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Expectations for Legislative session too high


I had hoped that legislators would take advantage of the unprecedented $9.4 billion budget this year to begin the transition away from an economy that is dependent on oil and gas revenue, but I don’t think that was ever on the agenda.

The governor had promised before the election that we would all get checks in the mail if she won, so that was a given. Legislators also passed new tax credits for the film industry, and a phased-in reduction of the gross receipts tax.

Those moves will help, but seem inadequate to the challenge that everybody sees coming.

Legislators moved much of the excess revenue into the Severance Tax Permanent Fund, claiming in a press release that this would protect us from fluctuations in the market.

That’s how we’ve always done it, and it makes sense if you believe that gas and oil is a perpetual, if sometimes volatile, source of revenue. We need to be planning for more than just the next dip in prices.

Despite the enormous revenue increase this year, it was a session where most of the big ideas failed. Many of the most important bills passed this year were playing defense, not offense.

Those included legislation sponsored by Sen. Jeff Steinborn to prevent state permits being issued for a proposed nuclear waste storage facility in southeast New Mexico. Holtec International plans to build a site between Hobbs and Carlsbad that would store highly radioactive uranium shipped in by rail from nuclear reactors throughout the country. This bill will at least stall those plans.

And, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham led an effort to reach a compromise on malpractice insurance that will avert the migration of doctors that I wrote about in a previous column.

It was a productive session, but one in which only small steps were taken. Instead of a constitutional amendment enshrining environmental rights, they created a new fund dedicated to wildlife and conservation. Instead of requiring a 14-day waiting period for gun purchases, or - heaven forbid - stopping the sale of assault rifles, they passed a new law holding parents responsible when kids misuse their guns.

I’ve read that leadership changes made this year’s session more congenial, and that’s a positive step. But lawmakers have resisted the foundational changes that are needed to modernize our Legislature for the enormous challenges ahead.

A part-time, unpaid and unstaffed Legislature is inevitably going to move cautiously into the future. They don’t have the information, resources or time needed to make bold moves in response to the massive changes that we all know are coming.

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Angelica Rubio to professionalize our Legislature made it through the House and one Senate committee this year. It ended the session in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is much better than similar proposals have done in past years.

New Mexico still has a law requiring every bill to be read out loud three times before it can be passed. Final passage of every bill starts with an agreement by the members to waive the rule and print misinformation in the official journal. I’ve never understood why they didn’t just change the law. They cling to their traditions even when they don’t make sense.

Our unpaid, unstaffed Legislature is a tradition that hasn’t made sense in a long time.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com