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Republican lawmakers describe contentious session

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From left, State Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo and state Reps. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, Jim Townsend, R-Artesia and Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, sit with Chaves County Federated Republican Women Vice Chair Judy Hobson at Wednesday’s meeting of the Chaves County Federated Republican Women at the Elks Lodge in Roswell. (Alex Ross Photo)

Republican lawmakers from southeast New Mexico voiced frustration about the recent legislative session Wednesday during the March meeting of the Chaves County Federated Republican Women.

Legislators at the meeting described the session as contentious and railed against bills Democrats passed related to gun control, taxes and renewable energy.

“One thing you can say is government is on the increase, government is growing and government is spending a lot of money,” state Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said to the crowd.

Nibert’s district includes portions of Chaves and Lincoln counties.

The session marked the first time in eight years that Democrats were in full control of state government.

Democrats picked up eight House seats in November’s elections, giving them a 46 seats — compared to 24 Republicans — and wrested back control of the governorship.

Emboldened by their electoral gains and a $1.1 billion state budget surplus, the Democrat-led Legislature passed a litany of progressive legislation during the 60-day session.

Nibert said the additional eight seats Democrats picked up made a big difference in how much influence Republicans wielded this session.

“There were not many opportunities we had to be effective numbers-wise because we were so outnumbered,” he said.

The Democratic House Caucus is also more progressive than it was in 2018 session, Nibert said.

In the last session, at least two conservative Democrats would often break with their party and vote with Republicans, but both of those legislators were ousted in primaries.

“We didn’t have the number of friends we had on the Democratic side that we had two years ago and it showed,” Nibert said.

The session was a tough environment for conservatives and their agenda. House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said that of the 310 pieces of legislation that passed during the 60-day session, only 38 were sponsored by Republicans.

“This Legislature became the Rio Grande Corridor versus the rest of the state,” Townsend said.

House Bill 366 (HB 366), to prohibit trapping on public lands, is one of a series of bills that was considered and that Townsend said targeted New Mexico’s agriculture producers.

Supporters of HB 366 have said the bill is meant to keep traps from injuring dogs and other small animals, while trappers and agriculture groups opposed to it said the traps are needed to manage predator populations and keep them away from livestock.

The bill did not come to the floor of either legislative chamber for a full vote.

State Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo, said he was stunned legislation was introduced to ban hydraulic fracturing — commonly known as fracking — when the state is so dependent on the oil and gas industry.

“You have an economy based on 45 percent income from oil and gas and they run a no fracking bill,” Burt said.

Senate Bill 459 would have prohibited the issuance of new permits in New Mexico for oil and gas development that involves fracking. The ban would have remained in effect until June 2023, so more could be learned about the impact of fracking on public health, safety and the environment.

The bill was introduced in the Senate Conservation Committee, where it did not get a vote, according to the State Legislative website.

Burt, who represents Chaves, Lincoln and Otero counties, said he increasingly sees the differences between urban and rural New Mexico as the biggest divide within the state and its politics.

“The difference in culture, lifestyle and very fabric of what we believe and how we live our lives in rural New Mexico as opposed to urban New Mexico will continue to drive a large wedge between this state,” he said.

Townsend also criticized Senate Bill 489 (SB 489) — the Energy Transfer Act — which would make the state’s energy portfolio carbon-free by 2045 after considering safety, reliability and cost to customers, according to the bill. The bill was signed into law Friday.

He said the bill is so narrowly focused on renewable energy that it could lead to higher energy costs for consumers.

A new law to require background checks for most gun sales in New Mexico was one issue that was at the top of the agenda for both parties.

Sponsors of the bill that was signed into law in March by Lujan Grisham have said the law is meant to keep guns out of the hands of criminals who should not have them.

Republicans and others, including a majority of county sheriffs, have come out against the law.

“Whenever there are 29 of 33 counties that say all of these gun bills that were coming up that they could not enforce, they stood in opposition to every one of them — that speaks volumes to me,” said House Republican Caucus Chair Candy Spence Ezzell, of Roswell.

Republicans though said despite their dwindling numbers, they will continue to push back against what they say is an agenda that does not represent most of New Mexico, and urged the party’s activists to help bring about a comeback for the party in 2020.

“We worked hard, we stood for the right thing and we are making a difference,” Ezzell said.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.