New Mexico Legislature, Governor Prepare for Session 23

Maj. Dale Waggoner of the New Mexico State Police Department addresses the Legislative Council Monday, January 16, 2023 on Capitol security. Luis Sanchez Saturno/The Santa Fe New Mexican

George Chendo, Assistant Sergeant at Arms, stores Senate account books in Senators’ desks in the Roundhouse on January 16, 2023 in preparation for the legislative session. Javier Gallegos/The New Mexican of Santa Fe

Santa Fe’s new Mexican

Against a backdrop of pomp, protest and potential, new money and old problems will await the New Mexico Legislature when its 60-day session opens Tuesday.

Lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham agree that a gargantuan $3.6 billion in incremental revenue provides an opportunity to tap into some of the state’s chronic educational, economic and infrastructure woes. But in a long session, working out the details—and addressing New Mexico’s many other needs—may not be as easy as simply writing a check.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, acknowledged that the session could be dictated by how well the Legislature manages to balance short-term issues against long-term needs.

He said the ongoing debate over how best to allocate new funds in a state budget that could be as high as $9.4 billion will involve a “tension” that will accompany decisions about whether some of the money will go to recurring programs should be used – which could also create pressure in future years when there is not enough money to invest further in programs and policies – or in more immediate, one-off projects.

The strong revenue forecasts, he said, are “a boon that requires us to take fiscal responsibility.”

Disputes over the budget may take center stage, but other pressing issues, including improving the state’s ailing public education system, addressing crime concerns and revising tax policy, will also take up much of lawmakers’ time, especially after a election that revolved around these issues.

Still, many lawmakers said they were eager to start the 23-hour session, which begins at 12 p.m. and will be quickly followed by Lujan Grisham’s state of the state address and a Republican response.

This session marks a return to some semblance of normalcy at the Capitol after two years of restricted public access due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several public interest groups said they plan to gather at the Roundhouse in the first week to hold press conferences or stage camera-grabbing demonstrations to gain awareness of their concerns.

Such events were almost non-existent in the COVID-19 era, when the ability to get inside the building, let alone be around other people, had atrophied.

The ability to interact, Wirth said, is something many in the Capitol miss.

“This is a process that involves all the people around each of us, and that’s what we’ve missed over the last two years,” he said.

Unlike in the past two years, there will be no protective mask requirement for visitors. Capitol staff will also not check vaccination cards to make sure they are up to date, Raúl Burciaga, director of Legislative Council service, told lawmakers Monday at the Legislative Council.

However, he said all visitors must go through metal detectors, which means visitor lines can be long.

Maj. Dale Waggoner of the New Mexico State Police told the Legislative Council that at least 30 police officers will be patrolling the roundhouse during the session to provide protection.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, asked Waggoner if he plans to increase police staffing around the Capitol after a recent spate of shootings targeted Democratic lawmakers in Albuquerque.

“I’m concerned about the shootings that we had in the Albuquerque area,” Brandt said hours before Albuquerque police made an arrest in the case.

Waggoner said there are no plans to increase state police crews over the shooting, which resulted in no injuries.

Lujan Grisham’s State of the State Address, which will take place in the House Chamber, is expected to take place in the early afternoon. For the past two years, her speeches have been delivered online.

Lujan Grisham’s legislative priorities are likely to include affordable housing, a stronger health system, improving educational outcomes and public safety. She will also focus on efforts to diversify the economy in a state where much of the revenue growth has come from the oil and gas industry.

While the governor commands large Democratic margins in both the House and Senate, she will also face a Republican contingent vocally critical of her policies and strongly opposed to a likely legislative effort to codify the right to access an abortion.

New faces will predominate in the legislature; 17 new members will be sworn into the House of Representatives on Tuesday. But there is little mystery about the leadership on either side of the aisle – those decisions were made late last year. Members of the House of Representatives are expected to vote to confirm Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, as Representative of the House of Representatives, replacing the outgoing Brian Egolf. The Senate is expected to confirm Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, to another term.

The Republicans in the House of Representatives are led by Rep. Ryan Lane of Aztec, while the GOP’s Senate faction is led by Senator Greg Baca, R-Belen.

Some incoming Members of the House expressed both hope and nervousness a day before the session began.

“I’m proud, but I’m also nervous,” said Harlan Vincent, a Republican from Glencoe.

Tanya Mirabal Moya, a freshman Republican from Belen, said she was “definitely excited” about the start of her two-year term on Tuesday.

“The unknown scares me almost a bit,” she said. “But I’m comfortable in the chaos, so I should be fine.”

Christal Branch, left, supervisor of the joint billing/mailroom, guides Joseph Mendez, clerk of the billing/mailroom, through the Capitol Monday, January 16, 2023. Luis Sanchez Saturno/The Santa Fe New Mexican