Charles W. Daniels, chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court. Image by Marjorie Childress.

‘Constitutional crisis’ could dominate criminal justice debate

Criminal justice reform will burn up some of the oxygen at the Roundhouse during the 60-day session. But what “reform” means depends on who you talk to. The problem is repeat criminal offenders who get out of jail and prison too easily and public safety should be the state’s first priority, Republicans say. Democrats respond that for too long legislation has focused on punishment without addressing underlying causes of crime such as poverty, drug addiction and, in some cases, mental illness. Reform to Republicans appears to mean increased penalties for certain crimes and reinstating the death penalty for people who kill police officers and children after a review of legislation.

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Problems persist with capital outlay system

Hundreds of millions of infrastructure dollars sit unspent across New Mexico as state lawmakers search for cash to cover a budget deficit. And with only $60 million available, it’s unlikely the Legislature will fund the usual number of projects in their districts this legislative session. Capital outlay bills are typically a top priority every year for the Legislature, funding everything from new and renovated state buildings to small local projects and, in some years, highway improvements. Some hope that lack of money this year will spark talk of reforming a system where individual lawmakers allocate money for specific projects but rarely reveal exactly how they spent the money. That pork barrel process, unique to New Mexico, has contributed to the vast amounts of money sitting unspent on projects that either aren’t wanted, don’t qualify, aren’t ready to start or aren’t fully funded.

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State will weigh cost, benefits of recreational cannabis legalization

With a budget crisis confronting the New Mexico Legislature, some legislators plan to float a controversial idea gaining momentum across the nation: Legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana, or cannabis. Adult recreational use is now allowed in eight states plus the District of Columbia, and more than 25 already authorize it for medicinal purposes. And in 2016, after three years of being bogged down in Senate committees, an effort to legalize recreational use in New Mexico made it to the Senate floor for a vote. Last year’s Senate Joint Resolution 5, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque, asked voters to amend the state’s constitution to allow possession and personal use of cannabis by people 21 years or older. It would also have regulated production and sale of cannabis, and allowed collection of a tax on the sale of the drug.

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Will independent ethics oversight catch on in 2017?

New Mexico’s lawmakers over the last decade have balked at creating an independent ethics commission even as a parade of elected and appointed public officials stood accused of corruption and, in some cases, were convicted of crimes. Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico and a perennial supporter of ethics legislation, reached back to 1990s American cinema for an analogy: Groundhog Day, a 1990s comedy classic in which the main character is forced to repeat the same day over and over again. “We are freakin’ Bill Murray,” Harrison said. Harrison hopes 2017 will break the cycle, however, and on the surface the odds in Santa Fe appear favorable. New Mexico’s lawmakers convene for the 2017 60-day legislative session with two supporters of the ethics legislation — Sen. Peter Wirth and Rep. Brian Egolf – in powerful leadership posts.

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What New Mexico’s state Legislature looks like

The average lawmaker in America is a “white, male, Protestant baby boomer with a graduate degree and a business background,” according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. In short, the establishment looks a lot like it always has. And the status quo is extremely difficult to change. Incumbency is the one thing that most certainly determines whether a legislative candidate will win. An incumbent who is good at raising money won 94 percent of the time, according to a national analysis of 2013-2014 legislative races conducted by The National Institute on Money in State Politics.

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Leadership shift sparks hope for supporters of campaign finance reform

New Mexico’s campaign finance system needs a major retooling. This is not a new revelation. For years the Secretary of State’s office and supporters of reform have said as much. Some of the law’s provisions are unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable. Inconsistencies and loopholes in the act make following the trail of money in politics difficult. And the law fails to acknowledge the recent rise of money flowing into campaigns from independent groups.

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Budget crisis threatens child welfare programs

A gaping revenue shortfall and lack of reserves have New Mexico’s legislators worried about short-circuiting the progress of  large investments made in early childhood and safety net programs in recent years. A steep decline in the price of oil has contracted an industry on which New Mexico relies heavily, leading to broad layoffs, sales of oilfield equipment, foreclosures and bankruptcies. That, in turn, has gutted the cash from tax revenues state leaders counted on to pay for state operations. State leaders emptied out the state’s reserve fund to balance last year’s budget. Now they must close this year’s shortfall — projected at $69 million — without a pot of money that has cushioned economic pain in previous economic downturns.

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New Mexico In Depth Special Edition: 2017 Legislative Session

New Mexico In Depth’s coverage of the New Mexico 2017 Legislative Session kicks off with this special edition covering a range of issues:

Campaign finance reform, Capital Outlay, and Ethics Reform
Impact of budget crisis on child welfare programs
Cannabis legalization for adult recreational use
Demographics of the legislature

Newspapers around the state published this special edition the first week of the session: Santa Fe New Mexican, Las Cruces Sun-News, Farmington Daily Times, Carlsbad Current Argus, Alamogordo Daily News, Rio Grande Sun, Silver City Sun-News, Deming Headlight, and the Ruidoso News. Be sure to follow our coverage throughout the session, here on our site and as part of a special project called People, Power, and Democracy, in collaboration with our partners–KUNM Public Radio, New Mexico In Focus, and the UNM News Port.