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2021’s Transformative Legislation

by Paul Gibson | January 7, 2021
9 min read
Top-priority bills include legislation to guarantee comprehensive health care for nearly all New Mexicans; legalize marijuana for recreational use by those 21 and older; and create a public bank (for which North Dakota provides a century-old model) that will make community development loans. Photographs courtesy of Family Health Clinic Espanola; unsplash.com; and the Alliance for Local Economic Prosperity

For each of the last several New Mexico legislative sessions, Retake Our Democracy, a Santa Fe-based advocacy organization of which I am director, has supported and advocated for 40 to 60 proposed bills. In 2021, we are being much more focused. Our list of this year’s must-pass legislation is much shorter.

To arrive at our top-priority list, we consulted with other not-for-profit advocacy groups like New Mexico Voices for Children, Health Security for New Mexicans, New Mexico Environmental Law Center, Working Families Party, Common Cause, Think New Mexico and a host of other community-based organizations, as well as with Adelante Progressive Caucus, Indivisible and Taos United.

We also invited the public to indicate their priorities for legislation in the 2021 session by taking a 10-minute survey. Although we are beginning to share interim findings with legislators, the survey is still open through Jan. 19. We encourage the Sun’s readers to voice their opinions by clicking on a link to the survey here.

Retake’s board retained our own perspective in whittling this year’s list of important legislation down to the Top 15 bills, summarized below. We believe have the potential to transform the state to a substantial degree.

When considering which bills to prioritize, we asked these questions:

  • Does the bill have a potentially game-changing impact and meet a broad and pressing need?
  • Does it address the needs of significantly under-served populations or communities?
  • Could the addition of statewide advocacy efforts push the bill through?
  • Is the bill a high priority for one or more of our allies?

Beyond these criteria, we prioritized bills that address the needs of New Mexico’s low-income working families, the needs of tribal and rural New Mexico and bills that address climate change, a looming catastrophe that will dwarf COVID in its impact in the coming decades (or sooner). You will find bills to protect a woman’s right to choose, significantly expand health care coverage, create a public bank, better protect our environment, expand early childhood education, legalize recreational marijuana, eliminate private prisons and significantly increase state revenues by eliminating tax giveaways for the rich and large corporations.

Given the state of the New Mexico economy, it is worth noting that only two of our Top 15 transformative bills require funding. They represent policy shifts and initiatives that cost nothing, will save the state money or will result in increased revenues for the state.

2021’s Top 15 Transformative Bills

In addition to the brief summaries presented below, links leading to fuller one-page explanations have been provided for 11 of the 15 bills for which Retake Our Democracy will energetically advocate.

Abortion Decriminalization. A 1969 New statute makes it a fourth-degree felony for New Mexico physicians to perform an abortion except in cases of rape, incest or likely birth defects, or to protect the life of the mother. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973 made the state statute unenforceable, but with the current conservative majority on court, Roe is in real danger of being gutted. To protect New Mexico women’s right to choose, repealing this outdated legislation is a high priority.

Health Security Act. Advanced by Health Security for New Mexicans. Part of a multiyear implementation rollout, this year’s legislation, “Health Security Planning and Design, will require a publicly accountable and transparent process for making HSA design decisions and put those provisions in place so that enrollment can occur and providers can be paid. Public input will be sought, advisory committees will be created, and consultants will be hired during this critical process. Once implemented, the statewide HSA Plan will automatically cover nearly all New Mexicans, offer a comprehensive set of health care services and provide freedom of choice of health care provider and facility even across state lines (no more networks). It will also simplify administration since it is not dependent on the costly and complicated private insurance system. Studies by three independent researchers project significant savings for New Mexico and guaranteed comprehensive care for virtually all New Mexicans

Public Bank for New Mexico. Sponsored by Senator Jeff Steinborn, this legislation authorizes a public bank owned by the state of New Mexico that will finance New Mexico’s infrastructure projects, energy projects, small businesses and economic development. It will invest public funds (taxes and fees) and keep them circulating in the state. Money which currently goes to debt service on bonds with out-of-state banks and to their investors remains in New Mexico for reinvestment. It will work in partnership with community banks, credit unions and CDFs (community development financial institutions) to make loans that enhance local communities. Pro forma assumptions include: $50 million in deposits to be moved to the public bank from Wells Fargo accounts in the first year, providing estimated ability to lend $44 million during the first year of operation, bringing returns by the end of second year. Additional deposits would be transferred to the public bank in succeeding years to meet increasing liquidity demands.

Local Choice Energy. Sponsored by Senators Jeff Steinborn and Benny Shendo. Local Choice Energy is also known as Community Choice Aggregation. The act authorizes a municipality, county, Indian nation, tribe or pueblo to pool the electricity demand of multiple customers and procure power from an alternative supplier while still receiving transmission and distribution service from the existing utility. The act would open electricity markets to competition and give communities control over which entity supplies their energy. Such competition is unlawful today with electricity supply residing within investor-owned monopoly utilities. Shifting to greater local control, residents will have an increased voice in choice of power generation, energy conservation and sustainability.

The Green Amendment. Advanced by The Green Amendment for the Generations, this bill would ask voters to pass a state constitutional amendment, giving all New Mexicans a constitutional right to clean air, water and land. These rights would become inherent, inalienable and indefeasible, and included among those rights reserved to all the people and on par with other protected inalienable rights. The amendment would mandate that our government officials respect and protect the right to clean air, water, and land for all residents of the state and give residents the right to legal redress if any of these rights are violated.

Permanent Fund for Early Childhood Amendment. This legislation, if approved by voters in a statewide referendum, would change the state constitution to require the Land Grant Permanent Fund to provide additional yearly distributions of 1 percent to early childhood educational services (nonsectarian and nondenominational). The law would increase the current annual distribution from 5 to 6 percent, still a conservative draw-down.

Comprehensive Tax and Revenue Reform. COVID-19 and plummeting oil revenues will require the state to either make massive cuts in the social safety net or eliminate existing tax deductions. This package of bills is sponsored by Representative Javier Martinez and Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino and supported by New Mexico Voices for Children.

Expand the Working Families Tax Credit. An investment in a healthier New Mexico, this bill will also be key to getting our economy back on track. By putting more money back into the hands of New Mexico’s hard-working families, WFTC will help workers to better meet basic needs. Top beneficiaries include essential workers and people of color, who have been disproportionately harmed by COVID-19. The existing tax credit has been proven to incentivize work and to improve physical and mental health by reducing financial hardship. Businesses benefit, too, as the refunds are spent quickly and locally. The WFTC increase has been advanced by New Mexico Voices for Children for years.

Oil and Gas Bonding Increase. While the specifics of this bill have not yet been provided by the State Land Office, its aim is to significantly increase the amount of capital a fracking operator must provide as a bond to pay for cleanup and capping of wells. It is estimated that current levels of bonding are $2 billion short of projected capping and cleanup costs, perhaps far more.

Water Governance Reform Act. Sponsored by Representative Melanie Stansbury, this is a comprehensive bill aimed at reforming and modernizing water governance in New Mexico, updating practices and approaches that were adopted in 1912 at the time of statehood. It proscribes steps to modernize the current water grid, taking advantage of new technologies and scientific research. It seeks to streamline the process by which water managers at multiple levels can access available funding. It addresses steps needed to redress the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2020 rollback of water quality standards in the Clean Water Act—changes that have adversely affected New Mexico’s water, public health and the environment. With a focus on restorative justice, this bill also seeks to improve the relationship of the state with tribal leaders around the issue of water management and access.

Paid Sick Leave. This bill would provide mandatory paid sick leave for all New Mexico employees, including those working on a part-time, seasonal or temporary basis. One hour of paid sick leave would accrue for every 30 hours of work. Sick leave can be used for one’s own medical needs or to care for an ill family member; when one’s place of business or child’s school closes for public health reasons; during a public health emergency; or to deal with domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking. The definition of “family member” is broad and reflects the diversity of caregiving relationships. The legislation would have no effect on employers who already provide more generous sick leave policies.

Small Loan Interest Rate Cap Reduction. Advanced by Think New Mexico and Prosperity Works, this legislation would cap the interest rate for small and installment loans from storefront lenders at 36 percent, replacing the current cap of 175 percent imposed in 2017. The current rate burdens the most economically vulnerable residents of our state. The 36 percent cap brings our state in line with most other states’ caps and matches the federal interest cap for military families.

Energy Transition Act Amendment.  Advanced by Senators Bill Tallman and Liz Stefanics, the amendment would revise language of a proposed bill that allows PNM to shift financial responsibility to ratepayers for all economic liabilities from burning coal at the utility company’s San Juan Generating Station and Four Corners Power Plant. PNM’s expensive nuclear and gas investments would also be included. The company estimates all these liabilities total $1 billion. None of the renewable portfolio standards or worker relief elements of the bill would be altered, and the San Juan station would still be closed, but rate payers would be protected by the proposed amendment.

Marijuana Legalization. This legislation would legalize recreational marijuana for New Mexicans 21 or older, and the state could tax marijuana sold in licensed stores, mostly small businesses. If this year’s legislation is similar to the bill introduced in 2019, it would set a 9 percent excise tax and allow a municipal cannabis tax and a county cannabis tax of up to 4 percent each, plus gross receipt taxes on non-medical cannabis purchases. It would automatically seal certain cannabis-related criminal records and allow for the possible recall or dismissal of the sentence for a person currently incarcerated for cannabis offenses that would no longer be violations under the new law. It would create a tightly regulated system of approved licensees with strict rules and regulations, similar to those governing the production and sale of tobacco or alcohol.

Food and Agriculture Omnibus Bill. Sponsored by Representatives Melanie Stansbury and Joanne Ferrary. This bill will focus on: 1) improving local food systems and resilient agriculture, 2) strengthening food and water relief and recovery, and 3) addressing root causes of food insecurity. It will direct New Mexico State University to create a roadmap for modernizing the food system, including agricultural production, distribution and value chain infrastructure (which actualizes ideas for products and services). It will maintain and expand investments in the agricultural and food infrastructure, including support for operations and creation of data and information-sharing systems for essential, real-time information about food hubs, cold storage and transportation networks.

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