Senate implodes, disrupting the annual House-Senate basketball game

Every legislative session, the basketball game between House and Senate lawmakers – a sacrosanct ritual of feel-good joviality – gives state lawmakers a chance to vent steam toward the end of each year’s arduous slog of lawmaking. Perhaps more importantly, it raises tens of thousands of dollars for the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center.  

On Wednesday evening, no one was jovial, and tensions were high, as Capitol police interrupted the annual roundball contest to drag seven senators back to the state Senate to debate a piece of energy legislation. For the first time in as long as anyone can remember at the Roundhouse, the basketball game had become collateral damage to legislative strife. And a lot of longtime Roundhouse observers were trying to remember the last time something like this had happened.

NM lawmakers pass high dollar education legislation

The House and Senate on Tuesday both overwhelmingly passed multimillion dollar education bills that are in large part an answer to the Yazzie Martinez funding lawsuit that found New Mexico was shortchanging at-risk students in violation of the state Constitution. The nearly identical bills, which will now have to be reconciled in a committee from both chambers, put about $337 million toward raises for teachers and other educators, extend the school year by 25 days for up to 91,000 elementary school students and more than double dollars dedicated to those at-risk students: low-income, English language learners and Native American students. “This bill is a once in a lifetime game-changer for all the students across the state. While many components of House Bill 5 address the requirements of the recent lawsuit, there are multiple dimensions that will have far reaching impact over decades to come,” House Floor Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, a co-sponsor of the bill, exhorted forcefully as she called for a vote. “For example, by doubling the at-risk funding factor, schools will make important decisions that will fit their students to help them be successful.”

The bill passed that chamber successfully by 53-14.

Ethics commission bill clears first committee

The Judiciary Committee voted 8-0 Saturday morning to approve HB4, launching the ethics commission proposal on what likely will be an obstacle course with three weeks to go in the 2019 legislative session. The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Damon Ely, D-Albuquerque, is in a race against the clock, needing to clear another House committee and a floor vote in the House before heading to the less friendly forum of the Senate, which has earned a reputation as a killing ground for ethics legislation over the past decade and a half. The proposal approved Saturday appropriates $1 million for a proposed ethics commission empowered to fine individuals guilty of violating ethics rules. The commission could also issue subpoenas to pry loose information in an investigation and if a target refused to comply ask a state court to enforce it. Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales

Hearing panels to investigate ethics complaints would use the civil standard of preponderance of the evidence, instead of higher legal standards, to find violations.

School funding plan boosts all districts, but some more than others

Thursday evening, the House of Representatives voted 46-23 to approve a $7 billion state budget proposal, and the single-largest ticket item, no surprise, is public education. With a nearly half a billion dollar increase in spending proposed, the draft budget would funnel around $3.1 billion, up from $2.6 billion this year, into public school districts around the state starting July 1. The rising tide will lift nearly all boats in New Mexico, according to a spreadsheet that shows the extra funding school districts and charter schools could receive if the proposal clears the Legislature and earns Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s signature. If you want to see to how much your local district could see in new education dollars, check out the chart we’ve embedded below this story. All told, school districts around the state would see around a 19 percent bump in State Equalization Guarantee (SEG) money.

Bill seeks to close an environmental gap, without quashing business

The methane hotspot in the northwest. The town of Mesquite, where residents worry about air quality while living adjacent to Helena Chemical, in the south. Albuquerque’s South Valley and its air quality concerns. Proponents of the Environmental Review Act, HB 206, have a list of places where people and the environment could be better protected if the state had the environmental assessment tools it lays out. The bill bogged down in four hours of questions and public comment during its first committee hearing before the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee on a Saturday in January.

Ethics commission legislation in race against time

With a month to go in the legislative session, history may be  about to repeat itself. But voters probably won’t be too happy about it. State lawmakers have four weeks to agree on a bill to flesh out the powers, funding and operations for a seven-member independent ethics commission voters added to the state constitution in November. As of Thursday, there are competing bills and both are in a race against time in a legislative body that’s as prone to kill good government ideas as approve them, based on the New Mexico Legislature’s track record over the past decade. The week started with the introduction of a state ethics commission  bill (HB4) sponsored by Rep. Damon Ely, D-Albuquerque.

New teachers would need training in teaching ESL students under bill

If the bills that deal with education in this legislative session were snowflakes, we’d have a blizzard in the Roundhouse. There are more than 100 bills dealing with K-12 education alone. Higher education, early education and other extracurriculars double that number. But there’s a whole subset of bills that aim to tailor New Mexico’s education system to its diverse student body, especially Hispanic, Native American and English learner students. The bills would ensure students have access to bilingual and multicultural education, teachers who look like them and social services so that disadvantaged students thrive when they are sitting at their desks.

Senate committee keeps ‘funding theater’ of capital outlay alive

The Senate Rules Committee killed a bill today to make public the capital outlay funding decisions of individual legislators. Currently, New Mexico’s capital outlay system allows lawmakers to divvy up a pot of money among themselves to then give out to projects as they see fit, and to keep that information secret. For instance, if a lawmaker has $100,000 to allocate and divvies it up among five different projects, the public is denied access to a list showing which projects, out of many requests, the lawmaker funded. Each legislator has to specifically give permission to legislative staff in order to allow release of that information. By the same token, the projects the legislator chose not to fund are also not known by the public.

Top Democrat in U.S. House to speak to NM Legislature

Congressman James E. Clyburn

Congressman James E. Clyburn of South Carolina will speak to a joint session of the New Mexico Legislature on Friday as part of African American Day at the Roundhouse. Clyburn, House Majority Whip, is the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives behind Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Clyburn started his career as a public school teacher and is a veteran of the civil rights movement, helping to organize marches and demonstrations as a student leader at South Carolina State College, according to his congressional website. He met his wife, Emily, in jail following a student demonstration.Clyburn, whose speech will cap Friday’s celebration of African Americans in New Mexico, will speak to members of the state House and Senate around noon.

Lujan Grisham says her administration will look into Hepatitis C prison problems

At a news conference Wednesday, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham responded to a New Mexico In Depth story that showed while the state has the largest known share of prisoners diagnosed with hepatitis C in the nation, few are being treated. That’s despite new, nearly fail-safe treatment medications coming onto the market at increasingly low prices.  

New Mexico faces difficult choices, Lujan Grisham said, partly because so much is out of its control. Incarcerated individuals who contract the disease on the outside might only become aware of their plight after a screening in prison, Lujan Grisham said. Beginning in 2009, New Mexico began offering all prisoners screening for hepatitis C, which is not a universal practice.