A bill that would appropriate $100 million to repair some of New Mexico’s most dangerous dams advanced Tuesday in the state Senate. The money would pay for only a fraction of what is needed to address all the structural issues of scores of dams across the state that pose safety risks, according to the state engineer. “With one breach, we could lose property, we could lose our animals and we could lose, most importantly, lives here in New Mexico,” said Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, sponsor of Senate Bill 236. Lawmakers on the Senate Conservation Committee approved the measure 8-0 Tuesday. It now heads to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.
By a tight vote Tuesday morning, the Senate Conservation Committee passed a water bill—one that represents the latest attempt to control spending on a controversial diversion on the Gila River. Introduced by Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, Senate Bill 72, would channel federal money earmarked for the diversion toward other water projects in southwestern New Mexico. It would appropriate $50 million toward fully implementing a regional water project in Grant County, other shovel-ready water projects in the area, a groundwater study of the Mimbres Basin aquifer and water planning for the City of Deming. Morales told NM Political Report that he sees passage of the bill as a way to move tens of millions of dollars in federal money in a “responsible way.”
The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) voted in 2014 to build the diversion, ten years after Congress authorized the state to trade 14,000 acre feet of water with a downstream user in Arizona. Already, New Mexico has spent more than $13 million of its federal subsidy on studies, engineering plans, and attorneys fees, although the state and the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity still lack a firm plan or location for the diversion.
New Mexico legislators tried to understand what’s happening with plans to divert water from the Gila River during a committee meeting earlier this week. While the Senate Conservation Committee will hear related bills later this session, they first requested an update on the project’s plans and a recently issued engineering contract. At its January meeting, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) approved the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity’s request to issue a quarter-million dollars in contracts for the diversion project. One of those contracts, for $150,000, is for Occam Consulting Engineers, Inc.
That company is owned by Scott Verhines, who was appointed State Engineer by Gov. Susana Martinez in 2011. As an ISC member, Verhines voted in 2014 to move forward with the diversion rather than use federal money for conservation and efficiency projects in the region.
On Tuesday a bill to fund early childhood education programs with two new taxes on energy and electricity producers failed to make it out of committee. During the Senate Conservation Committee meeting, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, sought support for a bill that would create an early childhood education fund paid for by a one-hundredth percent oil and gas energy surtax and a one cent per kilowatt hour tax on electricity produced in New Mexico. The two revenue sources would generate more than $320 million annually, according to the fiscal impact report for Senate Bill 288. Once the meeting was opened for public comments, not one audience member spoke in support of the bill. But more than a dozen lobbyists and representatives of the oil and gas industry and utilities like PNM, El Paso Electric, Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission opposed it.
A bill to ban most trapping of animals on public lands in New Mexico probably is going nowhere this year because it’s caught in a clash between ranchers and advocates for animals. The bill stalled Tuesday in a Senate committee, prompting the sponsor to say he does not expect to reach a compromise in the last four weeks of this 60-day session. That means the practice of trapping in public forests is likely to continue for at least another year. “I believe it’s going to take much more time than a couple of days,” Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, said after the Senate Conservation Committee asked that he rewrite parts of Senate Bill 286. The bill would outlaw setting traps to capture or kill animals on public land.
The state Senate Conservation Committee approved a ban Monday on coyote-killing contests in New Mexico after hearing from advocates, who called the contests barbaric, and opponents, who argued the competitions are a way to reduce coyote killings of livestock. The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, and Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, moves next to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Similar legislation was approved in the Senate in 2015 but died in the House. Sen. Pat Woods of Broadview, the top Republican on the Senate Conservation Committee, voted against the legislation, Senate Bill 268. He said he received a call from a rancher in McCalister who reported he had lost 200 lambs since the beginning of the year to coyotes.
A day after the House version of the legislation narrowly passed a committee, an identical bill to extend the state’s solar tax credit had a much more comfortable reception in the Senate. The Senate Conservation Committee passed the bill on an 8-1 vote. The opposition to the legislation did not stem from the merits of the bill itself, but rather concerns about using tax credits at all. The legislation is the same as what passed last year, and Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, described it as a compromise with the House Ways and Means Committee. The compromise is from a “step-down” which would lower the tax credit as years go on, from the current ten percent down to 5 percent after eight years.
Since Phil Griego, D-San Jose, stepped down from his position as a member of the state Senate, it will be up to county commissioners throughout his sprawling former district to send recommendations for his replacement to Gov. Susana Martinez. District 39, which Griego represented until Saturday morning, contains parts of Bernalillo, Lincoln, San Miguel, Santa Fe, Torrance and Valencia counties. Each of the county commissions will choose a candidate, at which point Martinez will decide which candidate will replace Griego for the remainder of the term. The governor will likely prefer to see someone from her own party take Griego’s seat. Currently, 17 Republicans serve in the Senate.