Here comes the sun: NM lawmakers champion renewable energy

The large meeting hall at Santa Fe’s Temple Beth Shalom was packed, nearly every seat filled and with more people standing against the walls, listening to speakers at a clean energy conference late last month. When Sen. Mimi Stewart took the mic, she admitted she’d had to illegally park to get there. The first word new Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham got in after the applause and whoops greeting her arrival was, “Wow.”

“There’s no reason New Mexico can’t be the clean energy leader in the United States,” she declared in the pep talk that followed, and promised to address issues from solar tax credits to increasing renewable energy requirements for utilities, along with a list of others. And to do them fast. “This moment speaks to that kind of urgency, and we have to collectively make sure that the House and the Senate passes every single measure that allows us to not just have a foothold, but a clear design,” she said, before exiting to a standing ovation.

Early childhood department has governor’s backing

A child plays with beads in a New Mexico PreK classroom. A proposal for an Early Childhood Education and Care Department would bring together all children’s program for children ages 0 to 5 into the department, including New Mexico PreK administered both the Public Education Department and the Children Youth and Families Department. (Xchelzin Pena/New Mexico In Depth)

It was a powerhouse show of support last week for a plan to create an Early Childhood Education and Care Department. “Any other Cabinet secretaries here?,” Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, asked during public comment Feb. 13 on Senate Bill 22, which would create a department focused on providing education and services for children from birth to age 5.

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.

Plaintiffs in historic suit cite new court filing to back up their money demands

Plaintiffs in a historic educational lawsuit on Friday pointed to a new court filing from Judge Sarah Singleton to say that state officials should reverse how they’re funding public education: Instead of seeing how much they have to spend first, they should identify educational needs and then figure out how much they cost. Singleton’s eight-page order, issued Thursday, comes as the lawsuit’s plaintiffs and allies are in a tug of war with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislature over how much new money to earmark for the state’s public schools. A coalition of plaintiffs, teachers, parents, students, district superintendents, bilingual experts and nonprofit organizations want the governor and state lawmakers to dedicate $1 billion in new funding, double what the governor and the Legislature are proposing.   

Singleton’s order is short compared to her ruling last year, which found New Mexico guilty of shirking its constitutional duty to adequately educate at-risk students, but it packs a wallop. The judge wrote of New Mexico’s school children caught in an “inadequate system” who will “be irreparably harmed if better programs are not instituted,” And that the state’s duty is to “not conserve financial resources at the expense of our constitutional resources.”Those shortcomings should be addressed “as soon as practicable,” Singleton wrote.

Is it ‘Groundhog Day’ for ethics reform in NM?

This commentary is part of New Mexico In Depth’s weekly newsletter. Trip Jennings, NMID executive director

2019 is beginning to feel a lot like the 1990s Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day.”Twelve years ago, at about the same time in the legislative session as we are now, I reported that ethics reform efforts were on life support. I’m not ready to make the same call in 2019. But with four weeks to go in this year’s session, agreement on a bill to flesh out the powers, funding and operations for a seven-member independent ethics commission added to the state Constitution by 75 percent of voters in November isn’t looking quite as inevitable as it once did. As of today, there are competing ethics commission bills.

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.

Move to open primaries represents growing number of unaffiliated voters

Christa Frederickson just after she voted in the 2016 primary election. Christa Fredrickson is a registered Democrat in Doña Ana County, but says that’s only because she needed to be a Democrat in order to vote in a primary election a few years ago. She has more than once changed her party affiliation to vote in a particular  primary election, because she thinks they’re important. But she doesn’t consider herself a Democrat or a Republican, or a Libertarian for that matter. Those are the major parties in New Mexico, currently.

Advocates critique budget, education process

As a powerful House committee nears completion of a draft state budget this week, leaders of a movement to transform New Mexico education through multicultural, bilingual education reforms say crucial funding to achieve their vision could go missing from the soon-to-emerge spending plan. And they say it’s already gone missing from a House omnibus education bill. They worry too that legislative leaders aren’t taking seriously the need to strengthen three state laws focused on multicultural, bilingual education that are at the core of a historic court ruling by a state judge last year. In her scorching July 2018 ruling, Judge Sarah Singleton found the state guilty of depriving large swaths of public school children of their constitutional right to a sufficient education. “I don’t think there is direct opposition that I see,“ Rep. Tomas Salazar, D-Las Vegas, said of funding and multicultural, bilingual education ideas during a late-morning press conference put on by Transform Education NM, a coalition of teachers, parents, students, district superintendents, bilingual experts and nonprofit organizations.

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.

Bill to increase political reporting, raise contribution limits clears Senate

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth

An almost decade long saga may end this year if the latest effort to reform New Mexico’s unconstitutional campaign reporting act makes it to the governor’s desk. Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, would increase public disclosure of money spent to influence elections by requiring certain groups not covered by the act now to begin reporting their political spending. The bill also raises campaign contribution limits. The bill passed the Senate today easily, with only Democratic Sen. Jeff Steinborn and Republican senators Craig Brandt, Pat Woods, Bill Sharer, Cliff Pirtle, and Mark Moores voting against it, and now heads to the House. A similar bill passed the Legislature in 2017 but was vetoed by former governor Susana Martinez.