Lawmakers poised to start a strange legislative session

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.

NM Senate Dems pick leadership, make choice for pro tem nominee

New Mexico Senate Democrats picked their leadership Saturday and made their nomination of who they want in the Senate president pro tem spot. 

The majority party in the Senate picked Sen. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque as their choice for pro tem, but the full Senate will still vote when they meet for the 2021 legislative session in January. 

In a statement through the Senate Democrats, Stewart said she hopes Democrats and Republicans can work together next year. 

“I am honored to have the support of the Democratic Caucus for President Pro Tempore as we enter what will undoubtedly be a difficult session that will require us to solve New Mexico’s many problems under unprecedented circumstances,” Stewart said. There’s still no guarantee that Stewart will be elected by the body as a whole. In 2013, for example, Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, was the Demcratic nominee for the pro tem spot, but a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans had enough votes to put Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, into the spot. Papen lost in this year’s Democratic primary to Democrat Carrie Hamblen of Las Cruces. Hamblen went on to win in the general election. 

Earlier this week, there seemed to be some tension among some Senate Democrats leading up to Saturday’s caucus meeting.

Election changes pass House after revote

A scaled-back election overhaul lacking a key provision that would have allowed clerks to mail every registered voter a ballot for the November general election is on its way to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk following a dramatic revote after first failing to pass the House. After three hours of debate, the House rejected Senate Bill 4 in a 38-32 vote Saturday that included many Democrats opposing the measure despite it being a priority of Lujan Grisham and other Democrats. But a subsequent vote to “reconsider” the legislation passed, and after hours of closed-door caucus meetings, a second vote on the legislation cleared the House floor 44-26 without any amendments, rescuing the bill from the legislative graveyard. House Speaker Brian Egolf and other Democratic leaders persuaded fellow Democrats to support legislation they opposed just hours earlier byreminding them of other provisions in the bill that are meant to help ensure a safe election during the pandemic. “We basically decided to [prioritize] a safe election, an election where absentee ballot programs can be meaningfully done without late-arriving ballots, without vendors and processing being such a problem like in the primary we just went through,” Egolf said in an interview after the House adjourned.

ACLU spending on education in two state senate districts targeted by progressives

Two progressive Democrats, Siah Correa Hemphill and Pam Cordova, who are challenging  incumbents who lean more to the right within the Democratic party, are getting a boost in their campaign efforts. Correa Hemphill is running against incumbent Democratic state Sen. Gabriel Ramos. With her May filing report, she has outraised Ramos by $53.26. Ramos, who was appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to replace Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, is running his first election for the seat. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico is spending $150,000 in the remaining weeks of the primary to educate voters on the fact that Ramos and state Sen. Clemente Sanchez, also a Democrat, both voted against HB 51 in 2019.

Lujan Grisham hails ‘really productive’ session

New Mexico’s 54th Legislature wrapped up Thursday amid congratulatory hugs and news conferences — a veneer of good cheer that masked a dose of sleep deprivation, early-morning procedural bickering, and finally, sighs of relief as key bills were passed just hours before the final gavel. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Democratic legislators touted the passage of a number of their priority proposals, including the creation of an early childhood trust fund, passing a high-profile firearms bill and shepherding through the state’s $7.6 billion budget for the 2021 fiscal year. “I think this was a really productive 30-day session,” Lujan Grisham said, surrounded by legislators and cabinet secretaries at a post-session news conference in  the Roundhouse. “We are building something new together. We’re investing for tomorrow and we’re delivering today.”

The governor won passage for the majority of bills she asked legislators to undertake — 80 percent of them, by her own count.

Budget push comes down to the final hours

If you started the clock at midnight Monday and counted down to the end of this year’s legislative session at noon Thursday, you’d come up with 84 hours. That’s how long legislators in the state Senate have to make adjustments to the state budget. “Putting out fires. That’s what it looks like,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. John Arthur Smith of what promises to be a frenetic three and a half days. Entering the final moments of the 30-day legislative session, the state budget encompassed in House Bill 2 remains in limbo.

Senate passes public records bill, chides Martinez administration

The New Mexico Senate unanimously passed a bill Saturday that would allow the public to immediately view records pertaining to claims against the government, as legislators admonished financial settlements made under the administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez. Senate Bill 64, sponsored by Sen. Sander Rue and three other lawmakers, would remove a requirement that the state must wait 180 days before publicly disclosing information about such settlements. It would also eliminate criminal penalties for revealing confidential records related to these types of claims. The bill now moves to the House. Lawmakers said they were compelled to introduce the bill after millions of dollars in secretive settlements were made during the Martinez administration, many of which were found to have been carried out without adequate investigation or documentation. During debate on Saturday, senators had harsh words for officials from that administration and the attorneys involved, saying they allowed corruption to continue unchecked in New Mexico.

Red flag bill passes Senate

The New Mexico Senate approved high-profile gun legislation in a narrow vote Friday, likely clearing the way for the bill to become law. The chamber voted 22-20 to pass an amended version of Senate Bill 5, also known as the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act. Under the legislation, law enforcement officers would be able to petition for a court order to take away a person’s firearms for 10 days — an order that could be extended to one year — if they are found to pose a threat to themselves or others. The measure now moves to the House, where it is expected to pass and make New Mexico the 18th state in the nation, plus the District of Columbia, to have a similar so called red flag law on the books. A comparable bill passed the House in last year’s session but didn’t make it to the Senate floor.

New Mexico’s capital outlay process is often a crazy mess, lawmakers say

On Friday morning, three Santa Fe firefighters in uniform walked up to state Sen. Peter Wirth in a Roundhouse hallway. They came bearing a form, and if the majority leader would sign on the dotted line, they’d be one step closer to getting new equipment. 

They weren’t the only ones to seek Wirth’s help. The Palace of the Governors wanted interior renovation. The yet-to-be-constructed Vladem Contemporary art museum needed solar. Tesuque Pueblo was after remote monitoring for a drinking water system.

Judge finds state senator guilty of DWI, reckless driving

A district judge found state Sen. Richard Martinez guilty of driving while intoxicated and reckless driving on Tuesday. 

This past summer, Martinez, D-Española, was driving when he hit the car of a couple waiting at a stoplight in Española. After the state senator was taken to a hospital, police arrested him for DWI and reckless driving. 

The ruling on Tuesday came at the end of a two-day bench trial where Martinez’s lawyer, David Foster, argued that the arresting officer didn’t follow protocols for field sobriety tests and that signs of impairment by Martinez could have been from a head injury sustained in the crash. 

During their closing arguments, prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office argued that police lapel camera footage showed Martinez struggling with the sobriety tests and admitting that he had at least two alcoholic drinks that night. 

In that footage Martinez was inconsistent on how much he had to drink and about the type of drinks he had. Martinez refused any sort of breath test, and replied, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me,” when the officer asked for his consent. Prosecutors argued that comment was a “consciousness of guilt.” 

“No one is above the law, not even a senator, not even this defendant,” one prosecutor told the judge. 

In his closing arguments, Foster criticized police for not following protocol and for inconsistencies in their reports. 

“How can you believe anything [the arresting officer] is saying?” Foster asked. 

He also criticized prosecutors for pointing out a dark spot on Martinez’s shorts that can barely be seen in the police footage. During the first day of trial, prosecutors argued that the dark spot was urine and a sign that Martinez was too intoxicated to drive a car.