On June 22, the 4 day New Mexico special legislative session ended. The session was called to deal with the state’s deficit and to adjust the state budget amid historical deficits the result of the COVID-19 pandemic business closures and the collapse in oil revenues. When the session ended, 7 bills had been enacted.
These bills enacted are:
HOUSE BILL 1: Authorizing a budget solvency plan that would keep state spending roughly flat over the next year while drawing down reserves, tapping into federal funds and engaging in other financial maneuvers.
The enacted budget was $7 billion for fiscal year 2020-2021 which begins on July 1. In February, lawmakers approved the largest budget in New Mexico’s history, at $7.6 billion, but only weeks later an oil price war and the COVID-19 pandemic put that plan in peril.
The revised fiscal year 2021 budget reduces spending by more than $600 million, bringing the budget to $7 billion. That’s a greater reduction than the around $450 million cut Lujan Grisham had advocated for. The revised budget reduces spending by 4 percent for most state agencies. It also includes $165 million in funding to help local governments that have their own coronavirus-related fiscal problems, with $15 million of that sum earmarked for McKinley, Cibola and San Juan counties.
The plan keeps intact most of the funding designated for the state’s new trust fund for early childhood education, reducing that amount from $320 million to $300 million.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, warned the state’s finances are not likely to bounce back quickly from the double punch caused by the coronavirus pandemic and plummeting oil prices telling . Smith tolf his fellow legislators:
“It’s certainly not the perfect response, but it darn well may be the only response we can give right now. … New Mexico, we are not alright. … This looks like it’s going to be a prolonged downturn.”
HOUSE BILL 5: The bill establishing a 9-member civil rights commission that would recommend legal changes aimed at protecting constitutional rights. The recommendations must be submitted by mid-November. The commission will look into the issue of “qualified immunity” which is a judicial precedent that makes it harder to prosecute police or other public officials in potential misconduct cases.
HOUSE BILL 6: This bill Waives some tax penalties during the pandemic. It also allows for increased temporary state payments to help cities and counties if federal funds are not made available.
SENATE BILL 3: This legislation establishes a low-interest loan program for small businesses and local governments. This bill establishes a loan program to aid small businesses and local governments damaged by the pandemic. It passed on an impressive bipartisan vote 59-5, a vote not often seen in today’s political climate.
SENATE BILL 4: This bill enacting temporary changes for the 2020 general election. Under provisions of the legislation, independent voters will be able to vote in primaries only if they formally change their registration to Democrat, Republican or Libertarian, which is already allowed. The change is that while currently they must make the switch at least 28 days prior to Election Day, the bill will allow a voter to do so at the polls. A voter will retain the new major party registration unless they go to their county clerk and re-register as independents.
SENATE BILL 5: Generating an estimated $141 million in savings by canceling stalled capital outlay and road projects, among other provisions.
SENATE BILL 8: Requiring law enforcement officers to wear cameras. This bill passed on a 44-26 vote. It calls for law enforcement officers in New Mexico to wear cameras and activate them when responding to calls. Bernalillo County Sherriff Manny Gonzalez has refused to mandate the use of lapel cameras despite call by the County Commission. He no longer has a choice. Senate Bill 8 also directs a state board to revoke the certification of any officer convicted of unlawful use of force.
Governor Michelle Lujan issued the following statement after the session ended:
“This special session produced hundreds of millions in investments in small businesses, and local governments and economies; it accommodated and preserved much of the essential progress we have begun to make in our public education system as we begin to navigate a new global economic reality; and it launched, in earnest, an important and overdue conversation about accountability in law enforcement and in ensuring a just and safe New Mexico for all”.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
Even though the Special Session was called to deal with the state’s deficit and to adjust the state budget amid historical deficits the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most controversial legislation passed dealt with “law enforcement reform” and the mandating of the use of lapel cameras by all law enforcement in the state.
According to legislative analysts, over the last five years, New Mexico has had the nation’s highest per-capita rate of killings by police. The killing of African American George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police Officer using a “body neck suppression” tactic and a Las Cruces police officer was charged in the death of Antonio Valenzuela, who died after the use of a vascular neck restraint, gave the legislation momentum. House Bill 5 creating a 9-member civil rights commission that will recommend legal changes aimed at protecting constitutional rights was also given momentum for passage by the deaths of Floyd and Valenzuela.
Supporters of the proposed legislation said lapel cameras are needed and the cameras will add transparency and accountability, protecting officers from false accusations and shed light on deadly police encounters. Opponents countered saying the measure was an unfunded mandate that will discourage people from pursuing careers in law enforcement, worsening officer shortages throughout the state.
One thing for certain is that it’s not the relatively low cost to purchase the cameras, but the hundreds of thousands it will take for each law enforcement agency to store the camera video.
When it comes to Bernalillo County, Sheriff Manny Gonzalez has strenuously opposed the use of lapel cameras arguing that there is no proof that they reduce crime and only result in second guessing by the public and those who sue the department. The Bernalillo County Commission has implored Sheriff Gonzales to order his department to use lapel cameras to no avail. Sheriff Gonzales is said to be running for Mayor in 2021, and now that lapel cameras are mandated, it is one issue he will not have to deal with if in fact he does run.