New Mexico lawmakers pursue big agenda while navigating checkpoints

New Mexico’s legislative session begins today against an odd backdrop of optimism,  uncertainty, and vigilance, all at once. 

Planning for a largely online session has long been in the works, with the public barred from the Roundhouse until the COVID-19 pandemic is brought to heel. Now, the Legislature finds itself launching a session grappling with the twin challenges of a deadly pandemic and the spectre of violence, and no one knows exactly how it will turn out.  

The Roundhouse has been abruptly fenced off in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection in the nation’s capitol and subsequent warnings by the FBI that armed protests may occur across the country in the lead up to the inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden Wednesday. Only approved lawmakers, staff or others with specific credentials, like media, will be able to enter, through checkpoints. In Santa Fe, national guard and state police are out in force to handle armed protests and possible violence. 

Here’s a sneak peek at our special print edition, which will be published in newspapers around the state this weekend.

Lawmaker, advocates pursue greater sunshine from lobbyists

Lobbying at the Roundhouse is a little bit different from other states. Put a crop of unpaid “citizen legislators” and well-paid professional lobbyists in a building together, and a certain culture develops in which lobbyists become key sources of information for lawmakers. “When I have colleagues that come in here from other states, or from the national level, they’re amazed at the degree of access that folks have here, and it’s more of an informal kind of a situation than it is at a lot of other venues,” said Dan Weaks, a professional lobbyist. In contrast to unpaid, understaffed legislators, lobbyists—many of whom have significant monetary resources at their disposal—can play an outsized role in the policymaking process, said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, who has witnessed employers hire as many as 10 lobbyists for a single issue. 

“They had a lobbyist posted at every elevator.”

Another senator didn’t mince words. The system we have “empowers lobbyists over the people’s elected representatives, and that’s a pretty dysfunctional system, in my view,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque.

Lawmakers will again push for capital outlay transparency

Legislators will make another push this year to make public how individual lawmakers divvy up capital outlay money. 

New Mexico In Depth discovered back in 2015 that those decisions were exempt from the Inspection of Public Records Act, after submitting a request for a list detailing how lawmakers individually allocated infrastructure money that year. We wrote about what we’d found, and several lawmakers promptly introduced bills in 2016 to make information available to the public about how individual legislators steward capital outlay dollars. Here’s a recap of the issue:

Each year, the state Legislature passes a capital outlay budget that sends millions of dollars out to New Mexico communities to pay for infrastructure projects. To figure out how to spend that money, lawmakers divide the money three ways. The governor controls a third, state agencies control a third, and lawmakers control a third. 

How do lawmakers decide how to spend their portion?

A historic year, learning loss threatens recent educational gains

Even by the most optimistic standards, the logistics of learning in 2020 have been difficult, if not close to impossible, for a significant number of New Mexico students. Technological challenges have combined with trauma caused by COVID-19’s deadly rampage through hard-hit populations, especially the state’s Indigenous communities, to disrupt classrooms and educational plans. More than 32,000 students — or one of every 10 enrolled in public education statewide — have been referred to a state-sponsored coaching program, many for being disengaged, regularly missing classes, or in danger of failing one or more classes. Less than a quarter are participating, however. And more than half of those, or 5,173 students, are in need of the most help, according to the state education officials, meaning they endure significant on-going barriers and are receiving regular interventions, sometimes daily.Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart and his staff didn’t mince words about the severity of the challenge in a December presentation of the education agency’s 2022 budgetary request to state lawmakers. 

Learning losses caused by the pandemic — particularly for at-risk students, which make up a majority of New Mexico’s student population — will likely weaken already low student outcomes, according to the 13-page memo.“Additionally, school closures and remote learning have had a dramatic impact on enrollment in many school districts, leading some school district leaders to worry about the pandemic’s impact on their school district’s finances,” they added.The state education agency went on to ask the legislators for $4 million in emergency funds, citing the possible need for additional grants in light of enrollment shifts in school districts and increased costs related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

COVID disparities force a public health reckoning

The coronavirus feels the way it looks in widely circulated images, said Cleo Otero: like a thorn. “That’s how it felt inside my body, especially my lungs. It was painful. Like it was scratching the inside of your body. I could really literally feel the virus inside my body.” 

Otero’s first clue she was sick came at the laundromat in Albuquerque where she usually buys a bag of spicy chips as she waits on her clothes.

Nonprofit groups put new independent expenditure law to the test

After a decade-long effort, New Mexico lawmakers passed new campaign reporting requirements in 2019 to force nonprofit groups, which can spend money on political campaigns without registering as political committees, to disclose their spending as well as the names, addresses, and contribution amounts of their donors who fund such “independent expenditures.” 

Outside campaign spending by groups or individuals not affiliated with a particular campaign have long been a target of reformers seeking to rein in the influence of money on politics.   Without disclosure, nonprofits can spend unlimited amounts of “dark money” without the public knowing where the money comes from. In 2020, two nonprofit groups immediately put the new law to the test by refusing to disclose donors despite enforcement efforts by both the Secretary of State and the New Mexico State Ethics Commission. “I’m not at all surprised,” said Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who championed the transparency measure for a decade. “Anytime you’re trying to rein [dark money] in, you know, there’s going to be groups that are going to push the limits.” 

The challenges by the nonprofit groups represent a key test for both the law itself and for the enforcing power of the state’s newly created ethics commission, also established in 2019 after several decades of ongoing debate and setbacks.Approved by voters and given powers by the Legislature, the commission can subpoena records and enforce state statutes that cover campaign spending, lobbying, and government conduct.

Texas lawsuit to overturn election is a cynical and racist play for power

We suspect many of you, like us, are gobsmacked by Texas asking the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the election results of the 2020 presidential election in four other states. 

Joining in the madness by Ken Paxton, the Republican attorney general of New Mexico’s giant neighbor to the east, are 17 other Republican attorney generals and more than 40% of the Republican congressional delegation.Paxton is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the results in Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan — battleground states that helped hand the presidency to former Democratic vice president Joe Biden — by calling into question those states’ administration of the election.Never mind that other states that President Trump won, such as Montana, aren’t targets of Paxton’s lawsuit even though they enacted similar procedures for the 2020 election. Never mind that some of the state elections targeted by Paxton are administered by Republicans.Make no mistake: this challenge is a cynical and racist play for power.Paxton, who is white, as well as 17 Republican Attorney General colleagues and 106 U.S. House members, who support Paxton’s lawsuit and are overwhelmingly white too, are urging the Supreme Court to decide who wins the presidency by throwing out millions of votes in cities  like Atlanta, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Detroit and their first-ring suburbs — most of which were cast by Black and brown people. In effect, the message Paxton and all those attorney generals and U.S. House members supportive of his suit are sending is, Black and brown people can’t be trusted to vote.Now, if you know your American history, disenfranchsing non-white people is as American as apple pie. We grew up in Georgia and Texas and know the long hard slog the civil rights movement endured while taking on the systems and institutions set up in the Jim Crow South. Since living in New Mexico we’ve also learned about its own sordid history around Indigenous voters who weren’t allowed to vote until the mid 20th century.Like we said, voter disenfranchisement of racial minorities is as American as apple pie. It’s no surprise, then, that attorney generals from five states of the former Confederacy — Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi — have signed on to an amicus brief filed by Missouri’s attorney general in support of Texas’ lawsuit. (Georgia did not sign on, and says Texas’ allegations are “false and irresponsible.”)

What is surprising, however, is the blatantness with which this attempt to disenfranchise non-white voters is playing out in front of the nation.  Let’s also be clear that this is a concerted effort to undermine our democracy completely by sowing distrust in the electoral system. 

These plaintiffs are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take away our collective right to elect the President.