NM State Sen. Benny Shendo takes job in Colorado

Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez, has accepted  a job with the University of Colorado and according to a Colorado newspaper will relinquish his legislative seat in the spring of 2024. One of the most powerful Indigenous lawmakers in the New Mexico Legislature, Shendo has served as a state lawmaker in Santa Fe since winning election in 2012 and chairs the important Senate Tax, Business & Transportation Committee. The Daily Camera newspaper in Boulder, Colo., quoted Shendo as saying:
“I cannot wait to get started in this new role at CU Boulder to strengthen our relationships with the tribes of Colorado and those historically connected to Colorado and to build a strong, supportive Native American community on campus for our students, faculty and staff,” Shendo said in a news release. He will join the campus full time on March 1, after relinquishing his state legislature seat. In a short interview with New Mexico In Depth this afternoon, Shendo said he was not prepared to say he would not run for re-election in the New Mexico Legislature.

New Mexico AG says he’s going after school discipline and Yazzie-Martinez to protect children

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez said he is ready to “test the limits” of whether the state constitution gives him the authority to assume control of the state’s defense in the 2018 Yazzie-Martinez court case, but hopes it doesn’t come to that. “That is something we will do if we have to, but again my hope in this is  that we start having conversations,” Torrez said during an on-camera interview with New Mexico In Depth and New Mexico In Focus (NMiF) on Thursday. 

Last month, Torrez announced his intention to take over the landmark case due to the “slow progress” by the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in presenting a plan to reform the state’s public schools. Then-state District Court Judge Sarah Singleton ruled in 2018 — before her death the following year — that the state of New Mexico had violated the educational rights of Native American, English language-learning, disabled and low-income children. In response to Torrez on Friday afternoon, Caroline Sweeney, a spokesperson for the governor, said: “We have never challenged the AG’s authority to represent the state. It is our understanding that the Attorney General has not had any conversations with leadership at the Public Education Department, and we would be happy to brief him on the exhaustive work the Department has undertaken to improve education in New Mexico.”

If the governor does decide to dispute Torrez’s bid to take over the case, it remains unclear who would settle the question, although the courts are a likely venue.

Lujan Grisham axes tax increase on booze

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday struck down the first alcohol tax increase in 30 years meant to address a public health crisis that claims thousands of New Mexican lives a year.Lujan Grisham’s veto came as a surprise to state lawmakers. During weeks of negotiations with the governor’s office and each other during the legislative session, lawmakers had shaped a $1.1 billion tax package only to learn that she had liberally crossed through line after line in the 119-page bill.The decision to eliminate the alcohol tax, in particular, contradicted the rhetoric coming out of the governor’s office this week leading up to the vetoes. 

Lujan Grisham sounded the alarm about the potential for the tax package to undermine the state’s long-term financial health. The proposed tax cuts represented future dollars the state would not collect, which some pointed to as a risk given the state’s volatile revenue stream. New Mexico is overly dependent on the boom and bust cycles of the oil and gas industry.However, the nominal increase to the state alcohol excise tax — less than 1 cent on a 12 ounce beer and about one and a half cents per servings of wine and liquor — would have generated roughly $10 million a year. 

The tax bill would have directed those dollars as well as about $25 million in money that currently goes to the state’s general fund to a new Alcohol Harms Alleviation fund for treatment. 

Unclear is why the governor didn’t eliminate the harm alleviation fund in the tax bill, while keeping the tax increase, given her concerns over shoring up the state’s revenues. 

Among those stunned by the governor’s decision Friday was Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of the proposal to increase the state alcohol tax.“I would expect an increase in alcohol excise tax would be welcome in light of the harm to the communities and cost to the state due to alcohol,” Sedillo Lopez said Friday afternoon.Maddy Hayden, the governor’s spokeswoman, declined to say why Lujan Grisham had vetoed the alcohol excise tax increase when it would have put dollars into New Mexico’s coffers.She did say, however, “The governor spoke at length to the media (Friday) about the continued need for dedicated resources to address alcohol misuse. As you know, she recommended creating an office at the Department of Health dedicated to alcohol misuse and the budget as signed includes $2 million for that purpose.”Hayden was referring to a Friday afternoon press conference Lujan Grisham held in Santa Fe.In 2021, alcohol killed 2,274 New Mexicans in 2021, at a rate no other state comes close to touching.

Gallup school discipline event generates large turnout, passionate conversations

Dozens of people turned out April 1 to discuss, sometimes passionately, even angrily, the high rates of harsh discipline of Native students meted out by the Gallup-McKinley Public Schools district. Sponsored by news organizations New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica, in collaboration with  the McKinley Community Health Alliance, the turnout of about 70 people, mostly Navajo, at the University of New Mexico’s Gallup campus, showcased community interest generated by a story New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica published in December. The news outlets found that Native American students are expelled from New Mexico’s public schools far more frequently than other student groups, in large part due to practices at the Gallup-McKinley County Schools district. Seventy people turned out for a discussion of school discipline on April 1, 2023 in Gallup, NM. Credit: Tara Armijo-Prewitt

Gallup-McKinley, which enrolls more Native students than any other public school district in the country, has expelled children at least 10 times as often as the rest of the state in recent years.

Lawmakers advance effort to pay lawmakers a salary as end of session nears

Eight days are left for lawmakers to decide whether to ask New Mexicans to vote on what the rest of the country already does: Pay its state legislators.If voters approve, House Joint Resolution 8 would amend the state constitution to establish an independent commission that would set  salaries for New Mexico’s 112 state lawmakers. But, first, the joint resolution, which already has passed the House of Representatives and a Senate committee, must jump through more hoops: one more Senate committee and a vote by the entire Senate after which it would go to the House where lawmakers would decide whether or not to accept changes made in the Senate.  

It’s a lot as the 60-day session enters its final week, when lawmakers will parse an avalanche of competing measures. But the New Mexico Legislature has shown how quickly it can move when it wants. 

New Mexico is the only state without  a daily or annual salary for lawmakers, although it provides each a daily payment when they’re in a committee meeting or in session,  and reimburses lawmakers for mileage. Some states pay nominal salaries, like New Hampshire, at $100. But most pay much more, including New Mexico’s neighbors: Arizona, ($24,000), Colorado ($40,242), Oklahoma ($47,500) and Texas ($7,200).Nearly two-thirds of likely New Mexico voters say it’s time, according to a poll conducted in 2022.While in previous years the idea has languished, this year it has momentum.

House committee cuts proposed alcohol tax increases

A nearly $1 billion tax package cleared the House Taxation and Revenue Committee on Monday with 1-cent to 2-cent tax per drink increases on beer, wine and liquor instead of much larger rate hikes sought by advocates.Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, said following the committee’s nine-to-five vote to approve the bill that supporters hope to amend a 15-cent per alcoholic drink increase into the legislation as it moves through the Legislature over the final two weeks of the legislative session.“We need lots of people to support that,” said Ferrary, one of the sponsors of House Bill 230, which would have imposed a flat 25-cent tax on alcoholic drinks and would have pushed the cost of most beer, wine and liquor up by 18 to 21 cents.Supporters of raising the state alcohol excise tax have pointed to research that shows higher alcohol prices curb cirrhosis deaths, drunk driving, violence and crime, and even sexually transmitted disease. New Mexicans die of alcohol-related causes at nearly three times the national average and alcohol is involved in more deaths than fentanyl, heroin, and methamphetamines combined.Even with the 1-cent to 2-cent tax increases on alcoholic drinks, industry lobbyists turned out Monday to oppose the alcohol excise tax provision in the omnibus bill. Jimmy Bates of Premium Beverage Distributing Co. a wholesaler for Anheuser Busch, said the provision would raise the cost of liquor by a smaller rate than beer. 

“You have the lowest ABV (alcohol by volume) alcohol product taking a 37 percent increase and the highest in hard liquor taking a nine percent increase,” Bates said. “You’re going to drive consumers away from four to five percent ABV beverage into a 40-percent one.”

Currently, state law taxes most beer at 4 cents per drink versus 7 cents for liquor. In 2017, when a similar bill appeared before the Legislature, Bates told state lawmakers he would oppose any tax increase, however small.

Lawmakers tackle raising the alcohol tax

A bill to impose a 25-cent tax on alcoholic drinks goes before its first legislative hearing of the session Friday. Looming over it is the 2017 defeat of a similar bill by the alcohol industry.Much has changed in six years. The mood of the Legislature appears different in 2023. Greater awareness of alcohol’s harms seems to have permeated the legislative body. Partly because the stats are so stark.

Couy Griffin is New Mexico’s fly in the ointment

Looking westward and north to Arizona and Colorado, New Mexico should count itself lucky three days after Election Day. Vote counting continues in those states. Here in New Mexico, no major disruptions marred Election Day and the vast majority of contests, including the governor’s race, slipped into history Tuesday night without any drama. Even the state’s marquee federal race, the 2nd Congressional District featuring Democrat Gabe Vasquez and Republican incumbent Yvette Herrell, with its potential national implications, ended quietly with Vasquez winning by 1,300 votes and Herrell conceding defeat. Otero County Sheriff David Black instructs former Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin to leave the room during Thursday’s county commission meeting.

Ivey-Soto spectacle reminds us state lawmakers can’t police themselves

The saga that humbled state senator Daniel Ivey-Soto this week is the kind of political theater that hypnotizes the chattering political class. A mixture of sexual harassment allegations and an unsuccessful coup against Sen. President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, with whom he has clashed, led Ivey-Soto to resign Thursday as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee before his colleagues could remove him. It was a very public drama that generated blaring headlines and gossipy conversations. Beyond all the hot takes and salacious titillation, however, it’s important that we not forget the institutional weakness that got us to this point. Skepticism has always swirled around lawmakers’ claim that they can police themselves.