Contentious House debate over bill to fund special session

After a contentious, two-hour debate over what should go into the bill to fund 2021’s second special legislative session, the House voted 65 to 1 to approve the $1.6 million package. The new House Majority Floor leader, Democratic state Rep. Javier Martinez, of Albuquerque, introduced HB 1, known as the feed bill, which ensures that the 2021 second special session legislative session can pay for itself. The legislative session, as called by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, is focused on redrawing political maps and how to appropriate the rest of the $1.1 billion the state has received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act under Pres. Joe Biden. The bill originally included additional monies to go to the executive and judicial branches, to enable the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) to prepare to spend the ARPA funds and money for the courts to pay for pretrial services. Martinez referred repeatedly to the crime problem in Albuquerque and that the DFA needed to get ready for the federal expenditures as reasons to pass a bill that was designed to allow the legislature to include the additional expenditures.

Special session for cannabis legalization to start March 30

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced on Friday that she will call the state Legislature back for a special session on Tuesday, March 30. 

The special session will start just ten days after the end of the state’s regular, 60-day session. At the end of the regular session, Lujan Grisham said that she would call legislators into a special session soon to finish the effort. The governor cited precautions in place because of COVID-19 as one reason why legislation ran out of time. According to a statement from the governor’s office, the session will focus on recreational-use cannabis legalization and economic development through the state’s Local Economic Development Act (LEDA). 

Lujan Grisham said in the statement that cannabis legalization and reforming economic development are important enough for the state to call a special session. 

“The unique circumstances of the session, with public health safeguards in place, in my view prevented the measures on my call from crossing the finish line,” Lujan Grisham said. “While I applaud the Legislature and staff for their incredible perseverance and productivity during the 60-day in the face of these challenges, we must and we will forge ahead and finish the job on these initiatives together for the good of the people and future of our great state.”

During special sessions, legislators can only discuss legislation that the governor puts on the call.

House committee advances proposal to alter legislative session lengths

The New Mexico House Judiciary Committee advanced on Saturday a proposal to change a fundamental piece of how the state Legislature operates, although some committee members signaled that it will likely die before Saturday when the session ends. 

House Joint Resolution 13, is a bipartisan proposal that aims to change the dates and length of legislative sessions through a constitutional amendment. 

House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, is the lead sponsor of the proposal, but 20 other legislators have also signed on to the resolution. 

Montoya said there’s a need to revamp how and when the Legislature meets because the current system doesn’t work for the minority party during budget sessions. Montoya used former Gov. Susana Martinez as an example and said half of that time was devoted to budgetary issues or issues the governor saw fit to address. 

“Many of you that are here, were under eight years of the [Susana] Martinez administration,” Montoya said. “For four years, unless somehow you snuck something in, you didn’t get a bill introduced during four of those eight years.”

Currently, the state constitution dictates that on even-numbered years the Legislature is required to meet for 30 days and can only take up financial issues and anything the governor adds to “the call.” Odd-numbered years are required to be 60 days and there is no restriction on what type of proposals can be introduced. 

HJR 13, if approved by voters, would change the constitution to require that the Legislature meet for 45 days every year and would eliminate the constraints on bills that could be considered in even-numbered years 

Nearly all members of the Judiciary Committee voiced their concern with the current system, but some said they thought 45 days still is not long enough to effectively legislate. 

Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, said he considered sponsoring a similar proposal, but ultimately decided against it after he saw new rules imposed in the House this year, a largely virtual session, that limited the number of bills introduced as well as morning floor sessions that have historically been devoted to pomp and circumstance. 

“I don’t know what college someone’s intern wants to go to or what their favorite sport is, and things like that,” McQueen said. I appreciate the process of the legislature, but we spend way too much time on that stuff. Way too much time.”

McQueen was one of two committee members who voted against the resolution, but explained that he thinks 45 days is still “too limiting.”

House Judiciary Committee Chair Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, along with Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque both agreed that 45 days is not enough time to get through hundreds of pieces of legislation.

Some liquor sellers leery of booze tax to fund license overhaul

As J.R. Palermo sees it, the year has been bad enough for restaurants, bars and patrons. He’s none too happy with a proposed 2 percent excise tax the state could impose on alcohol sales as part of a sweeping liquor law reform bill. Palermo, the owner of Tiny’s Restaurant & Lounge, a fixture in Santa Fe since 1950, has been an outspoken critic of New Mexico legislators’ efforts to overhaul what many people call an outdated and cost-prohibitive liquor license system. He said House Bill 255 is “not friendly to the industry.” At the top of his many objections to the bill is a plan to allow restaurateurs to purchase new licenses to serve liquor at a fraction of the costs paid by longtime business operators.

House passes cannabis legalization effort, sends it to the Senate

A House proposal to legalize and regulate cannabis passed the chamber on a 39-31 vote, with six Democrats breaking rank to vote against the measure. 

HB 12, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque and Andrea Romero of Santa Fe, would fully legalize the sale and production of cannabis for adults, allow home cultivation and would expunge previous minor drug convictions. The bill would also implement an eight percent excise tax on the sale of cannabis and a local government tax up to four percent. Recreational-use cannabis would also be subject to gross receipts taxes, while medical-use cannabis would not. 

Martínez said the three major tenets of the bill are to protect New Mexico’s current medical-use cannabis program, ensure an equitable and just industry and to create a regulated industry that will thrive. 

Romero told her colleagues she shared the sentiments of her cosponsor and said cannabis has been used for various purposes for centuries, including in her own family.    

Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo explained why he opposed the bill. He raised concerns about how a fully-legalized cannabis program might impact tribal governments in the state.

New Mexico justices decline to temporarily block House pandemic rules

The state Supreme Court has temporarily denied a request by House Republicans to prohibit the enforcement of pandemic-related rules for this year’s legislative session. While the court continues to consider a final ruling, the current procedures for the 60-day session remain in place. After a contentious week that included a COVID-19 outbreak involving one Republican legislator and others who work at the Capitol, House Republican leaders filed a lawsuit Saturday with the Supreme Court, contending the new rules — passed by the Democratic-controlled House and adopted early in the session — are unconstitutional. 

House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, and Reps. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, and Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, filed the lawsuit, which names House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and the Legislative Council as defendants. The Supreme Court, in a news release issued Monday afternoon, ordered “an expedited response” to the court petition by Feb.

GOP leaders in New Mexico House sue over rule changes

Republican leaders in the state House of Representatives filed a lawsuit Saturday with the New Mexico Supreme Court, charging rules changes adopted early in the 2021 session are unconstitutional. House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, and Reps. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, and Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, filed the lawsuit. It names House Speaker Brian Egolf and the Legislative Council as defendants. The lawsuit asks the Supreme Court to issue a stay prohibiting the defendants from enforcing the rules until a final decision is rendered.

Parties clash in House rules debate

It took members of the House Rules and Order of Business Committee about four hours Friday to lay out the rules for how the House of Representatives will run this year’s legislative session. But it only took 90 minutes for Republicans and Democrats to accuse each other of launching attacks. 

The final 11-5 vote went along party lines, with Democrats voting to approve House Rule 1 and Republicans voting against it. The rules set up new procedures for working virtually in the age of COVID-19. The conflict began when Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, questioned why Democrats want to require everyone participating in House floor debates to communicate via Zoom on computers, even if they are sitting in their chairs on the floor. 

Townsend said it was because the majority party is concerned about viewers at home watching the event and seeing Republicans on-site in the Capitol debating while Democrats take part virtually from their offices or homes — which is what happened, to a large degree, during last year’s brief special sessions. “The majority is hesitant for the public to see the optics of the minority on the House floor doing what they were elected to do and the other side of the chamber empty,” Townsend said.

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.

Bernalillo County District Attorney signs statement that he won’t criminalize abortion care

Raúl Torrez, Bernalillo County District Attorney, signed a joint statement from elected prosecutors around the country who pledged not to criminalize abortion care. Bernalillo County is home to most of the clinics that provide abortions in the state. An additional clinic exists in both Santa Fe County and Doña Ana County. The statement, produced by Fair and Just Prosecution, a fiscally-sponsored project of a public charity called The Tides Center, stated that the 62 prosecutors who signed it would neither prosecute nor criminalize abortion care. “What brings us together is our view that as prosecutors we should not and will not criminalize healthcare decisions such as these – and we believe it is our obligation as elected prosecutors charged with protecting the health and safety of all members of our community to make our views clear,” according to the statement.