New Mexico Democrats aim to expand right to vote, and make voting easier

Across the country, “our whole democratic system is under attack.”So said New Mexico’s Senate Majority leader, Peter Wirth, a Democrat from Santa Fe, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday as he presented Senate Bill 8, now poised to pass the Senate having cleared three of that chamber’s committees with Democratic but no Republican support. The effort comes in an election year in which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, is running for re-election and all seats in the state House of Representatives are up. 

The legislation would allow people who’ve committed a felony to vote before completing their probation or parole. It would ensure ballot access on tribal land, make it easier for New Mexicans to stay registered, and cast a ballot too. According to Wirth, the bill responds to frustration over the failure of the U.S. Senate in January to pass a voting rights measure called the Freedom to Vote Act. The federal legislation would have expanded voting rights and prohibited gerrymandering of political districts to favor one political party over another. 

Lessons were learned during the “COVID voting cycle of 2020” about voter disenfranchisement, and the value of mail by vote, the Senate majority leader said.

Effort to cap interest rates contends with lobbying muscle

Once a person has taken out a loan from a storefront lender in New Mexico, interest rates up to 175% can quickly spiral out of control. Because they target lower-income people who don’t have bank accounts, these storefront outfits are often referred to as “predatory lenders.”  A 2020 Think New Mexico report describes New Mexico as “saturated”: In New Mexico there is a small loan store for every 3,819 residents, according to the report. By comparison, there is one McDonald’s restaurant for every 23,298 New Mexicans. As lawmakers attempt to cap interest rates at 36% this session, they might keep in mind a new New Mexico Ethics Watch report that took a look at the industry’s lobbying efforts. It’s a report that quantifies some of the spending but also gets across just how much we can’t know about the influence peddling that goes on at the Roundhouse, bringing up an issue New Mexico In Depth has reported on repeatedly over the years: lobbying disclosure.

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

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.

Striving toward net zero, New Mexico grapples with role of hydrogen

When Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced during the New Mexico Climate Summit in late October she would champion a law to achieve “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, she received accolades from the environmental community. 

“Net zero” refers to a movement to reduce and offset through environmentally friendly policies and practices the greenhouse gases that would otherwise reach the earth’s atmosphere. Lujan Grisham’s stated objective builds on an already ambitious goal set in 2019 by the Legislature and her administration to transition New Mexico by 2045 from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy to power its electricity grid. 

Getting to net zero by 2050 has become a global rallying cry to halt warming to 1.5° degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, in order to arrest catastrophic impacts of a changing climate. Impacts are increasingly evident now: high-severity drought and wildfires, increasing  hurricanes, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. 

On paper, the path toward Net Zero sounds simple: drastically curtail current greenhouse gas emitting activities while increasing clean energy and activities that capture greenhouse gases before they enter the atmosphere. 

But it’s not simple. Achieving Net Zero encompasses altering all sectors of the economy.And the battle over which path to take toward it can prove vexing.Lujan Grisham has found herself at odds with a who’s who of environmental and community groups over her signature piece of legislation in 2022, a proposed Hydrogen Hub Act, which would provide state incentives like tax credits to support creation of a hydrogen fuel industry. 

The governor’s view is that building a hydrogen fuel industry can be a win/win if done right. “For an energy state, it’s more jobs,” she said on a September podcast about hydrogen, and it “gives us a clean energy platform.” 

Hydrogen, when burned, doesn’t emit greenhouse gases.

Senate “buddymandering” meltdown

The New Mexico state senate approved a map last night for how its own districts will look for the next 10 years. The vote came after days of hurry up and wait, as lawmakers negotiated behind closed doors in an untransparent process. I’d give senators an “F” on two counts: they didn’t do their work in public, and they focused way too much on preserving seats for incumbent lawmakers. More on this in a moment. 

Many are calling what happened last night on the Senate floor a debate. I’d call it a meltdown.

How the rise of copper reveals clean energy’s dark side

This story is co-published by New Mexico In Depth and the Guardian US, as part of the series “America’s dirty divide.” Corky Stewart, a retired geologist, and his wife live in a rural subdivision in New Mexico’s Grant County, about a mile north of the sprawling  Tyrone copper mine.  

“We’ve been here three years and we’ve heard four blasts,” Stewart said of the mine, one of four on an expanse of land partitioned into dozens of four-acre lots. From his perspective, the blasts don’t seem unreasonable, given that a mining company owns the property and has the right to do what it wants. 

But he didn’t know when he bought the property that the company would propose a new pit called the “Emma B” just a half-mile from the wells he and his wife depend on for drinking water. “If they were to somehow tap into our aquifer and drain our water supply, then our houses become valueless,” he said. 

“We’re not making any effort to prevent the pit from being built,” he said. “All we’re really asking is for them to give us some commitment that they will fix whatever they do to our water supply.” But the mine refuses to give them this assurance, he said.  Freeport-McMoRan did not respond to multiple requests for comment by New Mexico In Depth and The Guardian.

Sheriff goes to the dark side, lobbing grim attacks with no evidence

Back in 2017, I wrote “it doesn’t get much darker” than ominous television ads attacking mayoral candidate Tim Keller, who is now Albuquerque mayor. Well, it’s gotten darker, and again Keller is the target. 

Four years ago the television ads, followed by billboards, showed an image of Keller and quickly cut to a dark figure wearing a hoodie, a classic racist trope. “Sex offender” flashed in bold red letters on the screen before cutting to a backlit child riding a bike. Essentially, the ad sought to tap unconscious racist fears and smear Keller as a sex offender at the same time. Media outlets, including New Mexico In Depth, found no basis in the charge.

Lawmakers continue secret spending

Government transparency is more than good, it’s essential. The dark corners of government make it difficult for the people (as in, all of us) to exercise our right and our duty to ensure those we elect are governing in our best interest. 

In a cash-strapped state like New Mexico, transparency in how elected officials spend public money is even more important. For that reason, we applaud the publication of a list of how individual lawmakers spent public infrastructure funds under their control. Lawmakers have long resisted making that information public, but finally relented this year after sustained public pressure. We’ll be able to see the so-called capital outlay spending of individual lawmakers from now on.