolf was “being a bully” and suggested the GOP might indeed continue to obstruct any fast-paced agenda pushed on the House floor.

‘Red flag’ bill only gets one committee assignment in House

This year’s high-profile firearms legislation will be heard by a House panel Tuesday, but it won’t be the Judiciary Committee. The controversial Senate Bill 5, which allows law enforcement to petition a court to take away a person’s firearms if they are found to pose a threat, will instead be heard by the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee. It’s a decision that had House Republicans sharply criticizing the Democratic majority Monday. “I think they’re just trying to force it through,” said House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia. “Any time you have a bill that’s so charged and has been amended five or six times, it deserves to be looked at by the Judiciary Committee in the opposing house.”

The Senate passed the legislation by a narrow margin Friday, and on Monday House Speaker Brian Egolf assigned it to be heard in the public affairs committee before it would proceed to a floor vote. The bill, also known as the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, would allow someone’s firearms to be confiscated for 10 days, an order that could be extended to one year.