Rep. Chris Chandler on the House floor during the special session of the legislature prior to introducing her tax relief bill. Courtesy photo
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Rep. Chris Chandler has been busy this week updating her constituents on last month’s special session of the legislature. Speaking to the League of Women Voters Tuesday, she said she was impressed by the number of people interested in her perspective of what happened in the special session. Chandler is a LWV member and frequent guest at LWV meetings. She also addressed the Los Alamos County Council Tuesday evening and was interviewed on KRSN Radio. Listen here
She noted that the main purpose of the special session was the budget and that the governor had the prerogative to place items on for the special session.
“It’s not within the prerogative of the legislature to dictate what bills would be heard so there was plenty of frustration among my colleagues and I as to what was not heard, but it was a limited agenda and that was the intent of the governor from the beginning,” Chandler said. “The goal was in her mind to address issues that were prompted by the Coronavirus crisis and related health problems and so on.”
She noted that there were other issues that were either election-related to address the virus or very high profile because of the Black Lives Matter issues and police abuses.
“There were many people in the state as you know and across the country who have been concerned about some of the unfettered behavior of law enforcement and the need to try and address that. I don’t doubt that we’ll be talking more about that in the session coming up.” Chandler said.
She said two things converged that created a huge problem for the state
“We were so optimistic during the regular session this year in terms of our revenue projections and where we were going in terms of trying to turn a number of things around in the state including education, infrastructure and some vital things to try to move the state forward. Then the virus crisis, the pandemic hits, which is a big problem for us on the economic front and the bottom fell out of the oil and gas industry to a degree that I don’t think anyone could have anticipated,” Chandler said. “We all know there’s a huge volatility in oil and gas but this level of volatility and problems certainly were beyond anyone’s expectations and that created a huge crisis.”
She noted that there were points in time where the price per barrel for oil was in the negative.
“It seems hard to believe but there are storage costs for these kinds of things. Around the time of the session oil prices were hovering around $38 a barrel and our budget is based around a $50 a barrel so there’s still a problem and we needed to address the shortfall for FY2020 and then of course we’re anticipating a shortfall for FY2021,” Chandler said.
She said initially the difference between what the legislature budgeted and the revenues coming in, there’s still an increase in the budget from the previous year.
“When we’re talking about adjusting the budget, we refer to what the folks in financing call ‘sanding’, where we sanded down the increase that we had embedded in the budget for this year and next year. We are anticipating that we will need, of course, do more work on the budget when we get back into session in January, February and March,” Chandler said.
She said there will be a lot of work done before the next legislative session on the budget front just as there was a lot of work done by the legislative finance committee before the special session.
“I felt and I hope you all felt that the budget discussions went reasonably smoothly and I think that’s because there was a lot of groundwork done in the month or six weeks before we actually met and we had good recommendation,” she said. “Certainly none of us are happy in terms of where we are in terms of the budget. Our investments in education took a hit. They did not take the same level of sanding as some other areas of the budget. Overall, education still maintained a 4 percent increase in investments in education. Unfortunately, teachers raises were set at a 1 percent level. The governor was asking for 2 percent but the legislature set it at 1 percent and maintained other spending in the area of education.”
Chandler noted that while legislators were pulling back on capital projects and other areas to bring down the level of increase that originally planned for in the FY2020 and FY 2021 budget, she felt they did a good job and that it went relatively smoothly.
Chandler was excited to discuss a measure implemented for small businesses and commended Rep. Daymon Ely from Corrales who she noted was kind of the mover behind the idea of pulling some monies out of the Severance Tax Permanent Fund to assist small New Mexico businesses with very low interest rate loans.
“We pulled $400 million out of the Severance Tax Permanent Fund with the aim of investing in small businesses and we set aside $100 million for governments. As I’m sure all of you know local governments are also feeling the pain of lower gross receipts tax because there is not much spending going on,” she said. “One thing builds on another so local governments are hurting in terms of shortfall. Santa Fe and other places have been hard hit. I think frankly that’s one of our most important achievements of the session.”
Chandler said she was very pleased to work with the tax department on a tax relief bill which will allow people to avoid interest and penalties if they pay their taxes late.
“You have to file on time but you’re given a reprieve in that if you pay late, you will not have to pay interest or penalties and that’s for income tax, GRT, corporate income tax and property tax. That I think was a good accomplishment in an effort to try and relieve some of the burden on the residents and wage earners of the state and the small businesses. There was a very high level of bi-partisan support for both of those bills. I think there was only one dissenting vote on the tax relief bill and on the small business relief package there may have been five or six dissenting House members,” she said. “I hope those two bills help soften the blow to the economy in the state which is suffering. It’s not going to be the end of it all and it’s not going to solve everything, but it will start getting money circulating in the economy and that’s very important in trying to soften whatever recession we’re going to experience.”
She noted that there were a fair number of votes against the Civil Rights Commission in the House.
“Speaker Brian Egolf presented a bill that’s intended to look at how to address civil rights violations primarily in the context of police abuses and so on. A number of us were getting various emails on issues related to law enforcement abuses so the commission is intended to look at abuses. I get emails saying we have to eliminate qualified immunity and I think that’s interesting. Qualified immunity is a federal concept; it is not a state concept,” Chandler said.
Egolf’s bill asked legislators to consider including qualified immunity.
“It will be interesting to see what we come up with because that is embedded in federal law not state law, and as all of you know, state government cannot effect federal law. What we can do is pass laws that would authorize civil rights type cases under state law against law enforcement agencies. The commission that was created in the bill the speaker sponsored and passed and was signed will do that. On a statewide level we can address civil rights types of abuses. The federal law will stand as it is unless it’s addressed on the federal level,” Chandler said.
She noted that said people felt very strongly about police body cameras.
“I’d point out to you that the majority of counties in the state have body camera laws already. The number I remember hearing is that 26 out of the 33 counties do. That doesn’t cover everyone because cities have police forces too and they need body camera laws in place. I don’t know how many cities do and how many don’t. I do know that the sheriff in Bernalillo County has refused to implement a body camera policy within his department and I believe part of the motivator behind the law that was presented to us in this special session was directed at that department, which is one of the largest sheriff’s departments in the state,” she said.
Unfortunately, Chandler said, not all law enforcement officials recognize the value in body cameras and this bill is intended to require all law enforcement agencies to have a body camera policy in place.
“It does not dictate in detail what that policy will say. It simply requires that they create a policy that will require officers to have body cameras when they have a certain kind of interaction with a citizen. I suspect we’re going to be visiting some more about that because there are some holes in the bill. That bill passed and I supported it,” she said.
Chandler said the election bill was the hardest bill for her to make a decision on. She said it intended to be a temporary measure to address this year’s general election and to address some of the issues that came up during the June primary election. She said the original bill allowed county clerks to determine whether or not they would mail out absentee ballot applications to all of the voters, whether they would simply mail out ballots to all of the voters or whether they would do nothing relating to mail-in ballots and maintain the status quo with some variations.
Chandler referred to the committee that has been set up to review the procedures and Chandler thinks this is the place in the bill that allows for all mail-in voting.
“It would have to be done through this committee process based on findings that are presented by the Department of Health Secretary. It’s a very complicated process but if the pandemic is very bad in the fall as some people are predicting, it will, I believe be the opportunity for all mail-in either across the state if every county is viewed as problematic or in certain parts of the state if the numbers relating to the virus and health effects of the virus are such that it may be justified,” she said.
While finding the election bill to be excessively complicated, Chandler said noted other useful provisions in it including timelines for when ballots need to be mailed and when they can be accepted as well as a barcoding so that ballots can be tracked.
“That’s a good thing, but frankly I think that’s something the Secretary of State could have done on her own administratively but it’s in the bill. That will be helpful as we’re trying to understand why some ballots are not making it to the clerks’ offices in a timely fashion. It was a problem in the primary election and we are trying to avoid the problems we saw in the primary with the absentee ballot application process, the delays in mailing out the ballots, the delays in receiving the ballots by the clerks and so all of that is well-intended and very good,” she said.
Chandler said one problem she had with the bill was that she doesn’t think it is appropriate for each county be making election process and that it “goes against all our collective views about how an election should be run”. She also objected to an amendment in the Senate.
“The House was faced with a bad bill that failed eventually on the floor. We caucused and based on assurances from the Speaker that we would remove the provision that Sen. John Sapien added on, a number of us were willing to get something over the finish line for the election that’s coming up,” she said. “I was not happy voting for the bill. I think there are a lot of problems with the bill and I hope it sorts itself out because it’s very complicated in terms of how it’s written.”
Chandler said it’s important to show that mail-in voting can be done.
“We did not have a good experience with the primary and I really hope we do have a good experience with the general election, because if people don’t have confidence that we can implement these kinds of alternate voting measures, they will not have confidence for long-term fixes that I think many of us want to see. I support all mail-in balloting but if we continue to have these kinds of complications people are not going to be confident that we can implement it in a professional way where everybody’s vote is counted,” she said.