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Local legislators vent about recent legislative session

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Local lawmakers at a luncheon Tuesday decried the recent 60-day legislative session and its potential effects on the state, and touched on some of the bills they worked to help thwart as well as advance.

Legislators opened up about their firsthand experiences and impressions of the session at the Legislative Lunch and Learn, an event sponsored by the Roswell Chamber of Commerce.

The recent session saw 310 bills pass both houses of the Democratic-led Legislature, most of which were signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, also a Democrat.

Much of that legislation that included gun control measures, legislation to transition New Mexico off of fossil fuels and a minimum wage hike — received heavy criticism from area Republicans.

“There was a lot more that I was against than I was for, I’ll just clear that up,” House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, told the crowd at the luncheon.

Townsend — the top Republican in the New Mexico House of Representatives — said the agenda advanced by the majority ignored the will of the people.

“Ladies and gentlemen, what we saw happen up there (in Santa Fe) was not good for New Mexico,” said state Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell.

Ezzell — who has represented her Chaves County district in the House since 2005 and is chair of the House Republican Caucus — said the recent legislative session was the worst of her legislative career.

The session that ran from January to March 16, came after Democrats routed Republicans in last November’s statewide elections, reclaiming the governorship, sweeping other races for statewide offices and expanding their majority in the New Mexico House of Representatives. Democrats now hold a 46 to 24 majority in the House.

State Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said many of the newly elected Democrats that came from around Albuquerque and the more liberal-leaning northern part of the state felt that the election results emboldened them to push through their agenda.

“And we felt that a lot of those efforts were not in the best interest of the state and certainly not in the best interest of the communities we represent,” he said.

Because of their diminished numbers, House Republicans were largely relegated to playing defense, slowing down efforts to get bills through the legislative process.

“So all in all, we did the best we could, but 24 Republicans in the House and maybe four or five conservative Democrats on the other side of the House, do not make a majority,” he said.

State Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, though, said he feels the session was not so much as a battle between political parties or the two legislative chambers, but that the real dividing line was between urban and rural lawmakers.

“And unfortunately, rural New Mexico did not get listened to,” Pirtle said.

He said one example of lawmakers from cities trying to impose their will on the rest of the state, was a proposed bill that would have required that a private property owner provide 14 days notice before having a vehicle that was abandoned on their property towed away.

Pirtle called the bill that was ultimately defeated an Albuquerque problem in search of a statewide solution.

Ezzell said one of the things she liked least about the session was serving on the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee. She and state Rep. Greg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, were the only two Republicans on the committee.

The committee was tasked with taking up a host of contentious bills including on gun control, an effort to scrap a state anti-abortion law and physician-assisted suicide.

“We had some of the most egregious bills,” Ezzell said about the committee. She said that she and Schmedes would often question expert witnesses and scrutinize legislative proposals, but when they were done, Democrats would instantly move to vote to pass them without asking any questions.

House Bill 6 (HB 6) increases a variety of taxes on New Mexicans passed in both legislative chambers and was signed into law this session. Supporters of the bill said the measure would make the tax system more progressive and would provide the state with a more reliable stream of revenue.

Pirtle, though, said the law punishes New Mexico workers at a time when the state is already experiencing a record $1.2 billion surplus.

“And I don’t think that’s the route we need to take because when we have this much money, we don’t have a revenue problem in New Mexico, we definitely have a spending problem in New Mexico,” he said.

Despite their aggravation, legislators at the luncheon did say there were some bright spots. One was the passage of HB 229, a bill that would allow for the creation of a regional air center special economic district that could help bring economic development to the former Walker Air Force Base.

The measure sponsored by Ezzell, Nibert and Anderson was one of 45 non-controversial bills that were passed early in the session as part of the “rocket docket.”

“And that was a good thing for our community,” Nibert said.

Pirtle said one of the things he introduced was working with Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell’s pilot program, although the bill ultimately died.

Townsend said a bill he is proud of that he sponsored and was signed by Lujan Grisham is HB 664. According to the bill’s fiscal impact statement, the bill amends the public school code so that students can receive certain course credits for technical education and workforce training.

“When we put more kids to work at good wages, New Mexico solves many of their social problems,” he said.

One of Ezzell’s efforts that generated ample support, but was ultimately vetoed, HB 610 would have promoted career opportunities for women in oil and gas and to establish oil and gas industry-related businesses.

The bill, though, was ultimately vetoed by Lujan Grisham, who in a message that accompanied her veto, said HB 610 did not allocate money to the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department or the Department of Workforce Solutions needed to establish the program.

Nibert said he spent much of the session working to establish the framework for a state ethics commission. He said the establishment of the commission was something he opposed but that was approved by voters. Nibert said state Rep. Ely Damon, D-Corrales, asked him to help with putting together the rules that will govern the commission.

Such bipartisan efforts, Nibert said, are often not the things that get emphasized. He said part of being in the Legislature often means crossing party lines and working on something you might not support in order to make it better for the good of the state.

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