In Depth: New Mexico Legislative Session 2017

Mar 19, 2017

Credit Trip Jennings-New Mexico In Depth

  The 2017 legislative session wrapped up at noon Saturday, but the work appears far from over.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez on Saturday afternoon said she would call state lawmakers back in for a special session after the Democratically controlled Legislature had failed to give her a responsible budget. .

Exactly when she wouldn’t say.

Calling a $6.1 billion spending plan and $350 million tax package the Legislature had sent her “reckless” and “irresponsible,” the governor spoke of a looming government shutdown and of potentially furloughing state workers.

“Many in the Legislature failed to do their job during the session. They took a my way or the highway approach and they actually squandered 60 days,” Martinez told a group of reporters shortly after the session gaveled to a close. “Now we’re staring down the path of a government shutdown.”

Senate Democratic leaders didn’t take kindly to Martinez’s characterization of them, however, and one — Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee — sarcastically responded to the governor’s threat of furloughing New Mexico state workers.

“That is the executive’s prerogative that she can exercise if she wants to give up additional jobs in the state of New Mexico,” Smith said. “We’ve lost 3,000 jobs in higher education in the last three years. We’ve lost over 6,000 in southeast New Mexico. We’ve lost 1,600 jobs on the behavior health deal. Now she’s saying we haven’t lost enough jobs is what I’m hearing. The last thing we need is more job loss.”

New Mexico’s unemployment rate for January was the highest in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The governor has 20 days from Saturday to take action on the budget and tax package, as well as other pieces of legislation that passed the Legislature.

Several of those non-financial bills the governor will be deliberating in coming days would modernize campaign finance disclosure laws while raising campaign contribution limits for lawmakers. Another would eliminate the practice of payday lending. A third would restrict the use of solitary confinement. State lawmakers also passed legislation that closed a loophole created in 2016 that allowed lobbyist to avoid reporting much of their spending on lawmakers and other public officials.

Bills to reform the parole process, to fund early childhood education at greater levels, and to legalize adult recreational use of cannabis fared less well.

Here’s a look at some of those bills New Mexico In Depth covered during the session and how they fared.

Ethics: Independent commission goes to voters

After multiple meetings Friday, both chambers of the state legislature agreed late in the evening to adopt a compromise agreement on House Joint Resolution 8. It might sound arcane, but with that action, the Legislature did something it has never done before: Pass an independent ethics commission proposal.

It was a historic moment. If voters decide during next year’s general election to enshrine an independent ethics commission in the state constitution, New Mexico would join more than 40 other U.S. states that already have an ethics commission.

The commission, which could issue subpoenas, would investigate and prosecute ethics complaints filed against public officials, state contractors and lobbyists, among others.

The Legislature’s action Friday came after HJR8’s charted a relatively easy path through the New Mexico Legislature compared to the obstacle-rich route similar proposals have confronted over the years. This session was the first time in memory that an ethics commission proposal received an up-or-down vote in the state Senate. That chamber has earned a reputation as the killing field for ethics legislation.

The Legislature left for the 2019 session debates over details such as how to fund the commission and how it will operate should the constitutional amendment pass next year.

HJR8 originally contained language that would have required the independent ethics commission to weigh evidence and rule on complaints in public hearings and to make public all ethics complaints it receives, as well as responses from the accused. But the Senate stripped out that language.

Campaign finance: Greater transparency and increased contribution limits

Bills to update the state’s campaign finance laws, last adopted in 2009, are on Gov. Susana Martinez’s desk.

Her staff hasn’t given any indication that she’ll sign Senate Bill 96 or 97, and this week’s spate of Senate bill vetoes doesn’t bode well.

SB 96 would update the Campaign Finance Act to address the proliferation of unlimited election fundraising and spending by independent groups since a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision. It would require any groups making independent campaign expenditures before primary or general elections to report the source of their money.

But the bill also doubles campaign contribution limits for lawmakers to $5,000 each for primary and general elections.

That was part of a compromise with some lawmakers who wanted to lift such limits and allow lawmakers to return to taking unlimited cash from donors.

Previous attempts to do this received unanimous Senate approval but never made it to the House floor. That changed this session, as the House approved the measure in a bipartisan vote.

The second bill, SB 97, makes revisions to the public financing laws for judges and public regulation commissioners.

A next step could be just as significant to clarification of New Mexico’s campaign finance disclosure practices.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver plans to draw up rules to enforce the law, something that had never happened previously.

Lobbying: Reporting all expenditures

Lobbyists will return to reporting all their spending under Senate Bill 393, which fixes a loophole created by the 2016 Legislature.

But lobbyists will only have to report an aggregate of spending less than $100 per public official. They won’t have to report specifics about who was wined and dined or received gifts unless spending $100 or more.

Under the loophole, they didn’t have to report any spending under $100 per person, which exempted most spending.

Efforts to increase disclosure of what lobbyists spend beyond that went nowhere during the 2017 session.

Senate Bills to expand reporting for lobbyists – requiring details on smaller expenses, requiring employers to report what they pay lobbyists, requiring lobbyists and employers to report the bills they lobby on during the session – all foundered in the Senate Rules Committee.

Installment loans: Eliminating payday lending, capping interest rates

State lawmakers passed a bill that effectively ends “payday lending”, the practice of lending to individuals who are then required to pay back the loan on their next payday. House Bill 347 requires loans made from entities other than federally insured depository institutions–basically, banks and credit unions–to provide loan terms of at least 120 days, and at a minimum a repayment schedule of four installments of substantially equal amounts. That criteria excludes tax refund anticipation loans, a similar type of lending that advances funds to be repaid with interest and fees out of tax returns. HB 347 also caps interest rates at 175 percent, a significant reduction in light of current practices that allow interest to rocket up to 900-1000 percent. Yet, some advocates didn’t think the interest cap went far enough. Competing bills ratcheted interest rates down even further, to 36 percent. But at the end of the day, HB 347 was seen as a compromise.

Justice: Restricting the use of Solitary Confinement

The session began with a looming crisis for the state’s criminal justice system: funding for even the most basic functions, including jury trials and public defenders, was running out quickly. Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth told NMID before legislators took to the Roundhouse that neither Democrats nor Republicans were likely to get much from their wish lists on criminal justice.

He was right.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels, in a striking speech to a joint session, told lawmakers that the state’s budget crunch threatened to throw New Mexico into a constitutional morass.

Ultimately, the Legislature passed and the governor signed a stopgap, providing $1.6 million in emergency funds to keep the courts going for a few months. This is an issue, though, that isn’t going away.

Elsewhere on the criminal justice front, a bill placing modest restrictions on the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico’s jails and prisons easily passed both chambers and is waiting on the governor’s desk for signature or veto. If she signs it, corrections officers and administrators will be forbidden from placing pregnant women and children in cells for 22 hours a day or longer with little to no meaningful human interaction, and people living with mental illness will be spared from solitary confinement except in limited circumstances.

Another measure, aimed at shifting the burden of proving whether inmates who have served 30 years for capital crimes should be released on parole from the inmates to the Parole Board passed the Senate but died in the House Judiciary Committee in the closing days of the session.

Also dead this session were bills to expand New Mexico’s “three-strikes” law and a revival of the death penalty in the state — both priorities for the governor and some legislative Republicans.


State money: How infrastructure funding is allocated

The House clock ran out on an attempt to create a  three-year interim committee to examine the way New Mexico allocates infrastructure spending. That process has been widely criticized for leaving nearly $1 billion in money unspent, when it could be providing construction jobs.

Originally, Senate Bill 262 would have created a legislative committee to take over vetting and ranking of projects funded specifically by the Legislature. But it was amended to call for the creation of a study committee.

That means individual lawmakers will continue to earmark specific infrastructure projects with few guidelines governing them. Local governments have complained that money often comes for projects that weren’t requested. Other projects aren’t fully funded, and some aren’t ready for construction.

One legislative analysis put at $209 million what remains unspent in lawmaker projects out of some $970 million that hasn’t been spent in all projects.

But SB 262 remained on the House calendar as GOP representatives spent considerable time during the last three hours asking questions about bills that ended up passing unanimously. Those included a Republican oil and gas bill, which Republicans discussed for more than 30 minutes in the last hour before allowing a vote.

Legislative leaders could still appoint such an interim committee, however.

And independent think tank Think New Mexico plans to continue its push for reform of the infrastructure spending system, said Kristina Fisher, associate director.

“While we are naturally disappointed that the bill ran out of time, we are pleased that the appetite for reform is growing. Senate Bill 262 was supported by both business and labor groups and it passed the Senate on a strong bipartisan vote,” she wrote in a statement. “We are committed to continuing to work with lawmakers and stakeholders to improve this system and get dollars off the sidelines and into the economy creating jobs.”

Education: Funding for early childhood education

With just three days left in the session, the Senate Rules committee effectively killed an effort to tap New Mexico’s permanent land grant fund to provide additional resources for early childhood education. Such measures have been proposed since 2011 as a response to significant childhood poverty in New Mexico.

Investments in early childhood education programs have grown in New Mexico. Numerous studies show children benefitting from early childhood programs are more likely to graduate high school, attend college and remain gainfully employed. They’re more likely to be in better health later in life, too. Meanwhile, they’re less likely to go to prison or cost government in other ways.

But the need is great, and investments are too small, advocates say. Those investments are scaling up in responsible manner, and it would be fiscally irresponsible to tap the state’s $15 billion land grant fund, opponents say.

Cannabis: Adult recreational legalization

New Mexico has joined a growing number of states debating whether or not to legalize adult recreational cannabis. The state already allows the use of medical marijuana for approved conditions. Legalizing adult recreational use would raise new tax revenue, which is desperately needed in New Mexico, advocates say. It would also eliminate criminalization of people who use cannabis. Opponents point to federal prohibition of cannabis, and to negative social consequences that could stem from consumption of cannabis. In general, committee debates about the idea–which didn’t make it to the floor of either chamber–had an educational feel to them. Lawmakers on the fence, and even those who were admittedly inclined to oppose such measures, asked inquisitive and wide-ranging questions, setting the stage for continued discussion in the years to come.