Police reform bills sweep the virtual statehouse, but outcome uncertain

A year of tumult over race and policing is coming to a head in New Mexico’s busy legislative session. With just weeks to go before it ends on March 20, lawmakers have introduced dozens of bills aimed at reforming law enforcement and several have progressed through committees. As a share of total introduced legislation, bills related to policing doubled this year over previous sessions, according to data from Legislative Council Service. 

But it’s uncertain whether the state, which has one of the highest rates of fatal police shootings in the country, will take significant action. Save a requirement passed in last July’s special session that law enforcement statewide wear body cameras, the Legislature hasn’t enacted any major legislation related to policing in years. According to Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque, the quantity of proposals this year reflects the urgency of the moment.

Push to end private prisons stymied by concerns for local economies

Three years ago, New Mexico incarcerated about 7,400 people. Since then, the prison population has dropped, mirroring a national trend. It’s estimated that by 2025 the average prison population could be 4,938. The reasons for the declining prison population are unclear, according to a report prepared by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico for the New Mexico Sentencing Commission.  

But if that trend continues, legislative analysts say, the Department of Corrections would have to find just 456 new beds, on average, if New Mexico were to end the use of private prisons after more than two decades and transfer all privately held prisoners to public facilities by 2025.The statistic is buried in a legislative analysis prepared for lawmakers considering legislation introduced by Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, the latest attempt to end New Mexico’s use of private prisons.

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Sen. Wirth seeks to close dark money loophole

Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, is seeking to tighten a so-called “loophole” in New Mexico’s campaign finance laws that allowed a dark money group to hide its donors during the 2020 election. “I do think we need to continue our work to be sure that voters know who’s donating to independent expenditure committees,” Wirth said during a hearing today before the Senate Rules Committee. “This bill is a baby step.”

In 2020, the nonprofit Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers (CPNMC) argued it didn’t have to disclose who funded $264,000 spent on mailers sent to voters, taking advantage of an exception in the campaign reporting act that allows a group to keep donors secret when they request in writing that their contributions not be used for political spending. 

Underlined language that SB 387 would add to the Campaign Reporting Act. Wirth’s Senate Bill 387 would require outside spenders to separate those kinds of contributions from money given for political spending, keeping them in a segregated bank account in order to be legally shielded from disclosure, leaving less room for groups to use that exemption to their advantage. “It’s an attempt to just figure out where the dollars are coming from,” Wirth said about the fix to outside spending transparency laws that Wirth championed for more than a decade and that became law in 2019

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver spoke briefly in support of the bill, praising Sen. Wirth’s prior work on bringing more transparency to political spending.

Why should we care about dark money?

If there’s one thing that’s dominated my reporting over the eight months I’ve spent with New Mexico in Depth, it’s dark money; it was the subject of my first story, and almost half the stories I’ve reported since then. Bryan Metzger

For the uninitiated, “dark money” typically refers to outside spending by nonprofit entities that are not obligated to disclose their donors, at least under federal law. In 2019, New Mexico passed a law to force these kinds of organizations to disclose their donors, but in 2020, two groups challenged the law rather than comply with it, underscoring the difficulty in bringing to light what special interests are behind political spending. 

This morning, we published a story that took a deep dive on one of these groups– the “Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers”– which spent $264,000 advocating for the passage of a constitutional amendment to change the state’s Public Regulation Commission (PRC) from a five-member elected body to a three-member appointed body, beginning in 2023. It was the first time I’d really attempted to get to the source of a dark money group’s funds, rather than simply report on a lack of disclosure. What we found were some strange bedfellows.

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.

Serious Challenges in the 2021 Session

With the demise of “moderate” Senate Democrats in the 2020 election, New Mexico’s Legislature again shifts leftward. As New Mexicans turn their attention toward 2021 the state remains in the throes of COVID 19 and the virus shows no signs of letting up. Paul Gessing, President, Rio Grande Foundation

What does all of this mean for the 2021 Session? For starters there are real questions about the logistics of a 60-day session under COVID. A “Zoom” special session like we had in June is one thing, but a 60-day session is much different.

Fusion Voting in New Mexico: Bringing More Voters and More Choices Into Our Democracy

The New Mexico Legislature has made great strides in the last few years toward opening up our state elections to more voters. Same-day voter registration was passed in 2019, automatic voter registration was codified and they made it easier to vote absentee.  Historic turnout in 2020, especially among first time and younger voters is evidence these democracy reforms worked. 

Eric Griego, Executive Director of Working Families Party New Mexico

The 2021 session has several proposals that build on past success, including increasing access to polling sites especially in tribal communities, opening primaries to independent and minor party voters, and using ranked choice voting for certain elections. 

You may also hear about an important “new” proposal called “fusion voting.” While new to many, fusion voting has been used successfully in several states for centuries, before it was targeted by major parties for elimination. In the simplest terms, fusion voting is a system that allows multiple political parties to support the same candidate. Under fusion voting, a Democratic candidate nominated by the Working Families Party would appear on the WFP ballot line in the election, or similarly a Republican candidate endorsed by the Conservative Party would appear on their line. Fusion voting was a common practice in New Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In 1896 the Populist Party in New Mexico endorsed Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Harvey Butler Ferguson and the platform of the state Democratic party as well.  There were fusion candidates in Rio Arriba, Socorro, Sierra, Lincoln and Otero counties in the 1910 election.  In the 1916 elections, “Independents fused with Democrats in the counties of the Hispano north; the Progressive Party handed its delegates over to the Democratic nominating convention; and county Democrats effectively invited unhappy Republicans into their camp,” wrote Dr. Phillip Gonzales in the New Mexico Historical Review in 2015. 

But like in many other states, progress made under fusion was targeted for elimination as major parties made a play to consolidate power.

Absence of watchdog groups means lawmakers must proceed with caution

With news that the 2021 legislative session would be held virtually – with the public and lobbyists prohibited from being in the capitol building – it’s likely that legislative agendas are being adjusted. For interested citizens, lobbyists and state agencies charged with reporting to or suggesting reforms to the Legislature, the most important question may be how to participate in the upcoming session – in floor sessions, committee meetings, and with all important personal visits with individual legislators – in order to protect the public interest. Kathleen Sabo, Executive Director, New Mexico Ethics Watch

Because we have a citizen legislature, with short sessions and limited full-time and seasonal staff available to legislators, lawmakers often rely upon lobbyists to educate them about legislation, particularly complex legislation.  That element will also be missing. So, what do we wish for in the upcoming session and how do we accomplish it? The newly formed State Ethics Commission filled a void in state government.  Within the legislation enabling the commission (2019’s SB 668), not only is the commission required to submit an annual report to the Legislature and governor that includes recommendations regarding state ethics laws, the Legislature was specifically charged with making recommendations during this upcoming session on any changes to the Campaign Reporting Act, the Voter Action Act and the Lobbyist Regulation Act, “necessary for the efficient administration and enforcement of the provisions” of these acts.

Focus on Judicial Public Financing, Redistricting, Open Primaries This Session

This past year, Common Cause New Mexico—along with many other groups— spent the majority of our time ensuring that this historic pandemic did not deter New Mexico citizens from exercising their most important right: the right to vote.  For months, we worked with community partners to instruct voters on registration and absentee voting, worked with county clerks and Native American groups to ensure ballot access, ran a hotline, and fielded hundreds of election protection volunteers for the general and primary elections.  We are delighted with our state’s record (68%) turnout and our hats are off to all of the poll workers, election officials, community advocates, and especially, the numbers of engaged voters who made this happen. We hope that many of the policies that helped make voting easier this year will continue into the future. And now, onto the 2021 Legislative Session. Our first legislative priority is the expansion of public financing to district court judges. Currently, this voluntary system covers only the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.  Expanding our currently successful state program is the best way to ensure that our judges are protected from potential conflicts of interest.

Urban or rural, New Mexicans are united in push for progress

I’m a 12th generation Nuevo Mexicana (give or take a few generations). My family can trace their presence in this region from time immemorial to well before the time this land was Mexico, a U.S. territory and eventually the 47th state. I’m as New Mexican as they get. My blood type is red or green. I will argue the virtue of the New Mexico blue sky with anyone, any day.