The Session certainly moved quickly and efficiently, with committees largely passing without revision all three bills introduced. Health Security and 493 other projects funded by the Junior Bill all got their funding and we will all be getting rebates, but there is more to this story to be told for those who didn’t spend the day tracking Zoom hearings and listening to recordings of hearings. While legislators and staff were well prepared for the process, the public was left largely in the dark as to how to weigh in.
Transparency & Access Lacking, But the Sausage Was Made According to Plan
Retake tried to alert our folks about how the Special Session would unfold and how you could plug in. But the schedule of committee meetings was published 30 minutes after the meetings began and bills being considered were not published in advance, so constituents could not really offer comment. It gets worse.
Committee schedules were published after committees began meeting, so the only way I could figure out what the session was about was to refresh my browser on the nmlegis.gov Webcast page and see when a meeting was convened, then quickly go to “What’s Happening” where Committee hearing schedules and agendas are posted, so I could see what was to be discussed and review the bill itself and the Financial Impact Report, analyzing the bill. Three bills were ultimately introduced:
- HB 1, AKA the “Feed Bill,” or the bill that appropriates the funds to operate the session, but only about $100K was earmarked to fund the session itself. An additional $4M was included for major renovations to the Roundhouse facility.
- The second bill considered, HB 2, was a two-page bill outlining how and when $250-$500 relief checks would be distributed to all NM residents.
- SB 1, essentially the Junior Bill revisited, with $51M funding for 493 separate expenditures.
Once published, committee agendas made it clear that House Appropriations and Finance (HAFC) would hear and vote on HB 1 and HB 2. While Senate Finance considered SB 1. It was unclear the committee path that would await bills once they moved to the other chamber.
What Happened in Committee Hearings
HB 1. HAFC discussed HB 1 for only a few minutes, passing it unanimously on a 17-0 vote, while some legislators questioned why a “feed bill” with less than $100K allocated for a up to a two-day session also included $4 million in funding to make improvements to the Roundhouse facility. In HAFC, some Reps questioned why the Senate receives more money for its chamber of 40 than the House with its 72 members, but this lasted only a minute and the bill passed through its House and Senate committees without a dissenting vote and passed the House and Senate floors with but one dissenting vote. No drama here.
HB 2. The HAFC then discussed HB 2. The bill included two forms of relief;
- Section 1 called for $380M in personal income tax rebates, with checks of $250 per person or $500 per household being issued in two cycles, with the first check processed by Jun 30 and the second issued in September, amended to August.
- Section 2 calls for $20M in funds for up to 40,000 New Mexicans who are not eligible for the rebate because they do not file returns, aka “non-filers,” largely those whose income is so low they are not required to file taxes, but also including some undocumented immigrants.
In HAFC, public comment on HB 2 was offered from the ABQ and Las Cruces Chambers of Commerce, both of whom supported the bill. Comments from the two chambers were followed by a series of speakers from members of grassroots groups whose testimony made it clear that while the relief was badly needed, eligible recipients’ economic need was far in excess of the proposed relief. Many advocates noted how so many immigrant populations have been left out of federal relief and unemployment funds, despite their paying taxes. It was very powerful testimony.
Th committee discussion then devolved into GOP concerns that some of the funds might go to undocumented immigrants. Bill sponsors replied that a capped amount of $20M would be distributed to folks who do not pay taxes, some of whom could be undocumented residents, but others eligible would certainly also include seniors and others who do not make enough income to warrant paying taxes. Nonetheless, the GOP comment singled out undocumented New Mexicans with the clear suggestion that they did not deserve these funds. The committee discussion moved on.
Some committee members asked legitimate questions about how people would find out about the availability of the $20M in funds described in Section 2 of HB 2, especially given that it is estimated that 135,000 New Mexicans are non-filers and the $20M is only sufficient to offer payments to 40,000 individuals. The focus of concern was on the challenge of informing New Mexicans living in remote, rural communities who must compete for a capped $20M. Administrators from Health & Human Services repeatedly stated that they have had to perform this same task in the past and had community partners who would help get the word out.
The remaining issue related to HB 2 Section 1, the far larger pot of $380M in relief. The sticking point was the timing of check distribution, with the GOP — ever vigilant of the needs of low-income people (not!) — urging that the checks be mailed in one cycle in June, and not in September so close to the election. Republicans noted that timing the second check seemed to be transparently partisan and political, with checks arriving in mid-September in the midst of a general election campaign. In the end, a compromise was reached to move the second distribution from Sept. to August, i.e. well before voting for Governor begins. In the end, the HAFC passed the amended HB 2 by a 10-6 vote, largely on party lines with only one Dem. voting no, Rep. Candie Sweetser. It passed the House and Senate easily, but not before two unsuccessful GOP efforts to amend the bill.
The House Floor debate included efforts by GOP Reps. to offer the relief on the basis of the number of cars each person owned. Bill sponsors pointed out that while part of the motivation for the bill is to address rising gas prices, a large part of the motivation was not just to address gas prices but all prices rising due to inflation. Rep. Christine Chandler, a sponsor of the bill, artfully defended the bill and a vote to table the amendment passed along party lines, cutting off discussion.
The second amendment came from Rep. Rebecca Dow, aka True Grit, who wanted to remove Section 2 of the bill entirely, an amendment viewed as hostile by the bill sponsor as it would force those who would benefit from the relief to file federal and state tax returns to receive a tax rebate instead of applying for a payment without filing a tax return. The debate was like so many other partisan debates, with disingenuous arguments and GOP Reps. standing on false principles to disguise their real intent: to eliminate relief going to immigrants. Only Republican Rod Montoya asserted candidly that his reasons for supporting Dow’s amendment was that it addressed his concern that “illegals” would access the funds. In the end, Rep. Javier Martinez put an end to the debate by introducing a motion to table Dow’s amendment, a motion that passed on party lines.
I didn’t hear every minute of every hearing, but I heard enough to offer the following observations:
- Why is the relief funding that targets the most vulnerable (HB 2 Section 2) the only fund that is capped? With funding sufficient to offer relief to just 40,000 of the 135,000 eligible recipients, there will be an inevitable race to seek benefits, with those in the know being poised to get benefits, while those who are not aware of the relief or the application process missing out. The larger pot of funds for taxpayers is not capped and so, those who are eligible are guaranteed receipt of relief while 2/3 of the non-filers appear to be out of luck…by design.
- Why is there no income cap on all of this relief? Checks go to everyone over 18 years of age. Why do Roxanne and I receive the same level of relief as individuals who are living in poverty? Could it be that there is a political agenda in play? — i.e. checks arriving late in the election campaign might be viewed as a giant message from the Governor and the Democrat-controlled legislature that “we care about you, all of you, not just the poor and beleaguered.”
- $500 a person is not going to fully address the needs of low-income New Mexicans, but it could have gone much further if there were an income cap on recipients. But upper-income voters like rebates too, and receiving a check from the state just before voting begins could easily be viewed as more of a political tactic than genuine concern for New Mexicans who are struggling financially. The amount of the relief could have been doubled for those in need if a cap were installed to make upper income tax payers ineligible. But this was never discussed and no effort to implement a cap was attempted.
- Throughout the hearings, legislators praised staff and leadership for their work preparing for the session, with one legislator commenting on how having HB 2 in advance of the meeting was most helpful. But while legislators were fully prepared, the public was not able to see any of the bills until committee hearings began and then needed to read those bills and listen to the hearing, at the same time trying to figure out how to offer public comment via Zoom. No wonder there was virtually no public comment in any committee hearings. With more time for reflection and better info on the process, legislators might have heard from more constituents.
SB 1. This bill restored the junior bill funding that had been vetoed by the Governor. It also included a transparency clause sought by the Governor, but with one exception the bill was exactly the same as SB 48, which passed the House and Senate committees and floor votes unanimously, leading Republican Sen. Crystal Diamond to note, “If this all looks familiar, it is because we are reviewing the exact same allocations that passed both chambers unanimously just 6 weeks ago…why are we here?” The transparency clause aside, the sole change to the Junior Bill was that there was a new allocation of $1 million to go to Rail Runner to incentivize them to reduce ticket prices. In the SFC hearing no one was able to explain how this language even got into the bill, and there was no one present to speak on its behalf. It was removed from SB 1 by amendment with a vote of 9-2. The New Mexican reported this morning that the request for Roadrunner allocation came from the Governor. In any case, it was removed from the bill in SFC.
Suggestion for Future Special Sessions
The entire legislative process would benefit from a Constituent Advocate, a full-time position devoted to vetting all processes and procedures from the standpoint of how each process would be experienced by constituents, with the intention of making the process more transparent, proactive, and more easily accessible. For the Special Session, such an advocate would have insisted that leadership draft a one-page timeline for the Session, something that would have outlined:
- Date & Time the Session would begin;
- What bills would be heard, where, and when copies of bills would be available, with the Constituent Advocate insisting bills be available 24 hours before hearings;
- A schedule of hearings with date, times, room #s, and how to offer public comment in person or via Zoom;
- A flow chart depicting the order in which bills would be heard in committees before they went to a chamber floor for a vote.
While bill language may not have been finalized until late Monday night, certainly leadership knew the exact sequence and timing of when and where bills would be heard and with a bit of effort could have made it much, much easier for constituents to have weighed in thoughtfully.
Such a person could also work with leadership and Legislative Council Services to review regular session and short session rules and procedures, amending them to make the process more accessible and understandable and to draft descriptions of the budget process, the short session’s rules about germane bills and the Governor’s message, the Interim Hearing process, and other steps in the legislative process that many constituents don’t understand. With a person solely devoted to improving the constituent-advocate experience, leadership in both parties would be forced to incorporate the constituent perspective in all process decisions.
Nonetheless, all things considered, the Legislature got the work done:
- NM residents (read “voters”) will find two checks in their mailboxes, one in June and another fighting for mailbox space with campaign flyers in September, a kind of gentle reminder — We care about you, we deserve your vote.
- Junior bill funding will be restored, so Health Security Act study and design funds are in place, as is full funding of all 493 legislator-identified projects.
- Legislators will get their per diem and round trip mileage reimbursement.
- The Roundhouse will get $4 Million in badly needed repairs and renovations.
Taken together, a succesful Special Session, even if it was conducted much like private affair, not a public, democratic process. Onward
In solidarity & hope,
Paul & Roxanne
Categories: Local-State Government & Legislation