Lawmakers, and lobbyists too, push through in the midst of COVID

The pandemic legislative session (as it will go down in history) lived up to its name just a week in, with at least one House Republican lawmaker and four Roundhouse staff testing positive for COVID-19. Given that lawmakers aren’t required to be tested, there may be more. Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf said he was “dismayed” Republicans had a catered lunch, a characterization Republican House Minority Leader Townsend disputed to the Santa Fe New Mexican. Townsend urged delay of the session before it began, and is now calling for a temporary halt.It’s not surprising there’s been a COVID outbreak at the Roundhouse. We are in the midst of a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 3,200 New Mexicans in under a year, closed schools and businesses, and created untold anxiety and stress. Should the Legislature be meeting? It’s questionable.

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.

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?

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.

Governor orders New Mexicans to shelter in place

Starting Monday, in an acknowledgement of how bad things have gotten, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced today during an online update that we’re returning to sheltering in place. That means everyone must stay home unless they work in an essential business, or need to go out for groceries or medical care. 

And she announced she’s calling the New Mexico Legislature into a special session within days to help New Mexicans struggling to keep food on the table, pay their bills, and stay in their homes. And to help businesses survive. 

We’re experiencing the greatest emergency our country has seen, Lujan Grisham said, and with no federal guidance and support, that means she has to take action, dismissing notions that she should follow the lead of other states that aren’t closing businesses, she said.  

The overwhelming need, right now, she said is for New Mexicans to shelter in place to fight the spread of the virus. 

That means her own family isn’t getting together in person for Thanksgiving, she said, so that they’ll be intact and whole for the Thanksgivings to come. 

But far too many families will come together, and will then come together again for a funeral, she said. “It’s not worth the risk. It’s not worth the risk.”

Those were my thoughts exactly a week ago when I pulled the plug on visiting my family for Thanksgiving.

‘We sent 500 tests. They don’t answer calls’: Inside ICE’s coronavirus testing disaster

This story was produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization. Get their investigations emailed to you directly by signing up at revealnews.org/newsletter. Kathy Kunkel, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health, was frustrated. She was getting reports the first week of May of horrifying conditions at the Otero County Processing Center, one of three U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities in the state. Detainees were responsible for disinfecting their own living spaces but weren’t getting adequate cleaning supplies.

‘If the Police Aren’t Needed, Let’s Leave Them Out Completely’

Protesters of the police killing of George Floyd organized a protest caravan in Albuquerque, NM, May 28. Credit: Shaun Griswold

This story was published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts. New Mexico In Depth is an investigative, nonprofit newsroom that occasionally republishes stories that have particular relevance to New Mexicans. Don’t miss out, sign up to receive our stories soon after they’re published. Every weekday morning, mental health clinician Carleigh Sailon turns on her police radio in downtown Denver and finds out who she can help next.

Oil and Gas plays big in elections, despite COVID-19

Crude oil storage tanks dot the landscape in San Juan County. Marjorie Childress/New Mexico In Depth

The oil and gas industry may have cratered over the last few months due to a steep drop in consumer demand brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still a major player in shaping New Mexico’s state Legislature. 

Oil companies have pumped $1.1 million dollars into 2020 New Mexico primary election campaigns since last October. The industry distributed $180,000 of that total since March 11, the date the first COVID-19 case was identified in New Mexico and the economy subsequently began rapidly shutting down. 

The industry contributes large amounts to New Mexico politicians every election cycle, and runs its own campaigns independently as well. Such political spending by the industry occurs whether the oil industry is in one of its notorious “bust” cycles, or booming. Over the last couple of years, the industry has been booming, fueling an injection of billions of dollars into the state budget. 

Kathleen Sabo, executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, said the sheer size of the industry, and its importance to the state budget, gives it a great deal of influence. 

“Most legislators seem to be very careful around the industry,” said Sabo, “it’s not partisan.” Sabo said efforts to regulate the industry can generate comments at the statehouse from both sides of the aisle about “killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Indeed, New Mexico In Depth found in 2019 that no regulatory bills targeting oil and gas were successful during the legislative session without the blessing of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, despite strong Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate and a new Democratic governor. 

Its influence goes beyond campaign contributions, Sabo said.