KRWG

New legislative caucus to focus on rural issues

Dec 30, 2020

 

Credit KUNM

  LAS CRUCES - Along with its formal committees, the New Mexico Legislature also has more informal caucuses, made up of legislators, ideally from both parties, who share common interests.

One of the newest such collaborations is the Rural Caucus, which will attempt to ensure people in the more sparsely populated areas of the state have their voices heard in Santa Fe, said its chairman, Ray Lara, D-Chamberino.

“I believe it’s important, because there are times, and it’s not done on purpose, but most of the time we’re forgotten. When the process is going through, sometimes we don’t include the rural areas,” Lara said. “I really don’t believe they do it on purpose, they just have the numbers on their side. And they focus on their needs.”


Lara said that by banding together, he believes rural lawmakers can have more power. 

“It’s going to give us the chance to get together and pool our votes if we have to,” he said.

The group is still in its inception, Lara said. It has more Republican members than Democrats, but Reps. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, Willie Madrid, D-Chaparral and Candie Sweetser, D-Deming, have all attended early meetings.

Lara said he was recruited to be chairman by Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth of Consequences, who believed it was important to have a Democrat as chairman.

Republican Sen.-Elect Crystal Diamond, who claimed the District 35 seat held for the last 30 years by John Arthur Smith, was one of the original organizers of the caucus, Lara said.

Diamond said she helped Lara with the organizational meetings, and will become a member of the new caucus once she is sworn in.

 “I firmly believe the divide in Santa Fe continues to be, not R vs D, but rural vs. urban,” Diamond said.

Lara said, because the group is so new, it doesn’t yet have a list of bills members are either for or against. But there are some unifying principles. Water, property rights and infrastructure investment are things about which all members are concerned, he said.

Also, many of the smaller school districts have not been able to access the K-5 Plus program for younger students because they don’t have the resources to complete the complicated application process, he said.

Smaller towns in the northern part of the state are seeing their drinking water depleted because of new greenhouses and farms using treated water to grow cannabis and hemp.

“Right now, our focus is on bills coming through that are going to impact rural New Mexico in a positive or negative way,” he said.

There has been a lot of interest in the expected cannabis legalization bill, which has been a priority for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

A bill to legalize and tax cannabis was passed by the House in 2019, but it died in the Senate committee process. In 2020, in a 30-day session, cannabis bills started in the Senate, where a daunting four committee referrals all but ensured the bill’s defeat. The legislation made it through two committees before dying in the Judiciary Committee.

There will be more time for consideration this year in a 60-day session.

“I support it, but I want to read the bill,” Lara said. “One of the things that’s very important to me is, I don’t want to see the big boys get the lion’s share of the action.”

He said the state’s growing microbrewing industry could provide a model for small-scale cannabis production.

Since most of the caucus is Republican, many are more skeptical than he is, Lara said.

Diamond said she has already started reaching out to lawmakers from both parties on legislation that will help the rural areas. One example is a bill she is working on with Siah Correa Hemphill, a Democrat from Silver City, to make it easier for anesthesiologist assistants to practice in rural areas.

“I want to bring a voice to address the needs of rural New Mexico and Hidalgo, Sierra and Luna counties,” Diamond said. “A lot of my bills are going to be rural-based.”

Walt Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com