Legislature 2021

Busy session delivers

By Sherry Robinson 3-25
Independent correspondent
            If area lawmakers only came home with an impact aid bill, that might have been enough. This year, they came home with that and more.
            During an extraordinary legislative session carried out mostly online, lawmakers successfully moved education, economic development, police reform, and transportation bills that will have local impacts.     
Impact aid
            Different lawmakers have tried for a decade to budge legislative thinking on impact aid. Last year a bill made progress, thanks to the direct involvement of House Speaker Brian Egolf, only to die in the Senate Education Committee.
            This year several things helped HB 6 across the finish line.
“What helped pull it over the top was the full engagement by (Sen.) Mimi Stewart,” Lundstrom said. “She really understands those funding formulas. I’m not a teacher. I look at everything strictly as a budget item. It helped to have someone who had worked in a school district.”
Senate President Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat, is a retired teacher. This year she too had an impact aid bill.
            “When we pulled together, we got a bill that was the best of both,” said Lundstrom, who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
HB 6 ends the state’s old, unjust practice of taking credit for 75% of federal impact aid received by schools serving Native American students and reducing state funding to those schools. Impact aid compensates districts for the lack of taxable property in areas with federal lands.
The state won’t just shower money on the Gallup-McKinley County Schools, however. Stewart wanted to see reporting, and Lundstrom agreed. Stewart also wanted public school capital outlay to weigh how schools spent their unrestricted money on projects going back 10 years.
“I wasn’t going to do that,” Lundstrom said. “We just got money to build teacherages. For the last 50 years, we were barely meeting the minimum.”
Lundstrom wanted to restrict spending; Stewart didn’t. HB 6 doesn’t restrict spending but requires districts to prioritize spending on Native American education, at-risk students, and capital outlay.
A major difference from past years is that HB 6 doesn’t affect budgets of other school districts because there was money in the budget to maintain everybody’s budget.
Lundstrom’s co-sponsors were Reps. Harry Garcia, D-Grants and Wonda Johnson, D-Church Rock; and House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.
Senate Finance
Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, marked his first year as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
“I think we did alright,” he said. “We had tons of one-time money to spend. We did a lot with it.”
His challenge was having five freshman legislators on the committee who didn’t know anything about the budget and Republicans whose only desire was to cut. Most didn’t know the difference between one-time money and reoccurring money.
“I tried to work with the freshmen and the Republicans to help them understand the budget,” Munoz said. “It was really a struggle. The Republicans wanted to cut, but they didn’t know what they wanted to cut. They had a mantra: ‘We’re gonna vote against the budget.’”
He predicted that two years from now lawmakers will be cutting the budget because the president paused drilling on federal land.
            Munoz said he worked to make the process more transparent. “We did everything in the open,” he said. “Every legislator can see what we did. We did all our language out in the open.”
            Before moving up to chair Senate Finance, Munoz earned his spurs chairing pension reform, a thankless task. “As a legislator, you get what you put in. You have to make real decisions and not political decisions.”
            This session, he was proud that his committee stripped tax increases out of a bill that otherwise was intended to help low-income families. “It’s important to set a trend,” he said.
And the committee added money to the early childhood education bill and expanded it to help K-12.
            For his care and concern for the people of New Mexico, the Senate presented Munoz with its Milagro Award on the last day of the session.
Economic Development
            In economic development, it was win some, lose some.
            “Two incredibly important bills,” Lundstrom said, were HB 270 and SB 133. “Both are completely important to Gallup.”
HB 270, the autonomous vehicle bill by Lundstrom and Garcia, passed. It would allow self-driving cars and commercial motor carriers to use New Mexico roads. And it would provide for permitting, testing, regulation, and accident investigation.
“Right now, New Mexico has a unique opportunity to be a national leader in this emerging industry,” Garcia said.
            SB 133, a duplicate bill to Lundstrom’s HB 325, passed. It awards grants to local governments to help airlines establish scheduled service for rural communities by providing minimum revenue guarantees.
            Garcia was a co-sponsor.
“There’s $9 million in the budget for rural air service,” Lundstrom said. “Getting passenger service back to Gallup is incredibly important.”
            Two bills stalled.
SB 5, by Munoz, was intended to help attract big projects by allowing state and local communities to place half of a project’s gross receipts tax receipts in the LEDA (Local Economic Development Act) fund to reimburse the company for certain costs. A portion would remain in the fund to help recruit other large projects.
The New Mexico Chamber of Commerce is still talking about this bill and hopes it will be heard during the special session later this month.
 Lundstrom’s HB 5 would have added members to the board of directors of the McKinley County Electric Generating Facility Economic District Authority, among other things.
Police reform, voting
            In the last minutes of the session, two bills sprinted to the end.
Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque and a member of Acoma Pueblo, must have wondered if her voting bill would survive. The House had spent hours debating a controversial bill, and Louis’s HB 231 only needed House concurrence to changes made in the Senate, which she got. HB 231 prevents the closure or consolidation of polling places on tribal lands during emergencies.
Munoz needed only concurrence on his police reform bill, SB 375, which would make the Law Enforcement Academy Board responsible for training and shift disciplinary proceedings and certification to a new, independent board. He got it as the clock ticked toward the close

​Predatory lending

By Sherry Robinson 3-12
Independent correspondent
            For a brief time on Friday, a bill to slash storefront lending rates took a detour that blindsided its sponsors but was rescued by parliamentary maneuvering.
            Predatory, or storefront lending, is one of the more debated subjects in the Legislature. Over the years, lawmakers have carved the interest rates from 400% to 175%. SB 66 would bring it down again. 
            Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, told the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee that the bill is a priority for the governor. It would cap the annual percentage rate, or APR, at 36%, but the rate could float upward with the prime rate during periods of inflation.
“The current 175% cap is a drain on the economy because 85% of lenders are headquartered out of state,” Soules said. “It sucks money out of the bottom of the economy.”
Supporters include the Credit Union Association of New Mexico, Navajo Nation, Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, Native American Voters Alliance, and McKinley County.
Representatives from credit unions say they’re already making small, unsecured loans.
Winona Nava, president and CEO of Guadalupe Credit Union in Santa Fe, said “We’re already making small-dollar, unsecured loans.”
Nava said that because the average person doesn’t understand interest rates and the consequences of refinancing, her credit union has heard many horror stories. One borrower took out a small loan with monthly payments of $1,334. When she couldn’t make the monthly payment, she went to a second storefront lender. In four months she paid $5,000 in interest and was facing total interest due of $54,000.
“Then she came to the credit union and we were able to help her,” Nava said. “We’ve done this with many borrowers. We’re member owned, so we don’t have to make a profit.”
Ron Moorehead, CEO of First Financial Credit Union, said his institution, which has 60 branches, is making loans as small as $100.
“We don’t make money on these loans, but we hope that when people get back on their feet they’ll come back for a car loan,” he said.
Maria Griego, of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said her organization helped an elderly veteran living in his vehicle who borrowed money for a medical emergency. Within a month the loan went from $382 to $4,000.
“This is not an uncommon story,” she said. “These loans have ruined lives.”
            Storefront lenders admit there are some bad actors in the business, but they provide access to credit to people who would otherwise have no recourse.
            Raymond Sanchez, who was once House Speaker, said installment loan companies have operated for decades and shouldn’t be considered predatory.
            Tony Tanner, a small lender with offices in Gallup and Farmington, said he appreciates that credit unions are willing to step up to fill the gap, but it shouldn’t be done by legislating others out of business.
            Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas, said people who are denied loans at 36% should have the option of borrowing at higher rates. She then surprised Soules and his co-sponsors with an amendment that would allow those unable to get a loan at 36% to get a loan at up to 125%. The lender could make the decision based on credit score.
            Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque and a co-sponsor of SB 66, said, “People in the worst position to repay would get the most expensive loan.” She also questioned what incentive lenders would have to use the lower rate.
            Soules argued that the amendment effectively changed the cap from 36% to 125%. A third sponsor, Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Española, said the125% rate would kill the bill.
            The committee voted to adopt the amendment.
Rep. Linda Serrato, D-Santa Fe, voted with Republicans to adopt the amendment out of concern that credit unions might not be able to meet the demand for small loans. Then she had a change of heart and asked to strike the amendment. Republicans responded with a series of tabling motions.
Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, said the bill raises bigger issues: “Why are so many people unbankable in New Mexico?” He’s also noticed that consumer advocates pushed the lending bills year after year without support from banks and credit unions. Now the credit unions were participating. He said he continued to be troubled that storefront lenders “can profit off people’s desperation.”
In the end, the committee stripped Fajardo’s amendment and passed the bill on a party-line vote of 6 to 4. With a week left in the session, it goes on to the House Judiciary Committee.

Liquor law changes

By Sherry Robinson 3-11
Independent correspondent
New Mexico could see the first major liquor reform in 40 years. HB 255 is on its way to the governor after a long debate and a whopping six amendments on the Senate floor.
            One amendment, by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, singles out McKinley County for restrictions on convenience stores.
            Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto on Tuesday said the bill begins to restructure “our relationship with alcohol as citizens and as a state.”
            The 75-page, bipartisan HB 255 allows liquor stores, dispensers, craft distillers, winegrowers, and small brewers to deliver alcohol. Restaurants can deliver drinks with food orders. The bill creates a new, more affordable liquor license for restaurants that allows them to serve hard liquor and mixed drinks, but McKinley County is exempted from this provision. And it offers a $200,000 tax deduction and fee waivers to protect the investments of existing liquor license holders.
            The most controversial aspect of HB 255 is its potential impact on “legacy licenses,” the liquor licenses that owners have invested in, sometimes at great expense.
            “People have licenses that they treat like their personal property,” Ivey-Soto said. “The license is not theirs, it’s the state’s.”
For legacy license holders, HB 255 provides a $200,000 tax deduction and waives annual renewal fees for 5 years.
            Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, got the bill amended to prohibit sale of minis (bottles of liquor 3 ounces or less) except at hotels or golf courses where they can be consumed on site. Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, agreed, saying too often at gas stations and convenience stores, he’s seen people buy minis, add them to fountain soft drinks right on the counter, walk out, and get in their cars.
            Two senators argued that consumers would just buy the smallest container available, but the amendment passed.
            Sen. George Muñoz introduced an amendment to limit convenience store liquor sales in McKinley County to beer. He said that his community had struggled with alcohol sales for years. During the COVID-19 outbreak, when people in detox were testing positive for the virus, stores were asked to reduce sales of alcohol, he said. They refused, and there was an outbreak.
            “This would help McKinley County tremendously,” he said.
            When senators questioned why the amendment should apply to one county, Muñoz explained, as he has many times before, why Gallup isn’t like other communities. 
            Muñoz described the rush of customers he’s seen at 10 a.m., when the stores can begin selling liquor. He described five convenience stores within one mile selling liquor. One in particular sells bottles of vodka so quickly it doesn’t even bother shelving the bottles and keeps boxes behind the register. He described his father’s march from Gallup to Santa Fe to close drive-up windows 40 years ago.
            “People are dying in the street. They’re dying in the cold,” he said. “We have agencies trying to pick them up, but they don’t get them all.”
            Ivey-Soto said: “In McKinley County there is a relationship with alcohol that’s distinct from every place else. Anything we can do to support the people of McKinley County, we should.”
            Several senators thought the restriction should be a local option for all counties, but others thought it would complicate HB 255 and make it harder to pass.
            Sen. Martin Hickey, D-Albuquerque, said that as a young physician he worked for seven years on the Navajo Nation and saw kids who died after drinking a quart of hard liquor.
“People got their alcohol in Gallup and brought it to the middle of the reservation,” Hickey said. “It was the work (Muñoz’s) father did that really had an impact. The amendment is very humane.”
            Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, said that restricting sales in Gallup will drive people north to buy alcohol. When Gallup closed during the COVID crisis, liquor stores on the reservation border benefitted.
“Those who weren’t mobile started drinking hand sanitizer,” she said.
            Muñoz responded, “We have more liquor licenses in McKinley County per capita than New York City.”
            The amendment passed, with Pinto voting against it.
Other amendments removed the 2% tax on individual drink sales, required ID checks for each alcohol delivery, made Sunday hours of sale the same as week-day hours, and called for a study by the state Department of Health after five years on the effects of alcohol deliveries in New Mexico.
Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, called the bill “the best example of sausage making we’ve had.” Liquor license holders lose a little, but the bill helps out restaurants and modernizes liquor licenses, he said. Others thought the bill would be good for tourism.
Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, was heavily involved in crafting the bill. “We’ve done our best to balance the needs of license holders with the needs of the state. It is a tough lift,” he said.
Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, said the bill would have an impact on the value of liquor licenses. A constituent told him that “just because we’re discussing it, the bank asked for more collateral.” A few license holders would bear the brunt of the impact, he said.
            The bill passed the Senate 29 to 11, on a nonpartisan vote. Sponsors, besides Ivey-Soto, are Reps. Moe Maestas and Dayan Hochman-Vigil, Albuquerque Democrats; House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington; and Rep. Joshua Hernandez, R-Rio Rancho.
Separately, a second bill to waive renewal fees for liquor licenses for a year passed both chambers and was signed by the governor. SB 2, a pandemic relief measure, applies to all license holders. It would cost the state more than $3.4 million, according to a legislative analysis.
Marie Chioda has been watching the liquor reform bill move through the Legislature with anxiety about what it means for the liquor license her family has held for decades and the business she and her husband Sammy operate: Rocket Café, Liquors and Lounge.
“Everyone is sitting on pins and needles,” said Chioda, who is also president of the Gallup-McKinley County Chamber of Commerce. “It will change the look of convenience stores. It will change the look of dispensers. It will devalue liquor licenses.”
The bill has changed so many times in the legislative process that “it’s hard to speak on it,” she said. “It’s like a football game with the ball going back and forth.”
HB 255 was amended three times in the House, once in committee, and six times in the Senate.
“Any time a bill gets amended that heavily, it should give us pause,” said Bill Lee, CEO of the chamber. “The intent of the bill is good, but it’s cumbersome and difficult to navigate.” Owners of liquor licenses see the potential for their licenses to decline in value.
Legislators tried to ease the pain for license holders with a tax credit and by waiving fees.
“The rub is that the licenses cost $400,000 to $800,000 in New Mexico,” Lee said. “They’ve offered a $200,000 tax credit over five years, but that’s half the value of the investment. During the pandemic they’ve used the licenses as collateral for loans to keep themselves afloat.”
Said Chioda: “We are just now coming out of a pandemic that did damage to the restaurant industry and the mom and pops by the closures. The banks will call the notes. People have notes against these licenses. In Gallup there are only a handful of us who aren’t chains and who own these licenses. We’re stressed out wondering what’s going to happen.”
Another strike against it, Chioda and Lee said, is that McKinley County is excluded from participating in the new restaurant license that would allow them to sell up to three mixed drinks with dinner.
The amendment by Sen. George Muñoz, which confines establishments selling gasoline to beer sales only, may have unintended consequences.
“What I’ve heard from convenience stores is, ‘Fine, we’ll stop selling gasoline,’” Lee said. “It’s really hard to legislate things on a social level.”
Chioda said that initially the New Mexico Restaurant Association backed the bill but then took a neutral position as the implications for some members became more clear.
The governor has supported the concept of liquor reform and said this week that her office needed time to evaluate the amendments.
“I hope she studies it and considers the business impact,” Chioda said. “This Legislature hasn’t been business friendly at all, especially coming out of a pandemic where we’ve been shut down. I think they should have waited.”
Lee sees good and bad in the bill: “They’re headed in the right direction, but it’s too big a problem to solve in one session. It should have been studied in the interim with input from industry.”

​Police reform

By Sherry Robinson 3-9
Independent correspondent
George Floyd, who died last summer with a policeman’s knee on his neck, was on everybody’s mind as the Senate debated police reform. SB 375, by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, passed unanimously Monday night.
It’s the only bill of many police reform bills that’s supported by law enforcement.
“We all know we’ve had some trying times in law enforcement in the last year,” said Muñoz’s co-sponsor, Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales. “This bill redefines the role and composition of the academy board… It makes sure that law enforcement gets new and better training for the situations they’re put in.”
Muñoz said, “We’ve put all the tools. We gave the Attorney General some money to prosecute. It does a lot of good things.”
SB 375 would make the Law Enforcement Academy Board responsible for training and shift disciplinary proceedings and certification, which have been severely backlogged, to a new, independent board.
The reconstituted board would include the attorney general, the director of the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy, the directors of satellite law enforcement academies, and seven governor appointees: a lawyer from a district attorney’s office, a lawyer from the Public Defender Department, one police chief, two adult education specialists, and two citizen-at-large members with no connection to law enforcement.
Certification and misconduct oversight would shift to a new Law Enforcement Certification Board that’s administratively attached to the state Department of Public Safety. It would have nine members, with no more than five from the same political party: A retired judge as chair, a municipal police officer, a sheriff, a tribal law police officer, a plaintiff’s attorney in private practice, a private-practice attorney who represents public entities in civil rights claims, and a public defender.
Law enforcement officers, along with emergency medical personnel and fire fighters, would get new training in crisis management and intervention, mental health issues, methods of de-escalation, peer-to-peer intervention, stress management, racial sensitivity, reality-based situational training, and use-of-force training. Choke holds would be banned.
The bill mandates creation by June 2022 of a database of excessive use-of-force instances to be shared among state, local, and federal agencies. And it increases survivor benefits from $250,000 to $400,000.
“This is one piece of the puzzle,” said Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque. “With George Floyd’s killing last summer, this is a good way for us to move forward. We have had many conversations in Rules Committee with academy board members about training and use of force. This is a great opportunity. Other bills this year are other pieces.”
Lopez herself has the toughest and most controversial bill, SB 227. Initially it took away use of rubber bullets and police dogs. After many changes, it would now restrict use of physical force and require officers to intercede and report excessive use of force by a colleague. Law enforcement agencies would have to report to the state within 30 days of an incident and post the report on their website. Chokeholds would be prohibited.
Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe supports the Muñoz bill. He’s previously criticized lawmakers for leaving police out of the debate over police reform.
“What’s more disconcerting is that we’ve already told legislators how to resolve this problem: hire the best officers, train our officers using best practices, modernize policing policies and procedures, and hold bad actors accountable,” he’s written. “I’ve said this every chance I’ve had, and I’ll continue to do so until our laws reflect the change we need.”
Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, has had the same criticism.
“We support smart reform like Senate Bill 375, which provides training in de-escalation and mental health. That makes sense, and the state’s law enforcement needs that support,” he said.
The bill also has support from the New Mexico Municipal League.
SB 375 now goes to the House.
Meanwhile, another police reform bill died Sunday in the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee.SB 376 would have prohibited the use of qualified immunity in tort claims and increase the cap on medical expense and personal damages. Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that shields government officials and law enforcement from liability for actions that violate someone’s constitutional rights.

More uninsured could be covered

By Sherry Robinson 3-5
Independent correspondent
            New Mexico still has more than 214,000 people who are uninsured, but half of them qualify for some form of protection. Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, has a way to reach out and get thousands more covered.
            “There are still a lot of people in New Mexico without health insurance,” she said during a hearing of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee. “It costs all of us.”
            HB 272, the Easy Enrollment Act, allows people to check a box on their state income tax form that says they don’t have health insurance. With taxpayers’ permission, their information can then be sent to the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange and receive information. They may qualify for Medicaid or private insurance plans on the exchange.
            Gabby Rivera, of Health Action New Mexico, said the bill is modeled on a successful program in Maryland. “It’s the simplest entry point for people who may not have experience with insurance.”
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 16,855 uninsured New Mexicans are eligible for a federally subsidized bronze health insurance plan on the exchange. The state Office of the Superintendent of Insurance said Native Americans can obtain a bronze plan with no out-of-pocket costs up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level.
However, the federal government in recent years slashed the budget for outreach, according to testimony. Participants in the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange have declined from 54,653 in 2017 to 42,714 in 2020. The state Medicaid program has 925,387 enrollees.
            Colin Baillo, of the Superintendent of Insurance Office, said: “This is one of the most important insurance-related bills of the session. It offers access to care and financial protection to families. It’s important to find new and innovative ways to reach the uninsured. We’re really glad to see this creative and forward looking approach.”

            The bill is supported by Voices for Children, AARP, the New Mexico Medical Society, the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, the League of Women Voters, the New Mexico Conference of Churches, Optum Health, the New Mexico Nurse Practitioner Council, True Health New Mexico, the New Mexico Primary Care Association, and New Mexico Women’s Agenda.

Memorial: study closure of private prisons

By Sherry Robinson 
Independent correspondent 3-4
Private prisons in the state never lived up to their original promises. Legislation in the current session would close private prisons and return corrections in the state to the public sector. But what about the communities that depend on them for jobs?
Senate Memorial 7 asks lawmakers for a subcommittee to meet between sessions and study the impact of closure on communities.
The memorial responds to another measure, HB 40, that worries lawmakers like Democratic Reps. Eliseo Alcon, of Milan, and Harry Garcia, of Grants, whose communities need those jobs.
“The bill in the House is much more far reaching, but it doesn’t address community impact,” said Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque before the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday.
Thirty years ago, private prisons spread across the nation promising savings of 20 to 30%, but the federal Justice Department concluded recently that the savings were more like 1%, achieved by reducing staffing.
New Mexico has seven private prisons: Northwest New Mexico Correctional Center in Grants, Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa, Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs, Otero County Prison Facility and Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, and Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia. The contract for Otero County’s facility is up this year; the other contracts end in 2025.
New Mexico invested heavily in privatization, but in 2007 the Legislative Finance Committee found that private contractors were charging New Mexico higher per diem rates than they were in other states, according to a legislative analysis. Those contracts were never renegotiated for lowered rates.
HB 40, the Private Detention Moratorium Act, calls for the state to stop renewing contracts and phase out private prisons.
During a House Judiciary Meeting in February, Alcon, who once worked in the state prison system for two years, said inmates in public prisons aren’t necessarily treated better. He worked in a prison built for 700 inmates that then housed 1,200 to 1,300 prisoners. On Friday and Saturday nights, he said, 9 to 12 officers were on duty. Alcon said, as he has before, that corrections officers are underpaid.
“We haven’t put any money into our Department of Corrections even in the 13 years I’ve been here,” he said.
Rep. Angela Rubio, D-Las Cruces and an HB 40 co-sponsor, said she agreed there were issues, “but there are opportunities to repurpose private facilities and ways to think around these issues.”
Gary Maciel, acting director of the Adult Prison Division of the Corrections Department, said the state would lose 3,000 beds. “When it’s reasonable to convert, we will,” as the department did with the facility in Clayton, he said, but conversion requires significant planning and staffing.
Currently, 46% of New Mexico inmates are in private prisons.
In February, HB 40 passed the House Judiciary Committee 7 to 5, with Alcon joining Republicans to vote against the bill.
On Wednesday, even supporters of HB 40 welcomed SM 7 and the idea of a study on community impacts.
“I’m the Senate sponsor of the other bill,” said Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, and I support this bill. I’ve been involved in cases against private prisons. Employees and inmates are treated badly. They’re terrified to talk about it because they would be blacklisted for any job in the community. It’s a bad economic deal for the state.”
Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said: “I’ve toured various facilities. I disagree with the privatization of an essential government function. I appreciate this bill. The state needs to look at transitioning to public facilities. What’s exciting is the prison population is on the downswing. It’s what happens when we focus on rehabilitation. We have a huge opportunity here. How do we put in place a transition? We hope you return next year with a bill on the call.”
New Mexico’s prison population has been falling year-over-year since December 2018, according to a legislative analysis. The Corrections Department projects an 18% decrease this year compared with fiscal 2017.
The memorial seeks a joint subcommittee of two interim committees, the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee and the Economic and Rural Development Committee, to study ways to reduce the economic fallout from closing private prisons. The subcommittee would also look at economic diversification and improvements to corrections. It would report by Oct. 15.
The memorial passed 5 to 2. It now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Impact aid bill sails through House

By Sherry Robinson 3-3
Independent correspondent
At 11:20 p.m. on Monday night, Rep. Patty Lundstrom got her impact aid bill passed by the House. It was the second to last bill of a marathon seven-hour floor session, and there wasn’t a breath of discussion, probably because exhausted House members were out of words. It passed 67 to 1 and now goes to the Senate.
HB 6 would end the state’s decades-old practice of taking credit for 75% of federal impact aid received by schools serving Native American students and then reducing state funding to those schools by that amount. Impact aid is supposed to compensate for the lack of taxable property in areas with federal lands. By taking impact aid, the state caused years of inequity and imbalance and left districts like Gallup McKinley and Zuni underfunded.
It requires districts to budget the money for Native American education, capital outlay, building improvements, and community schools. And it has a hold-harmless provision that will keep the budgets of other school districts intact.
Sponsors of the bill, with Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat, are Reps. Harry Garcia, D-Grants and Wonda Johnson, D-Church Rock; and House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.
About a half hour earlier and past Rep. Eliseo Alcon’s bedtime, the House passed House Joint Resolution 3, which he was carrying for the Labor Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which he chairs.
HJR 3 would increase the property tax exemption for honorably discharged members of the armed forces and their widows and widowers from $4,000 to $10,000.
“Providing an increased exemption on their property taxes is one important way to show our appreciation and help decrease their financial burdens,” said Alcon.
The measure passed unanimously and now goes to the Senate. Ultimately it must be approved by voters.

Economic development bill would use LEDA 
Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, is carrying a massive bill, HB 5, intended to help spur economic development. It’s nearly identical to HB 11, signed by the governor last week.
HB 11 will provide grants to small and medium-sized businesses, depending on how much hiring they do.
On the Senate floor, an amendment removed a second piece of HB 11 and added it to Munoz’s HB 5. It would allow the state to share tax revenues with companies for LEDA projects over $350 million. Some 75% of state gross receipts tax and compensating tax revenues for construction would go into the LEDA fund and could be used to reimburse the company for eligible costs. The remainder would stay in the LEDA fund to help recruit other large projects. 
Munoz said earlier this month that HB 5 would incentivize larger companies to come to New Mexico.
“It makes the state more competitive,” he said. “Projects like this don’t come along very often. We have LEDA balances on some projects but we struggle with bigger deals.”
Business groups support the bill, which is currently in the Senate Finance Committee, which Munoz chairs.

Self-driving vehicles bill passes another hurdle 
            The autonomous vehicle bill by Reps. Patty Lundstrom and Harry Garcia, D-Grants, passed the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee on Monday.
HB 270 would allow autonomous vehicles – self-driving cars and commercial motor carriers – to use New Mexico roads. It would allow “platooning,” in which a group of autonomous vehicles travel closely together, each communicating with the other vehicles. And it would provide for permitting, testing, regulation, and accident investigation.
            “We see this as a potential new industry,” Lundstrom said.
            She and Garcia are part of a working group that includes the state Department of Transportation and industry experts trying to produce a bill to bring New Mexico up to speed with a developing industry.
            During a committee meeting on Zoom with 22 attendees, attorney Ariel Wolf, with the Self-driving Coalition for Safer Streets, cautioned committee members against a proposed amendment to the bill, saying the industry is still innovating, and new rules could be counterproductive.
            Currently Daimler Benz is making daily runs between Albuquerque and the Texas line, and TuSimple is operating across the state. The companies inform the state where they are.
            Rep. Anthony Maestas, D-Albuquerque, who chairs the committee, said it’s a cutting edge industry. As the working group continues to modify the bill, he said he was confident their goal was to make sure New Mexico can participate in a meaningful way.

Higher ed could help with Yazzie-Martinez response

By Sherry Robinson 3-1
Independent correspondent
Higher education would receive $26.2 million for higher education programs to help schools respond to the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit under a bill passed Monday by the House Education Committee.
HB 87 funding would go to these institutions: $12.2 million to the University of New Mexico, $3.1 million to New Mexico Highlands University, $950,000 to New Mexico State University, $950,000 to Northern New Mexico College, and $9 million for Navajo Technical University, Diné College, and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute.
Institutions would use the money for recruiting and training Native teachers, administrators and educational leaders; college and career readiness programs for Native students; indigenous curriculum and materials development centers; indigenous technical assistance centers; social and health support services for Native students; and technical assistance for shared responsibility in education governance. 
            The bill is one of four focused on Native American education. HB 84 would help tribes with language education. HB 85 would appropriate $21.7 million for grants to the state’s tribes and pueblos for planning, culturally relevant curricula, assessment tools, construction, program evaluation, after-school and summer school programs, and improved network operations and internet access. HB 86 seeks $94.8 million over four years for reservation broadband and tribal libraries.
The four bills were developed by tribal communities and education experts in the Tribal Education Alliance in response to the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, in which a judge ruled that the state was failing at-risk, poor, and minority children.
Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said funding from HB 87 would support a pipeline for Native American educators, create two curriculum development and training center, and establish two Native American technical assistance centers.
His co-sponsors are Reps. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, and Wonda Johnson, D-Church Rock.
According to a legislative analysis, the House Appropriations and Finance Committee has pegged $13.4 million to address Martinez-Yazzie. This includes $5.25 million for tribal departments of education and libraries to develop education blueprints and governance, $5.1 million for indigenous education initiatives, $3 million to provide culturally and linguistically relevant programming for Native American students.
The budget bill also includes: $230 million for extended learning time programs for all students and K-5 Plus extended school year programs for all at-risk elementary students, $66 million for Impact Aid schools; $296 million for at-risk students through the public school funding formula; and $2 million for early childhood workforce expansion, with a focus on Native American educators.
Proposed supplemental spending includes $9 million for Native American curricula development and instructional programs, and capital outlay includes $5 million for tribal broadband. New Mexico schools will receive $439 million from the federal government for broadband.
Altogether, according to the analysis, $1.06 billion will be available for public schools to devote attention to Native American and other at-risk students.
Lente said the $1 billion figure “is embellished quite a bit. At the moment, funding for Yazzie-Martinez is less than half the $30 million the executive asked for. Targeted funding for Native students is 0.06% of the entire state budget.”
Committee Chairman Andres Romero, D-Albuquerque, said, “We know education is in dire need of culturally responsive curriculum. The narrative is troubling when we hear there’s money out there from the federal government” and yet year after year, funding is inadequate.
The bill passed 9 to 3, with Republicans voting against. It now goes to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, where the three companion bills await hearing.

Relief for hard-hit businesses 

By Sherry Robinson 2-26
Independent correspondent
            Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday signed a bill to deliver $200 million in grants to the state’s hard-hit businesses, and other relief bills are in the pipeline.  
Because of the pandemic, the Legislature’s focus on business this year is more intense. Lawmakers are moving some massive relief measures, but other bills would lay a heavy hand on businesses.
Bill Lee, president and CEO of the Gallup-McKinley County Chamber of Commerce, said the local chamber is part of a 20-group coalition that’s keeping an eye on a handful of bills.
Business grants
HB 11 will provide grants up to $100,000 to small and medium-sized businesses during 2021 and 2022. The sponsors are House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos.
Those with the biggest losses will get priority. The size of the grant depends on hiring. Every new full-time employee qualifies the business for $5,000, with a limit of $100,000. The grants, paid out quarterly, must be used for rent, lease, or mortgage payments.
A second piece of the bill allows the state to recapture 75% of gross receipts tax revenues on new construction of large LEDA projects (over $350 million) to replenish the LEDA fund to help with future economic development.
HB 11 would be administered by the New Mexico Economic Development Department; the New Mexico Finance Authority (nmfinance.com) will process applications and payments.
Democrats describe HB 11 as a priority bill. It passed the House on a 51-16 vote and sailed through the Senate 41-1. Opponents were Republicans. 
“New Mexico will continue to get meaningful financial assistance out the door to businesses all across the state,” said Lujan Grisham. “Our economy will bounce back. And businesses will get back on their feet.”
 “House Bill 11 provides vital support to the New Mexico businesses that need it the most, and encourages those businesses to rehire workers and create new jobs for New Mexico,” said Chandler in a statement. “The second piece of the bill provides an innovative tool to bring new companies to the state and foster economic development in New Mexico.”
“We’re pleased HB 11 passed,” Lee said. “The House and Senate passed it pretty quickly.”
Business loans
A second relief bill on its way to the governor is SB 3.
“We support SB 3 for small business loans,” Lee said. “It’s taken work the Legislature did during the special session and restructured it to makes loans far more accessible.”
SB 3 offers long-term, low-interest loans up to $150,000 to New Mexico businesses and nonprofits that earned $5 million or less in 2019. The first year is interest free. The loans can be used to make changes to the business property to accommodate pandemic needs.
During the special session last summer, the Legislature passed the Small Business Recovery Act and made $400 million available for 10-year loans up to $75,000, but because of restrictions businesses borrowed only $40.5 million.
“After the passage of the original act in June, it became clear that revisions were necessary to make it easier for businesses to access these low-risk loans,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, in a statement. “The expanded Small Business Recovery Act provides an immediate lifeline to small, locally-owned businesses to help keep their doors open and payroll going as we enter the final stretch of this devastating pandemic.”
 SB 3 will offer $460 million. Businesses only need to show a significant loss during the pandemic, rather than a specific loss during two quarters, and ownership must be 51% New Mexican rather than 80%. Loans require no collateral or personal guarantee.
Sponsors hope the program will help more restaurant, hospitality and mid-size businesses.
Businesses can apply for a loan through May 2022. 
 “Our state is beginning to safely reopen, but the challenges and debts of our struggling small businesses won’t disappear overnight,” said Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, in a statement. “SB 3 provides them with the ongoing support they’ll need over the next year to keep their doors open and payroll sustained as we emerge from this pandemic together.” 
During debate, Republican opponents were concerned about loan defaults that might reduce the state’s Severance Tax Permanent Fund, the source of the money. House Minority Floor Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said the help would be unnecessary if the governor would reopen the state.
SB 3 passed the House on Thursday on a 51-17 vote, with Republicans opposed.
Renewing tourism
            A third bill on the chamber wish list would boost tourism.
            “We strongly support HB 267,” Lee said “Tourism is a big part of what we do here in Gallup. A lot of our events went by the wayside this past year.”
HB 267 would appropriate $45 million to the Tourism Department for three programs:
$7 million for Business Improvement Districts to provide destination marketing services, promote tourism, increase business retention, and support expansion.
$8 million for an event revitalization program that would support and expand existing events and bring out-of-state visitors to New Mexico’s events.
$30 million for a job training pilot program to increase skills in the leisure and hospitality workforce. This program includes a college fellowship program, professional certifications, on-the-job training, and direct mentorships
            HB 267 will create job placement and opportunities for workers to improve skills. It will also help bring tourism back into the state, said the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, formerly the Association of Commerce and Industry.
Business burdens
            On the down side, business groups are watching several bills they believe will be burdensome. From her remarks last week, it appears Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham believes it’s not the time to hamper businesses.
HB 110 undoes the minimum wage compromise of 2019 that set the wage at $12 an hour in 2024 and instead calls for $12 in 2022 and $15 in 2024. It would add high school students and tipped employees to the roster of employees receiving the minimum wage.
The New Mexico Chamber wrote that it was “actually a bit surprised to see that this bill had even been introduced considering the devastating impact that COVID has wreaked on businesses across the state… Raising the minimum wage is just too much to ask of those barely holding on.”
The bill is being held in the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee because of needed changes, and it’s not clear if it’s permanently tabled.
HB 38, the Paid Family and Medical Leave Act, would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave for workers with health emergencies and for new parents. Beginning in 2023, businesses and employees would pay into a fund to support the leave. It has no small-business exemption.
It’s been assigned to a third committee, the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. Lee said he’s asked that it be tabled. “It would be costly and onerous,” he said.
HB 20, the Healthy Workplaces Act, is the paid sick leave bill.
“No one should have to go to work sick, risking their own health or the health of others because they must pay their rent or keep their lights on,” said Chandler.
Lee said, “The bill is full of problems.”
Many small businesses already have paid sick leave, but the bill doesn’t recognize that and requires a plan that in some cases isn’t as good as what businesses already have.
The New Mexico Chamber wrote: “The bill is poorly drafted with many unintended consequences and would create perverse incentives for businesses with existing paid-time-off plans to reduce their benefits.”
HB 20 will next be heard by the House.
SB 211 would increase the corporate income tax rate for four years after 2022 and create a new tax bracket for corporations with taxable income over $1 million starting in 2023. The bill also decreases the state gross receipts tax rate and compensating tax rate from 5.125% to 5%.
            The state Economic Development Department worries about the impact of such a tax increase on its efforts to recruit and retain businesses, according to a legislative analysis. Business groups said it telegraphs to companies outside the state that New Mexico doesn’t have a stable tax climate.
            SB 211 is currently being held in the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee.


​Fill infrastructure gaps

By Sherry Robinson 2-25
Independent correspondent
An ambitious measure to take the first step toward filling infrastructure gaps in rural areas passed the House on Wednesday.
And tribes and pueblos could charge the same gross receipts tax – or more – as the neighboring counties under a bill that passed a committee on Thursday.
House Joint Resolution 9 would amend the state Constitution to allow the use of state funds to provide infrastructure to deliver essential household services to homes. This includes broadband, electricity, natural gas, water, and wastewater.
Voters would have to approve the amendment.
Currently, the anti-donation clause in the Constitution prohibits state spending for private projects. This prevents the state from providing the required match to federal money for many infrastructure projects. There are similar exceptions in place for affordable housing and economic development.
Rep. Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland, told House members that the onset of the pandemic revealed disparities. When the state Department of Health recommended hand washing, social distancing, and home schooling, it was impossible for people without running water, electricity, and broadband.
“This is not isolated to the Navajo Nation,” he said. “Some areas of southern New Mexico experience parallel situations.”
Allison’s co-sponsor, Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, said she said she got interested in the bill after working on broadband.
“Given the size of the state and the low density of population, families need help before they can get internet,” she said. “Many areas of the state are in dire circumstances.”
Asked about the specifics of investments, Chandler said the enabling legislation would be the appropriate place for that. SJR 9 is simply an authorizing measure, she said. The Legislature will determine criteria.
Some lawmakers questioned the propriety of bringing utilities to people’s homes. Allison explained that the Navajo Nation, for example, has a network of electric lines, but there are gaps.
“We just need help in some areas,” he said.
Two legislators objected to taxpayers paying for electricity or other services that they had to pay for. “It’s too broad as an approach,” said Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell.
Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, said, “I represent six counties, mostly Native lands. I have people all through the district without water. Our kids are out there. There’s no reason on God’s green earth they should be living this way.”
Rep. Roger Montoya, D-Velarde, said, “I know there’s a vast disparity between urban and rural areas.” HJR 9 is one of several bills that are “responsible and responsive to immediate needs.”
The bill passed the House on a 44-24, party-line vote with Republicans in opposition.
On Thursday, the Senate Indian, Rural and Cultural Affairs Committee passed SB 397,
by Sen. Brenda McKenna, D-Corrales and a member of Nambe Pueblo.
Gov. Brian Vallo, of Acoma Pueblo, explained that under the Joint Powers Agreement between the tribes and state, the tribal tax rate is limited to the county rate. So Acoma’s rate can be no higher than Cibola County’s 6.8125%, and yet the city of Grants nearby can tax at 8.125%.
Because of the pandemic, the pueblo’s casino is closed, other tribal businesses are slow, and tribal revenues are down, Vallo said, and tribal government needs more flexibility.
SB 397 would allow tribes to tax at rates higher than the county. Currently, taxes levied by tribes can’t exceed the county’s total of the gross receipts tax rate and local option gross receipts tax rates. The original tax deal, inked in 2003, covers all tribes except the Navajo Nation, according to a legislative analysis.
“Like any other government, there are times when tribes may need to increase their gross receipts tax rate,” wrote the state Department of Indian Affairs.
Ann Rodgers, a former tribal attorney, said there may be a fear of taxes sky rocketing, but every tribe must balance the needs for taxation and economic development. “This allows the tribe to have some freedom within the Joint Powers Agreement,” she said.
Asked about places with multiple jurisdictions, Rodgers said that even Española, which is crisscrossed by two counties and two pueblos, can choose its own gross receipts tax rate.
Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Otero, said that the Mescalero Apache Tribe can presently charge the same tax rate as Otero County. “If this enacted, Mescalero could tax at a rate greater than the county. I’m certain the tribe wouldn’t go crazy, but the law allows them to go crazy. I’m not sure that’s the right policy.”
He suggested tinkering with the bill to build in some limits.
The bill passed with McKenna’s promise to change wording curb the language. It goes next to the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee, chaired by Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, who supports the bill.


Changing police behavior

By Sherry Robinson 2-23
Independent correspondent
What do we do about bad cops? As the rhetoric has heated up this past year, it’s become clear that New Mexico’s existing system doesn’t work.
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, aims to improve police behavior by changing the training and disciplinary process.
“We want to give officers the best training we can and prosecute bad actors,” Muñoz told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday. “The goal is to stop bad behavior.”
SB 375 would modernize officer training and replace the slow and cumbersome disciplinary review process.
The bill starts by shaking up the Law Enforcement Academy Board and changing its duties. Created in 1969, the board sets requirements for hiring and certification. It’s responsible for investigations of officer misconduct and discipline, and it oversees training. The problem is that investigation of, say, a shooting takes so long that the officer can resign from one department and find a job in another. The backlog of cases numbers in the dozens.
The reconstituted board would include the attorney general, the director of the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy, the directors of satellite law enforcement academies, and seven governor appointees: a lawyer from a district attorney’s office, a lawyer from the Public Defender Department, one police chief, two adult education specialists, and two citizen-at-large members with no connection to law enforcement.
Certification and misconduct oversight would shift from the board to a newly created, independent Law Enforcement Certification Board that’s administratively attached to the state Department of Public Safety. It would have nine members, with no more than five from the same political party: A retired judge as chair, a municipal police officer, a sheriff, a tribal law police officer, a plaintiff’s attorney in private practice, a private-practice attorney who represents public entities in civil rights claims, and a public defender.
Law enforcement officers, along with emergency medical personnel and fire fighters, would get new training in crisis management and intervention, mental health issues, methods of de-escalation, peer-to-peer intervention, stress management, racial sensitivity, reality-based situational training, and use-of-force training. Choke holds would be banned.
The bill mandates creation by year end of a database of excessive use-of-force instances to be shared among state, local, and federal agencies.
A.J. Forte, executive director of the New Mexico Municipal League, told the committee during a previous hearing that the bill “makes changes on the front end to give law enforcement the tools they need.” Creating a new certification board would speed up the review process. “We want to make sure officers don’t quit one department and move to the one in the town next door.”
In a statement, the Municipal League said: “The backlog at the state’s decertification body makes it near-impossible to remove the type of law enforcement officer who subjects the public to risk. SB375 helps solve the backlog problem while offering solutions to what ails the law enforcement community: by helping hire the most-qualified applicants, creating the best policies, providing for the best training, and holding bad actors accountable.”
Local governments have asked for these changes for years, and law enforcement agencies have asked repeatedly for better training, Forte said.
Attorney General Hector Balderas said he supports overhauling the board. “No one has tackled the governance issue the way Sen. Muñoz and his group have,” he said. “I think it will serve the community very well.”
In the course of examining the bill, committee members learned that the Attorney General’s litigation division, which investigates officers, is understaffed and unfunded. “We have 62 cases going to litigation or being prosecuted,” Balderas said.
“I’m flabbergasted to learn you have no funding at all to prosecute bad cops,” said Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces.
For that reason, Muñoz added $250,000 in recurring money to the AG’s budget in SB 375, but committee members wanted the funding to go through normal budgeting, and the money was removed from the bill. Cervantes observed that Muñoz, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, could add to the AG’s budget.
The committee removed funding and passed bill. It now goes to Senate Finance.

Don't forget school bus drivers

By Sherry Robinson 2-19
Independent correspondent
Members of the Senate Education Committee on Friday had mixed feelings about a measure to pay school bus drivers more, but they supported an effort by Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, to support scholarships.
SB 307 proposes to pay school bus drivers $150 a day and pay attendants on the buses $100 a day.
Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, said that rural bus drivers may have such long routes that it’s not worthwhile for them to go home after delivering children, so they burn up a day waiting for the return trip. They’re paid only for the drive, not for their wait. Or they may have part-time jobs, but if a bus breaks down they have to leave that job to go pick up students. They’re required to have CDL licenses.
Rick Vigil, a bus driver for 40 years in northern New Mexico said, “We drive 30 or 40 miles for the bus, then do the route and go back. School bus driving has gotten more and more intensive. In the rural areas, it’s hard to find drivers.”
Drivers are paid minimum wage or a little more. Vigil said he makes $10 an hour.
School spending on transportation is lopsided. For some schools, state allocations don’t cover their costs, and they must spend operations funding on transportation, according to a legislative analysis. More than half of districts spend no operations money on transportation. There’s been little study of how districts spend their transportation money or if they could cut costs.
The state Public Education Department doesn’t know how many bus drivers there are. The analysis assumes more than 2,000.
Lobbyists for several school districts oppose the bill. Because it carries no appropriation, districts ask how they would increase pay to bus drivers. They pointed out that districts have different arrangements with their bus drivers, and some districts contract with companies to provide drivers. Still others said driver pay is a decision that should be made locally.
Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said the wages shouldn’t come out of school operations budgets. “We shouldn’t take money from the classroom,” he said.
Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said bus driver pay isn’t part of the state funding formula. “It’s a separate line item,” she said, “and there’s never enough money in that line item.”
Committee Chairman Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, said SB 307 would cost $84 million to $110 million to implement, but it was an unfunded mandate.
The committee voted twice but failed to pass or table the bill, so members settled on passing the bill with no recommendation and suggested that Campos work on it before it reaches the floor.
“Getting kids to school is so fundamental, we need to study this and give the appropriation priority,” said Sen. Martin Hickey, D-Albuquerque.
The committee passed Pinto’s Senate Joint Memorial 1, which calls for legislators to ask Congress to “forward fund” the Bureau of Indian Education Higher Education Grant Program so that the Bureau of Indian Affairs can continue to award scholarships to Native American students, even if the federal government is operating under continuing resolutions.
Forward funding covers two years in advance.
Congressional budget battles have delayed funding to the BIA, which in turn has delayed payment of college scholarships. It’s a problem for students who count on the payments.
Pinto said the same measure died on the floor in the last legislative session when lawmakers ran out of time.

Get ready for driverless trucks

By Sherry Robinson 2-18
Independent correspondent
            It’s Back to the Future in a bill by Reps. Patty Lundstrom and Harry Garcia to allow autonomous vehicles – cars and commercial motor carriers – to use New Mexico roads. It could be a boon to Gallup.
            “What this bill does is it puts New Mexico into the 21st century in dealing with a new technology,” Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat, told the House Transportation, Public Works, and Capital Improvement Committee on Thursday.
Autonomous vehicles are self-driving vehicles.
HB 270 would allow “platooning,” in which a group of autonomous vehicles travel closely together, each communicating with the other vehicles. A lead vehicle controls speed and direction. Platooning vehicles could follow others in the group more closely than the law currently allows. The bill also provides for permitting, testing, regulation, and accident investigation.
            “We’re looking at the new industry of autonomous and driverless vehicles,” Lundstrom said. “In Gallup, we’re looking at the opportunity to initiate a new industry around testing, research and development, and hosting autonomous vehicles in our area.”
            With 7,000 trucks rolling through Gallup every year, the city already has a major trucking economy, she said. “What’s happening in the trucking industry, the rail industry – it’s all about robotics now. New Mexico hasn’t engaged the way it should. This bill is the first step.”
            Jerry Valdez, director of the state Department of Transportation’s Executive Projects Office, said HB 270 would bring New Mexico in line with other states. “It brings testing to the state and sets standards” around liability, insurance and other issues.
            Charles Remkes, manager of information technology operations for NMDOT, said autonomous vehicles will ultimately improve safety and economics because 85% of crashes result from human error.
“Currently, New Mexico is one of 14 states without autonomous vehicle legislation,” Remkes said. The bill would be a stepping stone toward changing technology.
            Johnny Johnson, managing director of the New Mexico Trucking Association, told the committee that some companies are already using autonomous vehicles in the Los Angeles area, but they lack a place to refuel outside the area.
            “Gallup sits in a prime place that is going to be so important to the West Coast,” Johnson said. “Economic development will boom if we pay attention to this legislation.”
            Robert Brown, senior director of public affairs at TuSimple, a self-driving trucking company started in 2015 and now operates 200 trucks in the United States and 500 internationally.
“We’re working on Level 4 autonomous trucks,” Brown said. “The New Mexico environment has been very welcoming.”
            In his world, you don’t go from driver to driverless in one beat. There are five levels. In Level 1, one function, such as cruise control, is controlled automatically. In Level 2, steering and acceleration are automated, but the driver can take over the vehicle. In Level 3, functions are automated, but the driver is available for complications like traffic and weather. In Level 4, the vehicle is automated for a complete trip although a driver may still be present. In Level 5, the vehicle is fully automated, and a driver is not present.
            Asked how it would affect New Mexico, Lundstrom said: “It will force real infrastructure planning and design. I can’t even imagine what it will cost a small town like mine.” It might require a new lane on the interstates for driverless vehicles.
            Brown said that in general, whatever is good for human drivers is good for autonomous trucks, including good roads and good striping. “Our technology is designed to operate in today’s infrastructure.”
            Lundstrom suggested taking a percentage of road funding to plan for autonomous vehicles. “What would it look like for Gallup, Albuquerque, and other towns?” She added that some towns will want to be closely involved in planning.
            Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said: “We need to think this through carefully. I think it will be easier than we think.”
            Lundstrom responded that the biggest change will be in communications. “This only works if they can communicate. It will drive better communications.”
            Lundstrom suggested that the Transportation Committee sign on to the bill. “I’d like to see New Mexico be the lead dog in this,” she said. “I need your help in this.”
            Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants and the bill’s co-sponsor, said legislators should make sure NMDOT is properly funded to meet the anticipated costs.
“The reality is, this is going to happen,” he said. “We need to be in front of this situation.”
            Rep. Randall Pettigrew, R-Hobbs, offered his engineering expertise to the bill sponsors.
            “I need that help,” Lundstrom said. “We want the best legislation we can get through.”
            Garcia added, “It’s nice to hear bipartisanship on this bill.”                               
            HB 270 passed unanimously and now goes to the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee.

​Good year for broadband 2-12-21

By Sherry Robinson
Independent correspondent
This could be a good year for broadband. Along with federal funding aimed at improving connectivity in the state, Sen. Michael Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat with expertise in broadband legislation, has introduced six bills in this session.
One applies specifically to the McKinley County area.
In the past week the Senate Indian, Rural, and Cultural Affairs Committee passed SB 204 to force the state’s Public Regulation Commission to treat Sacred Wind Communications fairly.
SB 204 would allow Sacred Wind to receive funding from the state Rural Universal Service Fund, which provides financial support to rural telecommunications companies whose customers are unable to pay for service in their remote areas. Sacred Wind is the only rural telecom company of the 12 companies in New Mexico that doesn’t receive support from the fund.
Sacred Wind is excluded because it wasn’t established before the Rural Telecommunication Act of 1999.
“Sacred Wind has taken an all-of-the-above approach to its service area,” Padilla told the committee. The company is nationally recognized for innovation, and it’s in the middle of the pack in costs, and yet the PRC has required $1 million in unrecoverable costs to provide regulatory responses.
CEO John Badal said, “Every dollar we spend on regulation and legal fees is a dollar we can’t spend on service.” He said the company had to restrict its service area because it couldn’t get a line of credit from a bank. The state discriminates against Sacred Wind and its customers, he said.
 “We’re kicking them at every opportunity through the PRC,” Padilla said.
The same proposal got bipartisan support in 2019, passing the House but dying in the Senate. The only opposition that year was from Public Regulation Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar.
This year the bill has support from the Navajo Nation and the New Mexico Technology Council.
The New Mexico Chamber of Commerce (formerly the Association of Commerce and Industry) said it strongly supports the bill. “This bill eliminates unnecessary regulatory costs enacted by the PRC, which can then be saved and used to build more infrastructure and to better serve Navajo people and communities with high-speed internet,” the group said.
There was no opposition. The bill goes next to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Regulatory parity
Fairness is also a theme in SB 24. Padilla is trying to move the state toward parity of regulation by requiring the PRC to accelerate the transition from a regulated telecom industry to a broadband-focused competitive market. The PRC would also have to reduce filing requirements. This would primarily affect CenturyLink.
No carrier would have a greater regulatory burden than others.
The bill unanimously passed the Senate Tax, Business, and Transportation Committee and is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The New Mexico Chamber of Commerce supports the bill “because laws that allow the PRC to regulate one company more than others does not help with our needs to have more broadband to support the New Mexico's economic development efforts.”
Centralized planning
Last week, the House Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements Committee passed the Connect New Mexico Act.
Sponsors are Reps. Natalie Figueroa and Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque; Susan Herrera, D-Embudo; Candie Sweetser, D-Deming; and Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos.
HB 10 would appropriate $950,000 to centralize the planning, delivery and regulation of broadband in an Office of Broadband within the Department of Information Technology (DoIT). The bill also calls for mapping existing broadband infrastructure and assessing what’s needed to finish the job.
The Legislative Finance Committee has previously urged legislators to centralize broadband oversight.
The New Mexico Chamber of Commerce said it supports HB 10 – with concerns. “We are concerned that there are parts of the bill that are vague, and could create uncertainty, which could have the unintended consequence of limiting private capital deployment for broadband.”
The sponsors want to track the progress of deployment, the group said, but they shouldn’t discourage private investment. And by creating a new Broadband Division in the DoIT Department to monitor quality standards, the bill confers regulatory authority on the agency – something the FCC and other states don’t do.
This new regulatory approach could be a significant disincentive for private industry to invest more capital in New Mexico,” the group said. NMCC encouraged sponsors to work with private suppliers to assure more private investment in the state and not less.
Padilla’s SB 93 also appropriates $950,000 to DoIT for a broadband office and five employees. It hasn’t been heard yet in committee.

Lawmakers move Indian Child Welfare bill 2-8-21
By Sherry Robinson
Independent correspondent

            Joseph Talachy, governor of Pojoaque Pueblo, said he was born when his mother was in prison. He and his siblings were sent to foster care outside the tribe and outside the state.
            “Due to neglect, at age four, I had the cognitive abilities of a two-year-old,” he said.
When relatives intervened, he was returned to the pueblo, where he thrived. His siblings weren’t as lucky. One is dead, and he’s still trying to find the others.
“There is a federal law, but there is still a lack of clarity and confusion,” Talachy told the House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee on Monday.
He recommended approval of HB 209 to make the State Indian Child Welfare Act part of New Mexico’s Children’s Code, which has elements of the federal law but is outdated. It would be a state version of the 1978 federal law. Six other states have such a law.
The committee also approved HB 208, to continue the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force, along with a measure to guarantee tribal polling places.
Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque and a member of Acoma Pueblo, explained that the 130-page bill has been in the works for a year and involved the state Children, Youth and Families Department and the tribes.
While Louis, who chairs the committee, presented her bill, the vice chair, Rep. Wonda Johnson, D-Church Rock, juggled 50 Zoom participants – the equivalent of a crowded room.
SB 209 updates provisions in the federal law and cements practices developed by CYFD with tribal consultation, Louis said. It makes systemic changes to assure consultation with tribes to keep Native children within Native families.
The state would have to make reasonable efforts to identify Native American children from the outset and communicate with the tribe within 48 hours. It requires training for any non-Native foster parent and court officials. And it spells out in detail how the cases will be handled.
Native families in New Mexico are four times more likely to have their children removed and placed in foster care, according to legislative analysis. A lawsuit settlement requires the state to work with tribes to draft a state Indian Child Welfare Act.
            Attorney Lucas Frank said he supported the bill but wanted an amendment to allow foster families to intervene after six months. “The goal is permanency and timely placement,” he said. “When no one steps up from the family, the foster family can step up.” As written, the law would take away the foster family’s ability to intervene. “Sometimes family members are the ones who have abused the children,” he said.
            Marcie Starr, a foster parent to eight children, pointed out that the state doesn’t have enough foster families. Reformers should keep in mind the recruitment and retention of foster families as they make decisions, she said.
            CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock said the bill was developed for and by child welfare experts and the tribes. It’s a priority for both the tribes and the department, he said.
            Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Alamogordo, said the bill should be tweaked to make sure that after years a child can’t be taken from a foster home. “We want to create a stable environment,” he said.
            Louis said she will amend the bill.
            Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, said as a social worker for 25 years, she sees the problems daily.
            “Native children entering foster care can lose their language, culture and ties to the family,” she said. “So many times we reach out to the tribes, but there may not be follow up. We need more effort to work with the tribes. Sometimes family members don’t have the resources or don’t understand the process. We need to prepare families to take on children who’ve been victims of tremendous abuse and neglect.”
            Louis said CYFD has done a great job of notifying tribes when they have Native children in their custody. HB 209 will strengthen those efforts. The bill passed.
Missing and murdered indigenous women
            The committee also passed HB 208 to extend the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force another year and appropriate $50,000 for its expenses.
            Stephanie Salazar, general counsel for the Indian Affairs Department, said the task force has worked diligently to gather information about the victims, but law enforcement isn’t collecting data consistently.
“Some have complained that the requests are unduly burdensome, and others have reported more than was known,” she said.
This bill too had a big Zoom audience and a lot of support.
Valerie Belson, of Zuni Pueblo, said: “Our sister was murdered 13 years ago. As family members, we’re in a constant state of healing.”
Jolene Holgate, also the relative of a victim, said, “When the work continues it helps families know the state takes these cases seriously.”
Rep. Nibert said, “Government likes to study things to death.” He questioned extending the task force. “We need to hold their feet to the fire to come up with tangible results.”
Salazar said the task force now needs specific expertise to write policy recommendations. Romero added that the task force is midway through an assessment and was interrupted by the pandemic.
            The 13-member task force reported in December that in addition to gaps in data, federal funding is insufficient to meet public safety needs on tribal lands, limited staffing interferes with tribal police investigation, and jurisdictional conflicts hamper policing.
Voting rights
            Finally, the committee passed HB 231 to protect the voting rights of Native American voters by preventing the closure or consolidation of polling places on tribal lands unless the tribe agrees in writing. In the event that voters are unable to leave, there would have to be at least one polling location accessible. A tribe may request an alternative voting site within its boundaries 100 days before an election.
            Rep. Louis said the pandemic and related closures on reservations complicated voting. The bill would assure Native voters would always have an opportunity to vote.
            Ahtza Chavez, executive director of New Mexico Native Vote, said there were a lot of issues with polling locations and closures of tribal borders during the primaries. She supported the bill.
            Amber Carillo, of Laguna Pueblo, spoke for Common Cause in saying HB 231 guarantees voters a polling place. “It brings us into the 21st century,” she said.

​Tribal libraries are on legislators' radar this year

By Sherry Robinson
Independent correspondent
            All the students in Indian Country who are getting their school work done on parking lot wifi may get help this year.
            Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, has a bill seeking $94.8 million over four years for reservation broadband and tribal libraries. HB 86 passed the House Education Committee unanimously on Monday. Many of the projects are already in the budget.
            “Our failure to uphold the right to education is expensive,” Lente said. “We were talking about this pre-Yazzie-Martinez and pre-COVID. Many communities have no internet access, wifi, library or a building. When students leave school, they leave the ability to learn.”
            Lente and others testified that more than half of Native American students lack computers or internet access at home and can’t participate in online learning, and yet they don’t want to give up.
            HB 86 asks for $66.7 million for tribal libraries and education centers statewide, $4.6 million to match federal grants for connectivity through a pueblo education network, $6 million for broadband on the Navajo Nation and the Hogan project, $4 million for a materials development center and early childhood educator training facility at Navajo Technical University, $1.5 million for a curriculum and materials development center at Zuni Pueblo, $1.5 million for an education resource center for the Dzil Ditl’looi School of Empowerment, Action, and Perseverance charter school,
The $4.6 million in matching funds could leverage $41.4 million in federal funding, for a total of $46 million
The bill would also fund internet projects for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, the Mescalero Apache Tribe, Jemez Pueblo, and the Kewa Child Care and Development Center.
It’s part of the Tribal Education Alliance (TEA) tribal remedy framework, developed by tribal communities and education experts and endorsed by New Mexico’s tribes and pueblos to address the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, in which a judge ruled that the state was failing at-risk, poor, and minority children.
Janice Kowemy, librarian at Laguna Pueblo and president of the New Mexico Tribal Library Association, said most tribal libraries operate on a shoestring unless tribal governments can help them. They’re housed in old, dilapidated buildings with part-time staff.
Librarian Valery Bellson said Zuni Pueblo’s library occupies an old house. Some reservation communities have no library.
Navajo physician Gayle Chacon said she started her quest for knowledge in a dilapidated trailer on the reservation.
Joe Sabatini, of the New Mexico Library Association, said he’d been in all the tribal libraries. “Buildings can serve or get in the way,” he said. “Most of the buildings are 40 to 90 years old.”
The state spent $1.5 million on tribal libraries from 2016 to 2018 out of capital outlay funding and general obligation bonds. They will receive $500,000 through 2020 once GO bonds have been sold, according to legislative analysis. However, about half of the 2016 money and 99% of 2018 money is still unspent, which is far higher than nontribal library projects.
TEA said under-spending may be the result of requirements that funds be used for acquisitions and equipment when the small libraries lack the space or capacity.
Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, said she understood the needs but questioned how the specific requests would be funded through legislative capital outlay and appropriations process.
Last year, Lente sprang a similar bill seeking $59.2 million for tribal libraries and internet services.
The state’s tribes and pueblos had been meeting before the 2020 legislative session to respond to the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit. But they didn’t invite anyone from the House Appropriations and Finance Committee to the meetings. Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairs the committee and represents many Native constituents but knew nothing of the meetings.
Lundstrom said this year Lente briefed her several months ago.
“I had the LFC staff go through it with a fine tooth comb, and there’s already a lot of it buried inside the budget,” Lundstrom said. “Tribal libraries are on our radar this year.”
The broadband projects are more complicated. The state will receive federal CARES Act money for broadband.
“It shouldn’t be piecemeal,” she said. “It needs to be rolled out in the rural areas in a consistent way. If somebody wants a broadband project, they need to have a plan. We want to know how you’re going to spend that money.”
In addition to Lente’s bill, the governor has a broadband initiative and so do several legislators. Lundstrom said, “We’re going to get our arms around it and have one big package.”

Whipped by courts, lawmakers finally move on impact aid

By Sherry Robinson
Independent correspondent 1-20
            Legislators have finally seen the light about impact aid money. Or maybe they’re seeing stars from a repeated pounding in the courts.
On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee unanimously passed a bill to address the longstanding controversy over impact aid dollars in the state’s school spending formula.
            For years, area legislators defended bills against the unified opposition from Albuquerque and Las Cruces schools and their legislators, who opposed any change to the state funding formula.
SB 41 is carried by Senate President Mimi Stewart, a retired APS teacher who previously opposed impact aid remedies.
“It’s time to do it,” she said.
Federal impact aid compensates schools in areas like this for the money they don’t get from property taxes. New Mexico has nine school districts with significant federal land, the largest being Gallup McKinley School District. From 1974 to 1999, the state has taken credit for 95% of impact aid and after 1999 75%, providing less money to schools serving reservation students.
The issue was that other districts had taxable property they could use to raise money outside the formula. Gallup McKinley and Zuni don’t. Area legislators have tried for years to achieve parity.
Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat, said: “We came to this decision in part because of the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit and in part issues around Native American education. We hope the schools will use the increased funding to improve academic achievement.”
SB 41 removes the 75% credit from the funding formula. Local half-mill levy and federal forest reserve fund revenues used for capital outlay expenditures would be removed from the funding formula but used in calculating the local-state match formula for public school capital outlay awards. Schools would be required to report how the money is used to improve students’ education, and they would have to consult with tribes on impact aid spending.
The change means an $83 million hit on the public school funding formula in fiscal 2022 ($67 million in fiscal 2021), but offsets in last year’s and this year’s budgets total that amount, so other districts won’t feel any pain.
The bill would increase funding for school districts with large numbers of children living on reservations – the same children targeted in the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, which found in 2019 that New Mexico was failing to educate them. Nearly 60 percent would go to the Gallup, Central, and Zuni school districts and would substantially increase operating revenue in these districts. Gallup would receive an additional $22 million, a 26 percent increase.
The bill also changes the school capital outlay formula that decides the local and state shares of funding for projects. Adding unrestricted revenues like forest reserve funds would reduce the amount of state spending and increase a district’s spending for projects; under the Public School Capital Outlay Council’s rules, it could increase the number of awards to other schools.
However, SB 41 required dismissal of the Zuni lawsuit and withdrawal of impact-aid districts from the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit. That didn’t go over well with pueblos and tribes.
In the decades-long lawsuit of Zuni Pueblo against the state, the court ruled in 2000 that New Mexico’s public school capital outlay system violated constitutional requirements. It ordered the state to implement a fair system to fund capital improvements and correct past inequities.
Since then, the state has spent $2.7 billion to build school facilities up to the approved statewide adequacy standards, according to a legislative analysis. Stewart said $340 million of that went to Gallup McKinley.
“We have really tried to improve the physical structure at those schools, but they continue to say they have problems,” Stewart said.
The Zuni lawsuit is still alive, and in December the state lost again after districts argued they couldn’t raise money for construction and weren’t allowed to build facilities that were better than the state’s adequacy standards.
The Public Schools Facilities Authority continues to claim that local facilities are as good or better than the state average. Between FY19 and FY21, the state awarded more than half of all standards-based construction funding, or $262.4 million, to impact aid districts.
Last year, the Gallup, Central, and Zuni school districts asked the federal Department of Education to evaluate PED’s system of taking credit for impact aid payments, and the department said the state couldn’t keep crediting impact aid.
Acoma and Taos pueblos and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty opposed the mandated dismissal of the Zuni lawsuit.
Impact aid should remain with the district that generates it,” said Pierson Siow, first lieutenant governor of Acoma Pueblo. “The bill unfairly and unjustly forces tribes to choose. It blurs the line between two distinctive cases. We don’t support this. The state shouldn’t be relieved of that obligation.”
Conroy Chino, lobbyist for Acoma and Taos pueblos said: “This forces districts in a corner. To accept aid they have to give up the lawsuit. It’s not fair and not equitable.”
Supporting the bill were the New Mexico School Board Association, the New Mexico Superintendents Association, and APS.
Stewart said she was happy to remove that requirement. It was added in interim committees, and she had her own concerns. “I don’t want to require anything except tribal consultation,” she said.
“This has been very contentious for many years,” said committee chairman Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, who last year kept an impact aid bill bottled up in his committee. “We want to do what’s right for students. We hope this puts us on the other side of this issue.”
SB 41 passed unanimously.

Gallup legislators lead budget committees

By Sherry Robinson
Independent correspondent 1-19
            Two Gallup legislators will now oversee the crafting of the state budget.
          Sen. George Munoz was named Tuesday as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. His counterpart in the House is Rep. Patty Lundstrom, who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. Both are Democrats.
          “I appreciate the trust,” Munoz said. “For the committee, I want to get more members involved and have more openness. The number one priority is New Mexicans are counting on us.”
            Munoz, elected in 2009, is one of the Legislature’s few businessmen. He succeeds former Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat, who served 32 years before his primary defeat last year. Munoz has been a committee member since 2010 and moved up to vice chair last year after Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, died. Cisneros was long assumed to be Smith’s heir apparent.
            Although he and Lundstrom have had their differences, he says it’s not going to be an issue. “Everybody has their differences,” he said.
            In the legislative budget process, the House writes the budget, and then the Senate weighs in. The budget bill hasn’t yet come over from the House, but Munoz said he’s seen the budget. “We have lots of one-time money. Recurring spending will have to be under control. We’ll be very cautious,” he said.
            Other members of the area’s legislative delegation also snagged leadership positions.
          Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi and granddaughter of the late Sen. John Pinto, will chair the revamped Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which is now the Indian, Rural and Cultural Affairs Committee. Sen. Benny Shendo, D- Jemez Pueblo, will continue to be a committee member.
          Shendo will chair the Tax, Business and Transportation Committee, which was the Corporation and Transportation Committee chaired previously by Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants. Sanchez, a Democratic moderate, lost his primary bid last year after progressives outsmarted themselves and elected one of their own who promptly lost to a Republican from Valencia County.
          Shendo has been vice chair of the committee. His vice chair is Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, who has delivered so many broadband bills that he’s become the chamber’s broadband expert.
          Senate committee assignments and chairmanships were announced by Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, after she was elected senate president. She replaces former Sen. Mary Kay Papen, who led the Senate for ten years until she was defeated in the primary.
          On the House side, Rep. Wonda Johnson, D-Church Rock, is still Majority Caucus chair.
          Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, is chairman of the House Labor, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.
          Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque and a member of Acoma Pueblo, chairs the State Government, Elections & Indian Affairs Committee, and Johnson is vice chair. Louis is also a candidate to replace U. S. Rep. Deb Haaland in Congress.
            And Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, is vice chair of the House Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements Committee.