Community solar bill passes first committee

A proposal to expand access to solar energy for New Mexico residents through the development of community solar projects passed its first committee Tuesday. Community solar projects, also referred to as “solar gardens,” are programs in which the energy generated by local solar systems are shared among energy subscribers. The power generation is typically located in a central location and distributed to subscribers in the area. Albuquerque Democrat and bill sponsor Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero presented HB 9 to the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Santa Fe Democratic Rep. Andrea Romero and the Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, who also represents Santa Fe, are co-sponsors of the bill, along with Albuquerque Democratic Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez.

Republicans caution against overspending as reserves hit all-time high

Rarely has the phrase “financially prudent” been so hard to define at the Roundhouse. 

Amid the backdrop of a flush revenue stream and looming legislative races in November, Republicans are hammering away at Democrats and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in the early days of the 2020 session — contending they are overspending in a state inextricably reliant on the unpredictable oil and gas industry. Yet Democrats say their spending plan is fiscally responsible, and key components of their argument are backed by the influential Legislative Finance Committee. 

An estimated 45 percent of general fund revenues are now dependent on oil and gas, and GOP members argue that when that contribution declines, the state will be hard-pressed to find funding for new budget increases in early childhood and higher education the governor has proposed this session. Lujan Grisham is proposing a $7.68 billion budget for fiscal year 2021, including a $74 million increase to the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, $200.3 million more on K-12 education, a 4 percent pay raise for teachers and $35 million for the Opportunity Scholarship program. For Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, and other Republicans in the Legislature, the governor’s proposed 8.5 percent spending increase from last year is “irresponsible.”

“When we say it’s irresponsible, those words are not hyperbole. It is a fact — it’s irresponsible.

SOS rules against Republican petition aiming to overturn gun background check law

The New Mexico Secretary of State rejected the effort by House Republicans to overturn a new law requiring background checks for nearly all gun purchases in New Mexico. The Republican House leader said they are prepared to take legal action over the decision. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver announced today that the petition submitted by Republicans doesn’t meet the state’s constitutional requirements to overturn a law. In a letter to House Minority Jim Townsend, who submitted the petition along with House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, Toulouse Oliver wrote that because Senate Bill 8, which was signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham earlier this month, relates to the public peace, health and safety, “it is not a law subject to referendum.”

While the state constitution allows for petitions to vote on overturning recently passed laws, it does not allow for the petitions to target laws related to the preservation of public peace, health or safety. In her letter, Toulouse Oliver quoted a press release from Lujan Grisham that says the law “improves public safety by expanding required background checks on firearm purchases to include private gun sales, closing loopholes for certain sales like those made online or at gun shows.”

Toulouse Oliver also outlined technical problems with the petition, from failing to suggest a popular name for the law they wish to overturn and failing to submit a petition in the form outlined by state law.

House sends bill creating new early ed department to governor’s desk

One of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s pet initiatives will soon be on her desk for a signature, after the state House of Representatives on Saturday voted 41-8 to approve a bill that would create an Early Childhood Education and Care Department. The department would oversee all programs for infants and young children in New Mexico, including home visits for families of new babies, child care assistance and prekindergarten. Currently those programs are spread out over a number of state agencies, including the Public Education Department and the Children, Youth and Families Department. State Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, said this bill will combine all of those services into one new division, overseen by a Cabinet-level secretary. “What we are doing here with this bill, by combining all of the services for early learning, we are in fact making it more efficient,” said Trujillo, who co-sponsored Senate Bill 22 with Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque.

Governor signs law expanding checks on gun sales

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation Friday requiring background checks for virtually all firearm sales in New Mexico. The bill has been a priority for gun control advocates, who argue the measure merely closes a loophole in state law and will help keep weapons out of the hands of people barred from owning firearms.

But gun rights groups have argued the law will do little to prevent crime. Instead, critics contend it infringes on Second Amendment rights. Republicans have announced they will circulate petitions to put a proposal for repealing the law to a statewide vote. Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, dismissed the criticism Friday.

House GOP wants to override gun bill by taking it to voters

Stung by the recent passage of legislation that would expand requirements for instant federal background checks on New Mexico firearms purchasers, House Republicans are looking for a way to override the bill. Their solution: Employ an arcane provision in the state constitution that would send the question directly to voters in the next statewide general election, scheduled for 2020. The House of Representatives earlier this week voted almost totally along party lines to approve Senate Bill 8, moving the legislation to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. She has said she will support such gun-control measures. House Republican leaders on Thursday sent a letter to Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, asking her to use the constitutional referendum provision to place the question on the 2020 ballot.

House panel votes down abortion bills

A legislative committee on Tuesday blocked a bill that would have restricted late-term abortions in New Mexico and ensured that minors seeking an abortion obtain parental support. The House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee also voted to stop a bill that would allow hospitals and medical professionals to opt out of performing an abortion for moral or religious reasons stalled in the committee. The 3-2 votes fell along party lines in both cases, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans. The action came as no surprise, given the House of Representatives’ recent support for House Bill 51, which would repeal an unenforceable 50-year-old law that made it a fourth-degree felony to perform an abortion in New Mexico. That measure cleared the House on a 40-29 vote, with six Democrats joining Republicans in opposition.

Gun buyer background check bill clears Legislature

The New Mexico House of Representatives voted 42-27 late Monday to approve a bill that would expand requirements for instant federal background checks on buyers of firearms in the state. Exceptions would include sales of antique firearms or any sale involving immediate family members. It would not affect transactions involving guns that are loaned, gifted or inherited either. The Senate already had narrowly approved Senate Bill 8, on a vote of 22-20 on Feb. 14, the one-year anniversary of a mass shooting in a high school in Parkland, Fla.

House OKs ethics bill with election ‘blackout’

Election season might seem like the perfect time for a government ethics watchdog to be on high alert. But in setting up a new statewide ethics commission, lawmakers are proposing to curtail its work during the height of election years — or even for the entirety of the campaign season. Some legislators contend the commission needs a sort of blackout period to avoid political adversaries from filing complaints solely for the purpose of derailing a candidate’s campaign. Advocates have been hesitant to give too much ground on the issue, though, for fear of defanging the proposed panel. Three out of four New Mexico voters in the last election backed a constitutional amendment creating a statewide ethics commission.

House approves sweeping tax reform

The New Mexico House of Representatives approved a sweeping tax-reform bill late Friday night that would generate at least $320 million more each year for the state’s general fund. Republican lawmakers critical of the move called it one of the biggest tax increases in New Mexico history. The bill, approved on a vote of 40-25 after nearly three hours of debate, also would bring in $37 million per year in additional funding for state and local roadways. Not surprisingly, the vote fell mostly along party lines, with two conservative Democrats joining Republicans to oppose the bill — which, some lawmakers said, will financially hurt the average New Mexican. Among other measures, House Bill 6 would implement a tax on all online sales, increase the tax on cigarette sales by 10 cents per cigarette, repeal a state law that allows New Mexicans to deduct half of their capital gains income on their personal income tax forms and increase the motor vehicle excise tax to 4.2 percent from 3 percent.