Tribal education trust fund is dead, legislative sponsor says

The sponsor of a proposal to create a trust fund that would’ve given tribes in New Mexico millions of dollars to build education programs said Wednesday that he is pulling the bill from the Senate, meaning it is effectively dead. 

With less than 24 hours in the 2024 legislative session, Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat from Sandia Pueblo, says he decided to pull House Bill 134 after learning a number of amendments were going to be introduced on the Senate floor. 

The proposal would have created a trust fund with a $50 million appropriation, generating interest for the 23 tribes in New Mexico to spend on language programs and other needs related to education. It garnered bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, and a number of tribal leaders, Indigenous students, and educators spoke about how impactful it would be at committee hearings throughout the legislative session. But how the money would be distributed was the source of significant debate this year — and in the 2023 legislative session, when Lente unsuccessfully pushed for the fund. The Navajo Nation in particular had concerns about how to ensure the funds were distributed equitably. 

“As much as I thought that we were good to go and how it’s received so much support through the House process and even through Senate Finance,” Lente said, “we’ve come to a point where the discussion amongst tribes is a bit too great for me to want to comfortably have that discussion publicly in the Senate and I don’t think it’s fair for tribes to be put in that position.”Lente would not say where the Senate amendments came from and what they would do. But he said he’s asked Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth to not pull it up for debate in the Senate “out of respect for the tribes.” 

“I want to make sure that I respect 100% the tribal sovereignty of each pueblo, nation and tribe in New Mexico.

Ivey-Soto bill raises conflict of interest questions

A bill meant to modernize New Mexico’s marriage laws would increase the money people pay to the state’s county clerks for a marriage license. Meanwhile, the bill’s sponsor, Democratic State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, is paid by numerous county clerks on a contract basis for technical, legal and training services. 

As the State Ethics Commission investigates complaints made last year that accuse Ivey-Soto, in part, of using his position as a lawmaker to curry favor with his clients, lawmakers are considering Ivey-Soto’s House Bill 242. The legislation’s aim, according to Ivey-Soto and his co-sponsor, Rep. Doreen Gallegos, a Doña Ana County Democrat, is to dust Victorian era moral codes off New Mexico’s books. For instance, it would prohibit  marriage of 16 and 17 year olds, which are allowed with parental consent, to people more than four years older than they are. The bill also allows anyone over the age of 21 selected by the couple to officiate at a wedding.

Rift between Democrats dooms this year’s alcohol tax push

The push to change the state’s taxes on alcohol all but ended Friday when the House Taxation & Revenue Committee voted down one bill and declined to take action on another. Chairman Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, encouraged the bills’ sponsors to re-work their proposals in the coming months. But with no other measures advancing to address the state’s worst-in-the-nation rate of alcohol-related deaths, the Legislature kicked the can down the road on one of the state’s leading public health crises. Unlike last year, when an effort to raise alcohol taxes provoked vociferous opposition by beverage makers and retailers, dooming the proposal, the most important fissure this year was within the group supporting changes in alcohol taxes. In deliberations that stretched over two days, the tax committee considered divergent proposals.

Regional water planning shortchanged in state budget, advocates say 

There’s a tale of two cities unfolding in eastern New Mexico: Clovis and Portales both rely on a single source of potable water, the Ogallala Aquifer. That aquifer is finite and rapidly depleting. Five years ago, New Mexico Tech offered both communities aquifer mapping research to predict how long their reserves might last. That research guided Clovis to shutting off 51 irrigation wells and saving 4 billion gallons of water. Portales didn’t choose to use it.

Bill would amend current law to allow lawmakers into cannabis biz early

Back in 2021, before voting to make recreational use of cannabis legal, lawmakers on the Senate floor barred any lawmaker serving at that time from getting a commercial cannabis license until 2026. Lawmakers debating the provision that year brought up potential conflicts of interest among voting lawmakers who might have plans to participate in a future cannabis industry. 

Now, lawmakers have removed that prohibition in a bill that is making its way through the Senate. The Senate Judiciary committee last week created a substitute bill that included the change. 

Senate Bill 6 contains numerous changes to the cannabis regulation act, which its sponsor, Sen. Katy Duhigg, said stem from lessons learned in the almost three years cannabis has been legal in New Mexico. Duhigg said she was carrying it on behalf of the agency that regulates cannabis companies. 

The original bill this year kept the prohibition on lawmakers who voted on legalization in 2021 from getting into the cannabis business until 2026. Lawmakers on the judiciary committee discussed several changes to the bill, including one that would outlaw cannabis sales through drive-up windows, but skipped right over the change allowing them to open cannabis businesses two years early. 

The bill later in the week passed the Senate Finance committee, where Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, questioned why the prohibition was removed.

NM In Depth editors and reporters discuss government transparency, ethics and the Governmental Conduct Act

New Mexico In Depth editors held the third of five online chats about the 2024 legislative session last week. Professor of Practice of Journalism at the University of New Mexico, and occasional contributor to New Mexico In Depth, Gwyneth Doland, joined Executive Director Trip Jennings and Managing Editor Marjorie Childress to discuss government transparency, legislative modernization efforts, and the Governmental Conduct Act. Doland kicked off the conversation talking about the 14 students she takes to the Roundhouse every Wednesday and their experience thus far. “It’s interesting and cool to see things through their eyes,” she said, while noting that for newcomers, navigating the state capitol during a legislative session can be a lot to take in. 

The three discussed efforts over the past 15 years to make the statehouse more accessible and understandable, including webcasting, budget transparency efforts, and showing what is stricken or added through amendments lawmakers adopt to change legislation, and making bills easier to track. One step backwards Jennings mentioned is that certain areas of the capitol have been closed to the public, making it more difficult to reach lawmakers for a conversation.

Governor says she’ll push for tribal education trust fund

As New Mexico lawmakers decide how to prioritize spending during another year of historic revenue, Pueblo leaders say they “do not appreciate” being forced to choose between a tribal education trust fund and money for infrastructure on tribal lands. 

A letter Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sent late last week asking for their input on funding priorities put them in that position, they told her in a letter Wednesday. Having to pick one or the other is “fundamentally wrong and adverse to the commitments of partnership that we have made with you and state legislative leadership,” wrote the All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents 19 Pueblos in New Mexico and one in Texas. 

Instead, each initiative should be funded at $50 million, the council wrote. 

In response to questions from New Mexico In Depth on Thursday, the governor’s office provided the letter from the council and said the governor will work with the Legislature to deliver on the council’s request. 

It’s the first indication that Lujan Grisham will back the trust fund proposal, which would give tribes more money and control over how they educate their own children. 

But it’s not a total win. 

Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, stands in his office at the Roundhouse on Jan. 25, 2023. Lente, chair of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee, is sponsoring a proposal designed to give tribes more money and control over the education of Indigenous children. Credit: Bella Davis/New Mexico In Depth

The fund’s sponsor, Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, is seeking a $100 million trust fund, rather than $50 million. 

The House Budget includes $50 million, following the Legislative Finance Committee’s recommendation before the legislative session began.

House budget leaves out money for state employees to focus on missing and murdered Indigenous people

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists: Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T). A proposed bureau within the Indian Affairs Department focused on a crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people might be in peril. 

At issue is how much money the Legislature will give the department.The Legislature’s budget-making Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) says the department, which has a 40% vacancy rate, should use its existing personnel budget to staff up the new bureau. (About 18% of positions across state government were vacant in fiscal year 2022, according to a 2023 report from the LFC to state lawmakers.)But a department spokesman said the agency wants to both create new staff positions to carry out a state response plan the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force issued in 2022 and fill the existing vacancies. Officials announced their plan to seek funding for more staffers after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration was criticized for quietly disbanding the task force last year. 

The proposed state budget the House passed Wednesday, however, followed the recommendation of the LFC, and only included $120,000 extra — enough to hire one full-time employee — instead of the $600,000 the agency sought. 

Spokesman Aaron Lopez told New Mexico In Depth the department won’t hire more staff to concentrate on missing and murdered Indigenous people unless they get more money. Some of the state task force’s recommendations could be achieved by passing new laws but during this legislative session and last year’s, legislation directly responding to the crisis has been sparse. 

Asked in December if the department would be advocating for any legislation this year to address the crisis, Secretary-designate Josett Monette, then the deputy secretary, only mentioned the request for additional employees.

Once skeptical, key lawmakers propose new approach to raising alcohol taxes

Two key state representatives who helped water down an alcohol tax hike last session have introduced legislation to raise taxes on most alcoholic beverages. The proposals from representatives Derrick Lente, D-Sandia, and Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, the top lawmakers on the powerful House Taxation and Revenue Committee, could signal growing support among Democratic lawmakers to increase the price of a commodity that kills thousands of New Mexicans each year. But disagreements remain about how to do it, and by how much. The legislators filed a pair of bills that each offer its own approach but would both effectively tax alcoholic beverages a percentage of their price. For most alcohol, House Bill 212 would tax wholesalers on the products they sell to retailers — 6% for beer, 9% for wine, and 12% for spirits, with lower rates for alcohol made by small producers.