Focus turns to rural water projects

In the eyes of some lawmakers, rural New Mexico often is neglected by state government and the big-city politicians who rule the Roundhouse. A push to address the state’s myriad water infrastructure needs — part of a larger effort to prepare for the effects of a warming climate — could transform the current method of operation, as the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will try to focus on helping rural New Mexico. Mike Hamman, the governor’s new water adviser, said Thursday that federal infrastructure funding prioritizes “underserved and neglected” communities. “We’re going to try to flip the model because, right now, communities that have capacity are outcompeting the communities that suffer with their capacities,” Hamman told members of the Senate Conservation Committee. “They don’t have good support, so that’s going to be something that will be very important for us … to try to coordinate that in a way that flips the model and puts some energy into helping our rural communities succeed and get the infrastructure they need to have good quality drinking water and wastewater systems,” he said.

Free college tuition proposal could get a second chance

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s plan to offer free tuition to all New Mexico residents attending in-state colleges might get a second chance. A new proposal backed by two Democratic lawmakers and the state Higher Education Department would cover tuition for up to 35,000 eligible students — regardless of their income status. The plan would combine all of the state’s existing college scholarships into one aid pool and steeply increase the available funding. “The real goal is to ensure college affordability, to establish an all-encompassing free college package combining all the scholarships for New Mexicans looking to enroll,” Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of the possible legislation, told lawmakers on the interim Legislative Education Study Committee during a meeting Monday. For years, New Mexico has developed initiatives to cover some tuition costs for in-state college and university students, including both new high school graduates and adults.

Paid sick leave passes Senate after lengthy, acrimonious debate including a filibuster

The state Senate passed the Healthy Workplaces bill 25 to 16 after a lengthy debate that stretched into the early hours of Friday during which Democrats sparred against each other on the chamber floor over the treatment of the bill’s sponsor, while Republicans railed against the bill and one even held a lengthy filibuster. HB 20 would mandate that all private sector employers provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Private sector employees could accrue up to 64 hours a year of paid sick leave. The bill would not go into effect until July 1, 2022. Advocates had pushed for mandated paid sick leave for years, including at the local level in Albuquerque.

Aid-in-dying bill poised to become law in New Mexico

The New Mexico Senate passed a controversial bill Monday that would allow terminally ill patients who are of sound mind to take their own lives with the aid of a physician. The bill will soon head to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is expected to sign the measure into law once the state House of Representatives, which already has approved the bill, concurs with a number of amendments. “The governor has been a lifelong advocate for seniors and their independence, as well as for the importance of dignity and respect in making choices about one’s own health and treatment,” Nora Meyers Sackett, Lujan Grisham’s press secretary, wrote in an email. Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, described the measure as “compassion for the suffering” and said nine other states and the District of Columbia have passed similar legislation. “A 2020 Gallup poll indicates 74 percent of Americans support an end-of-life option,” Stefanics said at the end of a 2½-hour debate.

Legislative roundup on bills that advance equity

Three bills passed the state Senate Sunday night that will, if they become law, advance equity for the LGBTQ community and people of color. SB 213, called the panic defense bill, passed by a vote of 41 to 0 with no debate. Sponsored by state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, the bill would prevent someone who commits a violent crime from using the victim’s sexual orientation, gender expression or identity as a legal defense in court. State Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Los Cerrillos, who is a co-sponsor on the bill, said she knew a man in the 1980s who was violently murdered because of his sexual orientation. The man who perpetrated the crime used the panic defense, Stefanics said.

Bill that would end qualified immunity heads to Senate Judiciary Committee

A bill that would end qualified immunity as a defense in civil rights cases advanced from the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee. HB 4, known as the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, passed without recommendation in a 5 to 3 vote along party lines. State Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, amended the bill to remove acequias, land grants and other small units of government from the definition of a public body, said Daniel Marzec, communications director for House Speaker Brian Egolf’s office. Egolf is a co-sponsor of the bill. The lead sponsor is Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque.

Bill to revamp New Mexico wildlife management stalls in committee

Legislation that supporters say would modernize wildlife management in New Mexico but opponents counter would hurt outfitters who operate on public lands has stalled on a tie vote in a Senate committee. “My district is parts of six counties — it is all rural — and I, in this case, I’m going to have to support my constituents,” Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, told other members of the Senate Conservation Committee on Tuesday before joining with three Republicans to table the 241-page bill. Senate Bill 312 is now stuck in the committee with just over three weeks left in the session. Some lawmakers struggled over whether or not to support the measure, which included changes they supported wholeheartedly but others that gave them pause. “I hate bills like this,” said Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces.

Produced water bill dies in committee

A bill that would have made it illegal for oil and gas operators to spill produced water died in the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday. Produced water is the toxic flowback water generated in oil extraction. 

SB 86, sponsored by Democratic Senators Antoinette Sedillo Lopez of Albuquerque and Liz Stefanics of Cerrillos, sought to address many of the issues the state is now facing in managing scarce freshwater supplies and increasing volumes of produced water. “This bill does two things,” Sedillo Lopez told legislators. “First, it compels industry to reduce the volume of and reuse its waste by prohibiting freshwater use in fracking when produced water can be used instead. And second, it fulfills the original intent of the Produced Water Act of 2019 by mandating safeguards to protect public health, the environment and freshwater from this waste stream.”

Norm Gaume, a water expert and former director of the Interstate Stream Commission, and who currently sits on the Produced Water Research Consortium’s technical steering committee, spoke in support of the bill.

2020 elections usher in a wave of ‘firsts’ for NM

New Mexico voters embraced candidates in the 2020 elections that have historically been underrepresented, including women, in elected office. The state saw a slew of “firsts” this year. 

For the first time in the state’s history, New Mexico’s three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be held by women of color. And both Yvette Herrell, who will represent the state’s 2nd Congressional District, and Deb Haaland, who won reelection to the state’s 1st Congressional District, are enrolled members of Indigenous nations. Haaland is a member of Laguna Pueblo, and Herrell is a member of the Cherokee Nation, making New Mexico the first state in the U.S. to have two Indigenous Representatives. 

Teresa Leger Fernandez, who won New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District, is Latina. 

Terrelene Massey, Diné (Navajo) and the executive director of Southwest Women’s Law Center, said she’s really excited to see more representation from women, especially women of color and Native American women. “I think they’ll provide different perspectives on the different issues they’ll be working on,” Massey said.

State Senate shifts left with progressive wins

The state Senate has shifted to the left and progressive Democrats picked up one state Senate seat Tuesday night, according to unofficial results, and will likely pick up two more. All results cited are as of midnight on Wednesday. All results reported election night are unofficial until the Secretary of State announces the official results later this month. Progressive Democrat Siah Correa Hemphill beat Republican James Williams in state SD 28, which encompasses Grant, Catron and Socorro counties. Correa Hemphill led most of the night and won with 51 percent of the vote, with all precincts reporting.