Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – With their moods starting to crumble, New Mexico lawmakers began their final sprint on Wednesday until the end of an unusual session by giving final approval to civil rights legislation and moving closer an agreement on a budget plan of 7.4 billion dollars for the coming year.
But the prospects for some of the most complex and watched proposals of the year remain unclear.
An effort to legalize cannabis – amid a disagreement over how to tax and regulate its sale and consumption – was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee early Thursday morning. The measure is now sent to the entire Senate and, if approved, it will be sent back to the House for approval.
The Senate Judiciary Committee faces a huge backlog, with more than 130 proposals awaiting a hearing, as the session enters its final days. Lawmakers are due to adjourn at noon on Saturday.
Also on hold at the Roundhouse, proposals to ban entrapment on public lands, revise New Mexico’s medical malpractice law, make sweeping changes to the state’s tax code, and force employers to offer paid sick leave to their workers.
The tension intensified this week as the pressure on deadlines increased. Some debates are divided not only along party lines, but also geographically.
“I have never seen such a large division in this body as during this session,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman George Muñoz, D-Gallup said on Wednesday morning, just after midnight and just before the Senate does not pass civil rights law.
Santa Fe and Albuquerque, he said, get what they want while “rural New Mexico is pretty much left out.”
Back on the floor after a few hours of sleep, the tension was still evident, as GOP Senate Whip Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho called for a 222-page budget bill to be read in its entirety at Senate before a vote is taken.
Specifically, Brandt objected that he and other lawmakers didn’t have time to read the revised $ 7.4 billion spending plan before it was put to a vote.
“If we can’t have the time to do it, then maybe we could read the budget off the floor,” Brandt said.
Spirits finally cooled after Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, agreed to delay voting on the bill in order to give lawmakers more time to digest it.
The budget legislation was finally adopted by the Senate by 29 votes to 13 after a long debate.
State Civil Rights Act
The proposal to establish a state civil rights law was approved by the Senate shortly after midnight, following a series of amendments. Later Wednesday, the House approved the changes, sending the bill to Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The legislation would allow lawsuits to be filed in state courts to recover financial damages for violations of the New Mexico Bill of Rights.
The changes would make it discretionary, not mandatory, for a court to award attorney fees to a winning claimant; require complainants to notify the government of a potential law enforcement claim within one year of the incident; and allow people to file complaints only for incidents that occurred after July 1 of this year.
Senator Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque Democrat and lawyer who handles civil rights litigation, said the proposal would help uphold the Bill of Rights.
“Our Constitution can promise anything it wants,” Candelaria said, “but the promise of due process means nothing if there is no remedy. The promise of religious freedom means nothing if there is no cure.
The bill passed the Senate by 26 to 15 votes, largely with Democrats for and Republicans against. Muñoz was the only Democrat to vote no.
Senator William Sharer, R-Farmington, said the legislation could trigger an “endless pit of lawsuits”, a fear expressed by schools, towns and counties. Instead, lawmakers should focus, he said, on protecting police officers who put their lives at risk for the public.
“These are officers who just want to come home at the end of their shift and see their family,” Sharer said.
The Senate approves the finance bill
The Senate finance bill on Wednesday would increase state spending by 4.8% – or about $ 373 million – from current levels for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
It was passed after a series of proposed amendments – made by both Republicans and a Democrat – were defeated.
The proposed changes included cutting funding to the governor’s contingency fund and banning the use of state funds to pay for abortion-related services, both of which were offered by Republicans.
A separate amendment proposed by Senator Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, would have raised the minimum wage for state employees to $ 15 an hour, a change she said would have benefited about 4,000 employees.
But opponents of the amendments pointed out that lawmakers had already approved a pandemic relief plan that includes $ 600 tax cuts for low-income workers.
“I’ve never seen a budget that does more for working families than this budget,” Candelaria said.
The budget was ultimately passed by a largely partisan vote, with two GOP senators – Steven Neville of Aztec and Pat Woods of Broadview – joining Democratic members of the chamber to vote “yes”.
It would go to the governor’s office for consideration if the House votes to approve Senate revisions to the legislation, which included adding more money for a scholarship program that Lujan Grisham has championed.
Lawmakers conducted the session under unusual circumstances, with committee hearings held at bay. The public is prohibited from entering the building to limit the spread of COVID-19, and public testimony has been accepted online, not in person.
At a critical moment on Wednesday, the Legislative Assembly’s webcasting system went down, forcing both houses to take a brief hiatus. The debate resumed quickly, still irritable.