Marathon hearing on Hydrogen Hub Act shows the challenge of an unpaid Legislature

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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other high-profile, powerful lawmakers hope to pass a highly complex and consequential energy bill through this year’s 30-day legislative session. They hit a wall yesterday in the House Energy, Environment & Natural Resources committee where a bi-partisan majority of the committee’s members voted to table the Hydrogen Hub Act.

The marathon six hours about the 68-page bill brimming with technical and often arcane language demonstrated a challenge in New Mexico’s legislative system of relying on unpaid citizen lawmakers. 

While intense public pressure against the proposal surely contributed to the outcome, it was also clear lawmakers had little time to digest the legislation or its implications before the hearing. 

Like most of the public, I’ve had little opportunity to research the bill that was introduced earlier this week, much less develop an informed perspective about it. But I don’t have to cast a vote in the next few weeks on whether or not to use public resources to spur a new industry, especially one that in legislative time has popped up out of the blue. 

The principal bill sponsor, Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Democrat representing an area of the state that would benefit from the measure, made a point of telling the committee that the bill had been in the works for more than a year. It had been heard in two interim committees already, she said, and endorsed by the Legislative Finance Committee. 

But most of New Mexico’s lawmakers hold down other jobs and don’t have paid analysts to help turn hard-to-understand legislation into discernible facts. 

Listening to the lengthy committee hearing yesterday, it’s clear there are voluminous details lawmakers must master to make an informed decision about the economics of the proposal, the technical details involved in producing hydrogen, and the environmental impact. It was described by one lawmaker during the hearing as complicated, with a lot of details to learn and understand. 

Many likely are learning about hydrogen fuel and all the implications of subsidizing an industry that uses fossil fuel to make it, for the first time. 

The Hydrogen Hub Act would allow public dollars to help the private sector create a new industry that taps the state’s enormous natural gas reserves to make hydrogen fuel, which burns without emitting greenhouse gases. Many argue hydrogen is a key component for getting to a carbon-free future. But others argue the production process will continue to pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, outweighing the benefits of the hydrogen itself. An array of environmental and other community groups argue that public investment should continue to be focused on renewable energy, rather than boosting the use of fossil fuel to make hydrogen. 

Championed by the governor, the list of legislators sponsoring the Hydrogen Hub Act signals its importance. Lundstrom chairs the House committee that crafts the annual state budget each year. A Democrat from Gallup, her district is an economically stressed region worried about the loss of jobs as fossil fuel industries close shop. 

House Floor Majority Leader Javier Martinez, a Democrat from Albuquerque, has signed on, as have Rep. Harry Garcia, a Democrat who with Lundstrom represents the northwest regions, and Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, viewed by many as an environmental leader in the chamber. Additional evidence of support is a strong endorsement from both of New Mexico’s U.S. senators, Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan. 

The federal government has announced it’ll invest billions in a handful of places to spur growth of a hydrogen fuel sector. It’s clear that powerful New Mexico lawmakers and state officials want to seize the opportunity. The arguments in some cases have been urgent. There’s a clear message that “this must be done now” or New Mexico will lose out to other states as a national hydrogen industry gets a boost from federal dollars.

But the topic of hydrogen fuel has received scant notice during past legislative sessions or by the media in recent years. A year ago during the session, there was little talk of hydrogen, even while efforts to combat climate change have been aggressively pursued over the past several years in the New Mexico Legislature. 

At the end of the day, most lawmakers who haven’t been at the center of hydrogen discussions since last summer are just getting up to speed. 

And enough Democrats find themselves in a bind, with usual signals they might follow to understand a bill’s virtue at odds. 

On the one hand, powerful Democratic lawmakers and an industry with deep pockets, not to mention a Democratic governor with veto power, are lobbying them to endorse a complicated piece of legislation that many will have just seen for the first time this week. 

On the other hand, a broad coalition of environmental and progressive organizations that each election mounts a get-out-the vote effort on behalf of many of these same lawmakers opposes the measure. Not only is the bill complex, they argue, it greenlights continued reliance on a fossil fuel that not only contributes to climate change, but pollutes the air as well. And it hasn’t incorporated the range of conversations with impacted communities, in this case Navajo families that live surrounded by natural gas infrastructure in San Juan County, that ought to go hand in hand with such consequential decisions.

As we’ve noted time and again, because New Mexico lawmakers aren’t paid a salary or have full-time, year-round staff at their fingertips, they often rely on lobbyists to understand legislation. 

This session, lawmakers are likely scrambling for information from professional, paid lobbyists they’ve come to trust who will present the pros and cons of legislation, depending on where they fall on the issue. 

In the past year registered lobbyists or their employers have spent almost $5 million dollars, funneling money to lawmakers or political action committees as political contributions, or spending it on dinners or other activities to educate lawmakers. Almost $1 million of that came from six energy companies, with Chevron making more than $500,000 in campaign donations. Chevron’s paid lobbyist spoke in favor of the bill during the public comment session yesterday.

All this lobbying is largely conducted in the dark in New Mexico. And year after year, efforts to make more transparent all the wining and dining of lawmakers by lobbyists — many of whom represent the interests of private corporations or organizations, a.k.a. “special interests” — die with, at most, one cursory, often poorly attended Senate Rules committee hearing. 

There are several proposals before lawmakers this session to amend the state constitution in a way that would allow lawmakers to be paid a salary.  If lawmakers were paid, they would be able to spend much more time studying all sorts of complex issues, like the Hydrogen Hub Act. 

When presenting one of those proposals to the Senate Rules committee on Jan. 24, Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, said there’s an argument that New Mexico has a “tremendous tradition” of volunteerism and public service.

“There’s another argument that people are getting what they pay for,” he said.

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