The House Appropriations and Finance Committee held a three-hour hearing on allocating some of the $1.1 billion in federal pandemic relief aid but will wait until Wednesday to vote on the bill. HB 2, a general appropriations bill, will enable the legislature to begin spending some of the federal American Rescue Plan Act money. The 2021 Legislature already allocated the federal relief funds, but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham line item vetoed that portion of the spending bill last spring. A group of state senators from both parties sued Lujan Grisham arguing that she did not have the authority to spend the money without the Legislature’s input and won their case in state Supreme Court this past fall. Related: NM high court: Legislature, not governor, has authority over federal COVID-19 funds
Once it passes and is signed by the governor, the federal money will transfer to a contingency fund within the general fund.
The 2021 legislative session begins Tuesday at noon, against a bizarre backdrop that’s never been contemplated, much less seen. The Capitol building remains surrounded by fencing, concrete barriers and blocked roads. On Monday, it was guarded by state police officers and at least a dozen National Guard soldiers, who were seen patrolling the facility and manning entrance checkpoints. The annual State of the State speech, which usually highlights the opening day of the session, is off, at least on Tuesday. A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said it eventually will be delivered, “likely remotely,” due to ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
A panel of New Mexico legislators discussed a draft version of an updated sexual harassment policy Friday, a month ahead of the 2018 legislative session. This marks the first time the policy has been updated since 2008. Legislators have not undergone sexual harassment training since then, before many current legislators were even elected. The Legislative Council expects to vote on a final version on Jan. 15, the day before the start of the session.
Legislative leadership in both chambers and of both parties announced a bipartisan group of legislators will address the state’s sexual harassment policy. The sexual harassment policy was last revised in 2008, which was also the last time legislators underwent sexual harassment training. The group of legislators will work with the Legislative Council Service as well as outside attorneys to review the existing policy and recommend an updated draft policy to the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council, which is made up of members of each chamber, will then vote on adoption of the new policy in January. Leadership announced that the working group will look at applying the policy to staff, contractors, lobbyists and outside vendors in addition to legislators as well as “clearly outlining terms of enforcement” and outlining protections for those reporting sexual harassment from any retaliation.
Attorneys for the Legislative Council Service urged the state Supreme Court to reject Gov. Susana Martinez’s large line-item vetoes in the state budgets in a Wednesday court filing. In the latest legal argument from LCS involving its lawsuit against Martinez, a response to arguments submitted last week from her legal camp, attorneys Jane Yohalem and Michael Browde argued that Martinez’s vetoes last month violate the state constitution. Specifically, the argued that a provision that bars the governor from re-writing the annual bill the Legislature passes to fund state government. Martinez vetoed the entire budgets for the state Legislature and the state Higher Education Department. The large vetoes, the attorneys added, violate the separation of powers between the Legislature and governor established in the state constitution.
A handful of bills passed by both the state Senate and House of Representatives continue to sit in limbo. Normally, those bills would be signed or vetoed by the governor. Instead, their fate likely lies with the judicial branch. The head of the Legislative Council Service (LCS), the nonpartisan administrative arm of the state Legislature, said he and his staff suggested to lawmakers and the secretary of state that some vetoed bills should actually be chaptered. Chaptering, or printing, the bills is typically the first step to writing them into state statute.
A state district court judge set the trial date on corruption for a former state senator for October of 2017, and set aside three weeks to complete the trial. Former State senator Phil Griego faces multiple felonies related to a real estate deal from when he was in office. Second Judicial District Judge Brett Loveless also dismissed a lawyer representing the legislature Thursday afternoon, ruling information Hnasko obtained while interviewing the San Juan Democrat as part of a legislative ethics hearing would not be part of the discovery process for the trial. Legislative Council Service (LCS) attorney Thomas Hnasko requested to not be interviewed by prosecutors with the New Mexico Attorney General’s office, citing privileged information he obtained through previous interviews. Loveless said the information Hnasko obtained is protected by the opinion work product doctrine, essentially an attorney client privilege.
New Mexico lawmakers haven’t been in session for nearly seven months, but that didn’t stop the Majority Leader of the state House of Representatives from awarding more than $100,000 in contracts to his top staffer. But Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, defended the contracts of his de-facto chief of staff Ryan Gleason as “well worth the expenditure.”
Gentry snagged Gleason—an attorney who previously was a legislative assistant Sen. Pete Domenici, the New Mexico state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a research director for the state Taxation and Revenue Department—from state Speaker of the House Don Tripp, R-Socorro. Gleason worked as Tripp’s full-time chief of staff from January 2015 through the end of this year’s general legislative session in February. Gentry’s position of majority leader is directly under Tripp in state House Republican leadership. Gleason’s switch from working for Tripp to working for Gentry reflects how the bulk of policy decisions in the House Republican leadership start with Gentry.
A district judge ruled Tuesday that New Mexico legislative staff must turn over some documents to the Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office. The AG’s office sought documents related to a criminal case against former Senator Phil Griego. Second Judicial District Judge Brett Loveless ruled that some documents and information requested by the AG’s office through subpoenas are susceptible to inspection after Legislative Council Service argued against it. Loveless ruled that “LCS has no constitutional privilege to refuse to produce the materials.”
This comes after the AG’s office and LCS sparred over whether legislators and legislative staff should be subject to subpoenas requiring their testimony. These documents include many documents related to the Interim Legislative Ethics Committee, which itself investigated Phil Griego for the violations of Senate Rules and the state constitution that led to his resignation from the state senate in 2015.
With less than a month until former New Mexico Senator Phil Griego is due in court, the Attorney General’s office and the Legislative Council Service are sparring over who can be subpoenaed in the corruption case. Last week, the Legislative Council Service filed a motion asking the judge to quash subpoenas for legislative staff along with lawmakers. Monday, the AG’s office fired back with a response saying the motion to quash is unwarranted. Lawyers for LCS contend that a section of the New Mexico Constitution protects lawmakers from being questioned about their speech or votes during the legislative session. The AG’s office criticized LCS for obstructing the legal process and a number of those who were subpoenaed did not individually object.