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.’”

The brief argues that even if it were true that the Legislature couldn’t convene in a special session to amend state election laws, that the county clerks don’t explain how “why the simpler and safer approach of circulating absentee-ballot applications to the public and encouraging them to voluntarily vote absentee would not suffice.”

It also brings up the argument that there are discussions of holding legislative hearings remotely, including through teleconferencing.

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.

PRC reform bill advances with big concerns

A bill to make big changes to the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) passed its first committee despite lingering questions over the proposal. After a length debate, the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee passed the bill Thursday with a vote of 8-5 along party lines. Democratic Reps. Nathan Small of Las Cruces and Rep. Linda Trujillo of Santa Fe presented HB 11 to the committee. The legislation would restructure the PRC with the aim of streamlining operations and improving efficiencies that Small and Trujillo contend are holding the state back and hurting New Mexico residents.

Effort to bring transparency to House tabling votes advances

A Republican lawmaker who often challenges legislation and decisions by Democrats said he was somewhat happy when an amended version of his resolution calling for more transparency in how lawmakers’ votes are recorded won bipartisan support Thursday. 

House Resolution 1, introduced by Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, would require the New Mexico House of Representatives to publish a record of legislators who make or vote on a motion to table a bill. 

In most cases, a motion to table a bill means it quietly dies in committee while a legislative session plays out, without ever getting further consideration. While those tabling votes are recorded in committee hearings, they do not go into the official House of Representatives record and cannot be found on the legislative website. 

“The people of New Mexico expect ethical transparency,” Townsend told the committee members. “This is just one more step … in making our processes much more transparent to the public.” Though all but one member of the House Rules and Order of Business Committee voted to endorse HR 1, the action came with a price: An amendment would exclude two committees from having to participate in the process.

House speaker ends invocations by clergy following Native activist’s prayer

Last week marked the first time Lee Moquino had delivered an invocation before the state House of Representatives. It might have been his last. In fact, Moquino may be among the last members of the public and the faith community to kick off each House session with a prayer. House Speaker Brian Egolf has decided to do away with the long-standing practice of asking clergy and others to give the invocation; instead, state representatives will provide the daily prayer on the House floor during the legislative session. The change came soon after Moquino’s invocation, delivered in English and Tewa, in which he told lawmakers they were standing in “occupied indigenous space” and that Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico should be protected from oil and gas drilling and other disturbances.

Republicans caution against overspending as reserves hit all-time high

Rarely has the phrase “financially prudent” been so hard to define at the Roundhouse. 

Amid the backdrop of a flush revenue stream and looming legislative races in November, Republicans are hammering away at Democrats and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in the early days of the 2020 session — contending they are overspending in a state inextricably reliant on the unpredictable oil and gas industry. Yet Democrats say their spending plan is fiscally responsible, and key components of their argument are backed by the influential Legislative Finance Committee. 

An estimated 45 percent of general fund revenues are now dependent on oil and gas, and GOP members argue that when that contribution declines, the state will be hard-pressed to find funding for new budget increases in early childhood and higher education the governor has proposed this session. Lujan Grisham is proposing a $7.68 billion budget for fiscal year 2021, including a $74 million increase to the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, $200.3 million more on K-12 education, a 4 percent pay raise for teachers and $35 million for the Opportunity Scholarship program. For Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, and other Republicans in the Legislature, the governor’s proposed 8.5 percent spending increase from last year is “irresponsible.”

“When we say it’s irresponsible, those words are not hyperbole. It is a fact — it’s irresponsible.