We examine the fates of a few bills before taking a deep dive into a press conference staged by Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero and environmental groups who were protesting how Senate Judiciary Committee and its chair Sen. Joseph Cervantes were holding up important environmental legislation. Our report also relies on work by NM Ethics Watch and an excellent piece from the Carlsbad Current Argus. NM Ethics Watch takes a deep dive into how campaign contributions and industry lobbyists influence the legislative process, and the Argus cites the NM State Legislative Handbook, which outlines how committee chairs are supposed to schedule bill hearings and secures comments from Senator Cervantes in reaction to the assertions made in the press conference. It is pretty easy to connect the dots.
But first an update on what transpired yesterday and what comes next, with nine bills on the floor of the Senate or House for their last vote.
Bills Awaiting a Final Vote on the Senate Floor
- HJR 1, Permanent Fund for Early Childhood is being heard right now on the Senate floor (2pm).
- HJR 13, Legislative Session Changes would put a State Constitutional Amendment on the 2022 ballot to extend 30-day sessions to 45 days.
- HB 20 Health Workplaces Act, AKA Paid Sick Leave
- HB 163 School Financial Management Classes would make a financial management class a graduation requirement. Given the legislature’s failure to protect New Mexicans from unscrupulous lenders, this is an important bill.
Bills Awaiting a Final Vote on the House Floor
- SB 8 Local Government Air Quality Regulations. Sen. Wirth has been pushing this boulder uphill for over a decade and it looks like he’s made it to the top.
- SB 15 Redistricting Committee. Another bill altered and weakened in committee, but still supported by Common Cause and Fair Districts New Mexico.
- SB 32 Wildlife Conservation & Public Safety Act, AKA Roxy’s Law. Bans certain types of animal trapping and poisoning. This bill has also been before the legislature for years and it’s now one vote from the Governor’s desk.
- SB 82 Radioactive Waste Consultation Task Force. The floor hearing will certainly include 3 hours of GOP legislators whining that passing this bill will destroy the economy of southern NM.
- HM 33 Rural Opportunity Interim Committee. As HB 16, this bill passed through the House unanimously. But bill sponsor Rep. Roger Montoya was told that what HB 16 proposed could be achieved more easily and with fewer time-consuming hearings by creating a memorial. So that is what he did.
GOP In Full-Blown Stall Mode
If you’ve been listening to hearings in committee and even more so on the House and Senate floor, it is clear that the GOP is in full stall mode, with endless pointless debate extending each discussion for three or more hours. Listening to their nonsense is excruciating, sort of like water torture. But stalling is the only tool they have in their arsenal. It was on full display in the House floor “debate” on SB 84 Community Solar Act.
Community Solar: Last Step will be Senate Concurrence
For almost three hours last night, the House discussed SB 84 Community Solar Act, and passed it by a vote of 40-5. Virtually all of the Republican Reps. left the floor and refused to vote. This stunt followed endless repetitive questions and concerns, all politely responded to by bill sponsors. I don’t know how bill sponsors can’t help saying: “I’ve answered this ten times. I’m done.” But they never do.
After the questions and concerns, there was a GOP amendment calling for the bill to strike all references to solar and replace them with “renewable,” which they asserted would open the door to wind installations. It was an entirely disingenuous amendment, as the bill’s details all relate to solar energy and it would be nonsensical if suddenly wind were included. You can bet that if the bill had included wind at the outset, the GOP would have spent three hours lamenting the threat to the landscape and to birds posed by wind generation. It was a laughable amendment that failed along party lines, causing the GOP Reps. to exit. It then moved back to the Senate Floor for a concurrence vote.
In a late breaking news at 1:56 pm today, the Senate concurred with the House version, so there will be no opportunity to improve the bill in a conference committee hearing that occurs whenever a chamber doesn’t concur. This bill is now on the way to the Governor.
HB 15 Sustainable Building Tax Credit
We were fully expecting that implementing a tax credit for something with an environmental impact would not be met with favor by Senate Finance in general and the Chair, Sen. Muñoz, specifically. But debate was swift, no GOP stalling, and the bill passed with a bipartisan vote of 9-2, taking perhaps ten minutes to do so. After the session we will examine how SFC functioned throughout the session, but the impression I have is that it is much more transparent and more receptive to actually spending money. Stay tuned.
HB 4 Passes Senate, On To Governor
HB 4 passed the Senate on a 26-15 party line vote and now heads to the Governor’s desk. She has not signaled whether or not she will sign the bill. If signed into law it would end “qualified immunity” as a legal defense to civil rights complaints filed against government agencies in state District Court. The qualified immunity doctrine currently shields government workers, including police, from personal liability under federal law when workers violate people’s constitutional rights. In relation to the police, this bill would greatly facilitate transparency and accountability for police actions and abuses. At the end of the session, we will assemble a list of bills sent to the Governor where she has not indicated whether or not she would sign them.
Cannabis Moves to Senate Floor, Last Hurdle
In a debate that only ended at 1:24 am this morning, Senate Judiciary voted 5-4 to pass HB 12 Cannabis Regulation Act and send it to the Senate floor. Senator Cervantes was the only Democrat to join the GOP in opposition.
The discussion of the bill itself was interesting, but the comments made by Senators just before the hearing adjourned was even more interesting.
Bill sponsors outlined how months and months of work were spent crafting what Rep. Martinez has described as the best cannabis legislation in the nation. Sen. Cervantes took strong exception to that as he began his comments at about 12:45 am. He noted that the bill was very poorly drafted with example after example of wording indicating the exact opposite of what was intended in the bill. He offered several examples that, indeed, did seem incongruous or illogical. He indicated that it would take hours for him to go over ever page. Despite bill sponsors encouraging him to do so, Cervantes, noting the time, simply said, this is a poorly drafted bill that, in its current form, he could not support. Recall that in 2020 he voted to table the recreational cannabis bill.
As the vote was taken, Senator Ivey-Soto initially passed so he could see how everyone else voted first. Seeing that all Republicans voted no and all Dems had voted yes, he commented, “Well, we have 4-3 for a ‘do pass,’ and we know the chair is voting no.” A lengthy pause for dramatic effect followed, until Ivey-Soto sealed the deal with a yes vote. On to the Senate floor.
The conversation after the vote is covered below in the piece that follows the next chapter in the long, sad journey of SB 66.
Badly Flawed SB 66 Permitted Percentage Rates for Loans
The summary below comes from our allies ThinkNM.
Legislation to cap the annual interest rates of small loans at 36% is at a critical juncture, and we need your help.
In ThinkNM’s update on Monday, they told you that Senate Bill 66 was headed into its final hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. Unfortunately, in that committee the bill was hijacked by an army of lobbyists for the predatory lending industry who convinced a majority of the committee members to amend the bill and increase the maximum annual interest rate from 36% to 99%.
The House passed the bill late last night. They reined in the House Judiciary Committee amendment slightly, by limiting the 99% cap to loans of under $1,100. But unfortunately, that leaves half of New Mexicans seeking these loans subject to the 99% rate, as around half of all small loans in New Mexico are under $1,100.
As the Santa Fe New Mexican editorialized yesterday, we still have a final chance to restore the 36%.
The Senate is extremely unlikely to accept the changes that have been made to the bill in the House, which means that it will go to a conference committee to try to resolve the differences between the chambers. If you use ThinkNM’s nifty app and template language, you can revise it to put it more in your words and send it directly to the Governor, Senator Wirth, and Speaker Egolf in about a minute. Please use this tool to email Senate leadership to urge them to restore the 36% cap, as passed by the Senate!
When they are determining what policies best serve the people of New Mexico, lawmakers ought to look to their constituents, not to lobbyists for special interests. A January 2020 Morning Consult poll found that 71% of New Mexicans support capping interest rates at 36% – and many of those who oppose a 36% cap do so because they believe it is too high.
A cap of 99% for loans under $1,100 would mean that New Mexico would continue to allow some of the highest interest rates in the nation for loans of this size. A low-income New Mexican who borrows $600 would have to pay back $1,194.
Not mentioned in ThinkNM’s alert was whether or not the crucial “anti-evasion” clause was restored. Without anti-evasion language you can cap rates at whatever levels you want and predatory lenders can circumvent the rate cap by piling on hidden charges. That critical language had been restored by Rep. Lundstrom’s amendment, and in defense of Rep. Lundstrom, 99% for loans under $1,100 is better than the175% rate cap currently in law, and certainly 36% on loans over $1,100 is very welcome. But this is yet another instance where the influence of lobbyists and money have compromised legislation that would have protected the most vulnerable New Mexicans and instead protected industry.
The SB 66 floor discussion mirrored what occurred in House Finance on Monday. It was clear that the entire discussion was orchestrated. As soon as the bill was introduced, Rep. Lundstrom introduced the grand compromise described above by ThinkNM. She was quickly followed by Reps. Louis, Cadena, and then even Rep. Hochman Vigil who attested to how courageously Rep. Lundstrom had stepped in to save the day and create this breathtaking compromise. There were plenty of legislators on the floor who were not at all happy with this compromise, but none were called to speak until the architects of the compromise had finished laying it out. And when they were done, the writing was on the wall. Given that this was clearly orchestrated by House Democratic leadership, I don’t hold out much hope that advocacy will be effective at this point, but we can’t abandon the project.
Once the session is over, this will be among the bills we will study to come to a better understanding of how such a good bill becomes utterly compromised in the last few days. But we were told that without the Lundstrom amendment, 12 Democrats would have not voted for the bill, so perhaps this was the best we could do this session. But as someone who has listened to almost every minute of hearings on these bills, it is inconceivable that this was the best we could do.
Legislators, NM Food & Water Watch, Wild Earth Guardians Accuse Sen. Cervantes / Senate Judiciary of Obstruction
A press conference was held yesterday with two legislators, Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero and Senator Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, joined by NM Food and Water Watch, Wild Earth Guardians, New Energy Economy, and Common Ground Rising. The group asserted that Senate Judiciary Chair and Democratic leadership had prevented virtually any bill that challenges the gas and oil industry to advance.
At the press conference, two bills were explicitly cited as being withheld from consideration by SJC:
- SB 149 Prohibit New Fracking Licenses, AKA Fracking Moratorium, in SJC since Feb 17.
- SJR 3 Environmental Rights Act AKA Green Amendment, in SJC since Feb 10.
The Carlsbad Current Argos, in an article published today, “Oil and gas influence blamed for environmental bills blocked in New Mexico Senate,” reported extensively on the press conference and went deeper into the bowels of legislative rules and guidelines, focusing on how committee chairs make decisions as to which bills to hear and when.
When asked by the Argus why he had not called either environmental bill, Senate Judiciary Chair Cervantes replied: “The bill (SB 149) would cost 40 percent of the State’s budget. I insisted that if they want to cut 40 percent of the state’s budget they need to show me where they’ll raise taxes to replace that revenue.” When asked about SJR 3 he indicated that the bill was not necessary as other legislation addresses the goals of SJR 3.
Clearly Cervantes sees himself as the ultimate adjudicator of what is reasonable and what is “serious.” But his responses also reflect the influence of the gas and oil lobby. No one seriously believes that a 4-year moratorium on new leases would result in a 40% hit on the budget. The gas and oil industry has piled up so many leases over the past year that their operations will barely slow at all and the lease moratorium would have no impact on the vast operations already being conducted. As to SJR 3, apparently Senate Conservation thought it was “serious” as it passed that committee quickly. And, in fact, the protections offered and actions made possible by SJR 3 are not covered in existing legislation or by NM Constitutional law, something Sen. Cervantes would have heard from bill sponsors had he scheduled the bill.
Participants in the press conference pointed to a NM Ethics Watch report that describes the scale of oil and gas campaign contributions and how it influences state politics. The amount of funds contributed is shocking, dwarfing those of other industries — almost $3.3 million in direct campaign contributions to NM politicians in this past election cycle alone. Greasing both sides of the aisle, the oil and gas industry gave more than $182,000 to House Speaker Brian Egolf’s PAC and $67,500 to the New Mexico Senate Democrats’ PAC in 2020 alone.
Those contributions levels don’t come close to measuring the scope of influence of the gas and oil lobby as the numbers don’t include the salaries and expenses of lobbyists in generating reports with manipulated data, organizing breakfasts and forums for legislators, and private after-hour meals with legislators. Who can forget the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association breakfast two years ago when the Governor infamously told a rapt audience that “I work for you,” going on to say that if anyone in state government impeded their work, to let her know. And I am sure they have reached out to MLG often. As indicated by her recently seeking a waiver from President Biden’s 60-Day Gas & Oil Leasing Moratorium, she indeed does work for them.
In addition, the Argus cited gas and oil donations to Cervantes’ campaign as possibly influencing his decisions about what bills to hear, something I actually question. But the more compelling part of the Argus report was its focus on the New Mexico Legislature’s Committee Handbook which lays out rules and recommendations as to how the legislative process must or should be implemented. The handbook gives the chair of any committee in the Senate total discretion to decide when or even if bills are heard by that committee, although certainly that process is influenced by party leaders, committee members, and presumably the public. In the House, the chair is required to hear the bills in the order they are referred.
The handbook specifies that committees can also choose to not hear a bill if it is unwanted but that such a move was not recommended as the entire body should have the authority to reject a proposal.
“This technique is not generally recommended by parliamentary and legislative authorities, who believe that the entire body should be given the opportunity to adopt or reject proposed legislation, but it is an effective device for filtering out unwanted or unneeded proposals,” the handbook reads.New Mexico Legislature’s Committee Handbook
While the House rule may be more transparent and less influenced by lobbyists, as bills are heard in the order referred, that rule has its own problems. In the last weeks of a session, a House Committee could be required to hear a slew of bills of lesser important rather than other, possibly more impactful, bills that were referred to it later. So fixing this system is no easy task.
I don’t want to minimize the challenge faced by chairs of committees that have much larger number of bills referred to them and where the charge of the committee requires a more painstaking review. Retake has reported many times that SJC has over 100 bills in the queue and no hope of hearing more than 5-10 more. So while I do think that Sen. Cervantes allows his personal preferences to overly influence his decisions about what bills to hear, it is also true that under the best of circumstances that overloaded committee can’t help but leave many good bills unheard.
At the end of the SJC hearing on HB 12 (at 1:24 am), I think every single member of the committee spoke in defense of Senator Cervantes and SJC. And their defense is legitimate. Committee members noted that they have far too little time, far too many bills, with too many of those bills very poorly drafted and in need of detailed review. Committee members noted that in many instances, SJC is the last stop and if they don’t do their due diligence, which is unavoidably time consuming, a well intended bill can become a misguided law with unintended consequences.
That’s enough for today, but after the session Retake will be conducting Zoom debriefs and conversations with legislators to secure their views on what is wrong, what needs fixing, and how we can best fix a flawed system that puts legislators in impossible situations.
In closing, it is important to recall that despite all the stalled bills and shattered dreams, we must take heart that many, many important bills have already passed or are one vote away. And in the past, many of those bills would not have even come up for a vote in one chamber, let alone two. We accomplished a great deal this session and have also achieved an even more acute understanding of how the sausage is made.
In solidarity and hope,
Paul & Roxanne
Categories: Local-State Government & Legislation