Senate approves key change to New Mexico primary election process

New Mexico senators approved a new measure Friday that would allow independent voters to cast ballots in primary elections by registering with a major party on Election Day, potentially opening up primaries to a wider swath of the population. The surprise amendment was added to an elections reform bill that aims to streamline the voting-by-mail process if the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing during November’s general election. The amendment, which was proposed by Sen. John Sapien and passed with bipartisan support, would allow voters not registered with a major party to affiliate with one when they arrive at polling stations to vote. Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, who was the lead sponsor on the main bill, said the change would prevent situations that take place under current law, in which voters unaffiliated with a major party arrive to vote in primaries but aren’t able to. “Right now, you’ve got people who in their mind affiliate a certain way, who may want to show up to vote but right now their only option is to be turned away,” said Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.

Committees start talks on budget fix, with lots of debate to come

State workers would see a drop in their pay raises for fiscal year 2021 and spending for most agencies would be cut significantly under the draft budget overhaul lawmakers began debating Wednesday. Whittling a record $7.6 billion budget to $7.34 billion — and filling wide spending gaps with cash reserves, pandemic-related aid from the federal government and other measures — is no small task for the New Mexico Legislature as it convenes Thursday for a special session to address a steep decline in projected revenues. Members of the state House and Senate finance committees met Wednesday to review the plan, which would slash higher education spending by 6 percent — the biggest cut for any single agency — and reduce the 4 percent pay raises for state workers, approved earlier this year, to 1.5 percent for those who earn less than $40,000 a year and 0.5 percent for higher earners. Funding for the new Early Childhood Education and Care Department, set to take over all services for young children July 1, would be cut by $3.3 million; the spaceport would lose $600,000; and $17 million would be slashed from the Medicaid program. Lawmakers, however, hope to shift money from the Tobacco Settlement Permanent Fund to fill the Medicaid gap.

The legislators (so far) who aren’t running for reelection

All 112 legislators are up for reelection this year. As of Monday, seven had already said they would not seek reelection. More could decide not to run before the March 10 deadline for major party candidates to make the primary ballot. Write-in candidates can file to run on March 17. Retiring House members

Rep. Abbas Akhil, New Mexico’s first Muslim legislator, announced last year that he would not seek a second term.

Senate approves pension fix

The New Mexico Senate on Wednesday approved a $76 million investment in the state Public Employees Retirement Association in a move to get the pension system on a path to solvency. Senate Bill 72, sponsored by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, also comes with costs for government employers and public workers — who will pay more into the retirement system — and retirees, many of whom will receive smaller cost-of-living increases in their payouts. The state has no choice, Muñoz told fellow senators, because of the $16 billion PERA fund’s unfunded liabilities of about $6.6 billion. “We are avoiding the cliff if we do this,” he said. “At the end of the day, this fund has to be solvent.”

Sweeping education reform heads to House floor

A sweeping K-12 education reform bill that would raise salaries for New Mexico teachers but could limit the growth of charter schools in the state’s urban areas is headed to the House floor. The House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted 11-3 to approve the measure, which would improve salaries for New Mexico’s 22,000 classroom teachers across the board over a period of years. “It’s about time we started paying our teachers like professionals,” said Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, one of the sponsors of House Bill 5. Currently, teachers in the state’s three-tiered licensure system earn a base salary of $36,000 (Tier 1), $44,000 (Tier 2) and $54,000 (Tier 3). The bill would increase those salaries next year to $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000, respectively.

Senate Finance Committee restores bill creating early ed department

Just days after the Senate Education Committee drastically pared down a bill creating a new early childhood education department — stripping much of its oversight of programs for young children — the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Michael Padilla, convinced another panel of lawmakers to reverse the changes. The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday unanimously approved an amendment undoing the earlier move, which would have torn the proposed new department in half. “We heard a rallying cry that people want full accountability and continuity across the early childhood education spectrum,” Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat, said Thursday after the Finance Committee’s vote. The new amendment of Senate Bill 22 makes it clear that the early childhood education department — which Padilla envisions as a one-stop shop of services for children from birth to age 5, including prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds — will maintain oversight of all such programs.

Currently, several state agencies provide programs for children and oversee services offered by private contractors. Among them are the Public Education Department, the Children, Youth and Families Department, the Human Services Department and the Department of Health.

Bill to increase electronic record fees could be changed

A state Senator who introduced a bill to change New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA), now seems to be looking to change the language in his bill. Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, told the Santa Fe New Mexican Tuesday his bill to allow public bodies to charge up to $1.00 per page for electronic records was “not nefarious,” but instead was in response to public bodies being “deluged” with requests for free electronic records. But when NM Political Report reached out to Sapien for further comment, a representative from his legislative office said the Senator did not want to talk about the bill. Sisto Abeyta, on behalf of Sapien’s office, returned a call to NM Political Report and hinted Sapien’s bill may change, but he did not have specifics. “We are going to hold off on the record right now because we’re still working through some issues with the bill,” Abeyta said.

Lodgers tax bill would plug Airbnb loophole

Book a hotel room in Silver City and you will probably find a 5 percent lodgers tax on your bill. But not if you book a casita on Airbnb.com. A loophole in New Mexico law means many vacation rentals are exempt from the tax that local governments charge on stays at hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns. State lawmakers this year aim to close that loophole, which cities and hotel operators argue would only be fair as websites like Airbnb become increasingly popular among travelers in a state where tourism is a big business. But it may also add to the cost of some visitors’ New Mexico getaways.

Longtime former legislator ‘Kiki’ Saavedra dies

Henry “Kiki” Saavedra, who represented an Albuquerque South Valley district in the New Mexico House of Representatives for nearly 40 years, is dead. He was 82. House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, announced Saavedra’s death on the House floor Monday. A statement issued by son Marc Saavedra on behalf of the family said the late lawmaker suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for the past couple of years. But, the statement said, “his lively spirit continued to shine through until the end, and we are grateful that he is now at peace.”

Senate OKs new system of choosing Lt. Gov. candidates

The state Senate on Saturday took action to lessen the chance that voters could choose a political odd couple as nominees for governor and lieutenant governor. Senators voted 20-10 for a bill that would do away with primary election for lieutenant governor. Under Senate Bill 178, a major party’s gubernatorial nominees would get to choose their own running. The bill is sponsored by Sens. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, and Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.