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.

Lawmakers move bills to tackle housing crisis

Two affordable housing measures that aim to tackle a sprawling housing crisis in New Mexico  are in a race against time with eight days left in the 2022 legislative session. 

Currently, across the state lower-income renters grapple with a vast shortage of affordable and available rental units, homelessness ticks upward, and tenants face quick eviction proceedings in court for nonpayment of rent, according to Attorney Maria Griego in a New Mexico In Depth story published in January. 

Senate Bill 134, would inject more money into the New Mexico Housing Trust Fund to bolster programs that help people around the state get into housing and create more affordable housing. 

Sponsored by Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, and Rep. Nathan P. Small, D-Las Cruces, Senate Bill 134 passed the Senate on Monday 37 to 3, and heads to the House of Representatives where it awaits a hearing in just one committee, the House Taxation and Revenue Committee.The legislation would create year-after-year revenue — called recurring in Roundhouse lingo — for the state’s Housing Trust Fund, by earmarking 2.5% of the state’s senior severance tax bond capacity allocated each year. The approximate value of the infusion would be $25 million in fiscal years 24 and 25, a significant boost over the usual annual allocation for the housing fund, which has fluctuated from $5 million this fiscal year to zero dollars in the fiscal year that ended in June 2018. 

On the Senate floor, Rodriguez said that for every dollar put into the fund, it generates at least 29 to one in return. “Why is it that we have such big problems in New Mexico with affordable housing?” she asked, noting skyrocketing costs that mean many have to spend more than 50% of their income on a mortgage or rental payment and don’t have any funds left to provide for their families. “Our mental health issues, behavioral health issues, problems that are just huge in New Mexico, all are linked to somebody being homeless or the financial stresses of not being able to provide a payment for their home,” she said. 

The bill received widespread endorsements on the floor from numerous legislators. 

“I’d like to remind the body that all of us are one catastrophic event away from … losing the security of our homes,” said Sen. Carrie Hamblen, D-Doña Ana, who noted that she had served previously for four years as president of the board of directors of the Mesa Valley Community of Hope, a nonprofit organization that serves homeless people in Doña Ana County. 

Not everyone was on board with the bill. Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, objected to creating an annual appropriation.

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.

ICYMI: Amid record revenue, lawmakers fail to address risk of waste and fraud

Legislative Finance Committee analysts described over reliance on emergency procurement as resulting from mismanagement in their October report. Legislative analysts have repeatedly warned since 2016 that government agencies’ increasing reliance on no-bid contracting puts New Mexico at increased risk of waste and fraud. Their most recent admonition came a month after a state grand jury indicted a former powerful lawmaker for racketeering, money laundering and kickbacks related to a no-bid contract. 

Lawmakers have largely ignored those warnings; in fact, a bill pre-filed for the legislative session starting Tuesday in Santa Fe appears to create new exemptions to the procurement code. Nor is reform a high priority for Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, whose three years in office have been marked by a sharp rise in no-bid contracting. 

“Such an item is not currently an element of the agenda,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham, who has the power to set this year’s 30-day legislative agenda, as lawmakers are otherwise limited to budget matters. “But the governor’s office will, as always, review and evaluate potential initiatives.” 

Since 2019, Lujan Grisham’s first year in office, her administration has circumvented competitive bidding on at least 886 occasions, approving sole-source and emergency contracts worth more than $796 million, greatly outpacing her Republican predecessor, according to New Mexico In Depth’s analysis of reports from state agencies under Lujan Grisham’s control.

Lawmakers push forward housing bills

Two housing measures aimed at alleviating New Mexico’s housing crisis passed their first legislative committees this week, but with just over three weeks in the session, the bills face a race against time and numerous legislative hearings. 

The bills mean to address a multi-layered housing crisis in which overall homelessness has increased, eviction has become a greater threat for low-income renters, and homes for low-income renters or first-time homebuyers are in short supply. The problems are interconnected, with greater demand for housing pushing rents up, and lower-income families finding it increasingly difficult to afford shelter.   

The pandemic has only aggravated the situation. “In the past year, rent has increased 13.7 percent nationwide and 18.5 percent in Albuquerque,” according to legislative analysts in a fiscal impact report for Senate Bill 19 in which they cited statistics from the Yardi Matrix National Multifamily Report.  The fiscal impact report, based on data from the New Mexico Association of Realtors, also noted a steep rise in home prices, with the median home sale price jumping from $185,000 in 2016 to $290,500 in 2021. 

Senate Bill 19, which cleared the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee on a unanimous vote Monday, would boost the New Mexico Housing Trust Fund by $70 million. The cash infusion would enable the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority (MFA) to significantly expand programs that help people find and stay in housing, and it would help build affordable housing outright. “We’ve always needed more homes, more affordable homes, in New Mexico,” Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, the bill’s sponsor and a Santa Fe Democrat, said during Monday’s hearing in front of the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee.

Necessary Ethics Reform Efforts Hampered by Constitutional Restrictions, Politics

Everyone who works around the Legislature – legislator, lobbyist, analyst, advocate, reporter, etc. — knows that it can take time for legislation to “ripen”. That sometimes moving in a new direction from what is currently in statute or what is commonplace can take years of lead time and advocating for a change or for reform. And sometimes there are issues that arrive with such exigency that they are embraced with apparent immediacy and acknowledgment of the necessity for action. This year saw the indictment of a powerful state representative on multiple corruption charges.

Common Cause New Mexico Goes Back to the Basics for 2022 Session

2021 has been a long year. Starting with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, it  extended through attempts made by several state legislatures to erect barriers to voting and take back the authority to determine election results themselves rather than basing it on the tabulations of election officials—and votes cast by citizens.  Here in New Mexico we are fortunate to have robust election administration at the state and local levels, with secure,  accurate and accessible elections open to all qualified voters. But that does not mean we need to rest on our laurels. This session, Common Cause will focus on strengthening some of the basic safeguards to democracy at the local and state level.  Our priorities may not elicit much razzle dazzle, but we believe in adequately funding some of the protections we already have established in the new Ethics Commission and in the Secretary of State’s Office.

Little-known public health councils are key to public health but chronically underfunded

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the limits of New Mexico’s understaffed and highly centralized public health system. 

Unlike most other states, New Mexico does not have county-based health boards. Instead, public health services like vaccination have traditionally fallen to the chronically understaffed state health department, which has struggled to contain the pandemic’s spread. “The big lesson is that we’ve underfunded public health,” said Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque. “Our infrastructure was woefully inadequate and now we’re paying the price.”

That includes funding for the state’s 42 county and tribal comprehensive community health planning councils that, in the absence of local health boards, fill an important role identifying local public health gaps and needs. Many of the health councils have gone beyond their statutory mandates, in recent months, to pitch in with local COVID response efforts – helping to coordinate local testing and vaccination efforts, get word out to local residents about where they can get booster shots, and at times serving as an important channel of communication between state health officials and local governments. 

But the health councils are woefully underfunded, despite legislation passed in 2019 that expanded their mandates and directed the health department to provide them more funding.

A fair and equitable recovery starts with supporting women of color

New Mexicans share a belief that all of us – no matter where we live, how we look, or what we believe – deserve access to the same opportunities that help us achieve our unique potential. These opportunities – receiving a quality education, and having access to affordable health care, jobs that pay family-sustaining wages, and safe and affordable housing – are often referred to as social determinants of health and they impact everything from the conditions surrounding our births to the length of our lives. The COVID-19 pandemic made it apparent that these opportunities are not universally available and their lack has led to lower-quality social determinants of health for some communities. Clearly, communities of color and those earning low incomes were hardest hit by the pandemic as well as the economic aftermath. But another aspect that hasn’t gotten as much notice is how the pandemic and recession have hurt women more than men, with women of color being hurt the most.