Second in command at RLD leaving

After just several months serving as second in command of the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department, John Blair announced on Tuesday that he is leaving his position as the deputy superintendent of the department. 

In addition to regulating many industries in the state, RLD most recently took on regulation of cannabis after the Cannabis Regulation Act went into effect in June. 

In an email announcement, Blair praised Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for the opportunity to help set up the Cannabis Control Division and his former colleagues for the work they have done. 

“I’m grateful to Governor Lujan Grisham for allowing me to serve in her administration and to help her both legalize adult-use cannabis and stand up the regulatory and licensing framework for this emerging industry,” Blair wrote. “It’s been my great honor to be a part of Team RLD and to work with the dedicated public servants I’ve been lucky enough to call colleagues and friends.”

Blair didn’t specify why he was leaving but said he would announce what’s next for him in the coming weeks. 

Blair has worked numerous political and policy jobs including numerous years for U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich’s office and for New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver. Morse recently Blair ran for office to replace U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan when Lujan left his previous U.S. House seat to run for Senate. 

NM Political Report received numerous tips since last week that Blair was preparing to leave his position and that former Lujan Grisham staffer Victor Reyes will take Blair’s spot. An RLD spokesperson confirmed that Reyes will take over as deputy superintendent of RLD. “The entire team at the Cannabis Control Division is sad to be saying goodbye to Deputy Superintendent John Blair, but we wish him all the best in his next adventure,” RLD spokesperson Heather Brewer told NM Political Report.

Growing Forward: Consumption areas

While the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department is working towards finalizing rules and regulations for cannabis businesses, local governments around the state are also doing some fine-tuning of their respective zoning laws. 

The state’s new Cannabis Regulation Act prohibits municipalities and counties from limiting things like the distance between a cannabis establishment and schools, but also allows those local governments some leeway in zoning ordinances. The City of Albuquerque for example was able to limit the density of cannabis establishments through its zoning plan. 

Most of the types of establishments cities and counties are taking into consideration had predecessors under the state’s medical cannabis law. But other types of businesses, like cannabis consumption areas, are a new concept to local governments. 

The Bernalillo County Zoning Commission, for example, recently approved a proposal that would ban outdoor cannabis consumption areas. The proposal still has to go through the Bernalillo County Board of Commissioners before it becomes official, but Erica Rowland has been front and center trying to educate officials on why indoor-only consumption lounges may not be a good idea. Rowland spoke against the proposal at the last zoning meeting and told Growing Forward, the collaborative podcast between NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS, that she aims to open a sort of cannabis country club.      

“What I’m looking for is really to embrace the cannabis lifestyle that we have become so accustomed to as being patients,” Rowland said. 

Rowland likened forcing cannabis consumption areas indoors to forcing users “back in the cannabis closet.”

The idea of cannabis consumption areas is not as new as many think.

Campaigns forced to adapt during COVID-19 pandemic

Candidates are getting creative in how they connect with voters amid a COVID-19 pandemic. With about a week left before the primary election, some candidates are leaning on phone calls, text messages and social media more than usual in lieu of in-person campaign rallies or forums, even as tens of thousands of voters have already cast ballots through absentee or early in-person voting. 

Brett Phelps, a Democrat who is running for district attorney in the state’s 4th judicial district said a lack of face-to-face interaction with voters is one of the biggest challenges. Phelps, a criminal defense attorney, normally could have a more personable conversation with voters to make his pitch about why his experience on the defense side is better than his opponent who has worked for years in the DA’s office. He said, instead, he has been focusing on putting up campaign signs and making phone calls. 

“One of the hardest things, when we do have personal interactions, is not shaking hands,” Phelps said. “Shaking hands and kissing babies, that’s what they told me it was all about when I got into this.” 

Even when asking supporters to display one of his yard signs, Phelps said, he has to make a phone call first instead of knocking on doors. 

But, it is those person-to-person conversations that political hopefuls often count on that makes things the most difficult. 

“Not being able to meet with people face-to-face and answer their questions personally has definitely been a struggle,” Phelps said. 

Even walking door to door in more urban areas can present problems during a pandemic, said state House Republican candidate Jill Michel.

Group sending voter registration forms to increase NM voters

One national progressive group is continuing their efforts to register more New Mexicans to vote. And to do so, they’re sending thousands of voter registration forms to those who are eligible to vote, but have not yet registered. The Voter Participation Center (VPC) has been involved in New Mexico since 2006, and announced last week that they will send voter registration forms to nearly 29,000 unregistered New Mexicans the group has determined are eligible to vote. Page Gardner, the president and founder of the VPC, said that New Mexico is one of the group’s targets because of “crucial elections” including Senate and congressional races and the state’s demographics. New Mexico is the state with the highest percentage of Latinx residents.

Election Day voter registration clears first committee

A bill to allow voters to register on the same day they vote cleared its first House committee Wednesday. The House, State Government, Elections & Indian Affairs Committee advanced the proposal on a party-line vote. The bill aims to let voters register or update their voter registration during early voting or on Election Day, and vote on the same day. Currently, voters must register four weeks before the election to be eligible to vote. One of the bill’s Democratic co-sponsors, Patricia Roybal Caballero of Albuquerque, said the legislation “is the ultimate access bill to allow voters to access the electoral process as openly as possible.”

The bill would allow new voters to register on Election Day and those already registered to change their address.

Campaign finance reporting changes prove controversial

On the surface, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s proposed changes to campaign finance reporting rules appear to be a wonky topic. But to some outspoken opponents it’s a free speech violation. Burly Cain, the New Mexico state director of Americans for Prosperity, compared the proposed changes to forcing an 80-year-old woman to “wear an armband to say what she believes on her arm.”

Officials with the secretary of state’s office say they are simply attempting to update outdated sections of the state’s Campaign Reporting Act that are no longer legally valid after high-profile court decisions. This includes the state law definition of “political committee,” which is broadly defined as two or more people who are “selected, appointed, chosen, associated, organized or operated primarily” for influencing an election or political convention. This definition was found to be “unconstitutionally broad” in New Mexico Youth Organized v. Herrera, a 2009 court case, according to Secretary of State Chief Information Officer Kari Fresquez.

Legislature sues governor, says ten vetoes are invalid

The Legislature asked a state district court Monday to invalidate 10 vetoes by Gov. Susana Martinez of bills state lawmakers passed during this year’s regular session. The petition filed with the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe came after the Legislative Council voted to approve it earlier this year. A spokesman for the governor said the legal challenge is “another example of out-of-touch Santa Fe trial lawyers wasting time and taxpayer money going to court when they don’t get what they want.”

Democrats say Martinez violated the state constitution by not explaining why she vetoed the 10 bills. The complaint describes the two categories of vetoes:  Half of the bills were vetoed within three days after being presented to the governor. But the governor did not include her “objections” as required  by the state constitution.

Court fight possible over validity of governor’s vetoes

Judges may have to decide whether five bills that Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed during the last week will actually become law. Democratic lawmakers say the Republican governor did not properly veto the legislation, which includes a bill to allow research on industrial hemp in New Mexico, and they maintain the measures will become law after all. On Friday, the deputy to Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, said her office would not add the bills to the law books unless instructed by a court. “Whether the governor met her constitutional obligation by vetoing these five bills in the manner in which she did is a question that should be answered by our court system,” Deputy Secretary of State John Blair said in an email. “This office will swiftly chapter these bills if and when we receive guidance from the New Mexico courts to do so,” he added, referring to the secretary of state’s role of assigning code numbers to new laws.

New NM Secretary of State brings in new leadership

Monday marked the first full day in the office not just for New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, but also for two new staffers. Toulouse Oliver was sworn in as Secretary of State late last week, about a month ahead of when she was originally scheduled to take office. Toulouse Oliver’s office announced in a press release that John Blair is the new Deputy Secretary of State and Theresa Chavez-Romero is Toulouse Oliver’s executive assistant. Blair most recently worked for the U.S Department of Interior as Director of Intergovernmental Affairs. Born and raised in Santa Fe, Blair also ran unsuccessfully in the primary election for the New Mexico state Senate in 2008.