BY MAIRE O’NEILL
All three legislators who represent Los Alamos County sounded excited about the upcoming legislative session which begins Jan. 19 when they spoke during the virtual the League of Women Voters/American Association of University Women Legislative Preview Thursday evening. Rep. Christine Chandler, Sen. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales and Sen. Leo Jaramillo answered questions on everything from cannabis to redistricting, discussed legislation they are involved in and addressed some of the proposed logistics of the upcoming session.
“It’s going to be a virtually all virtual session. The plan is for all committee meetings to be virtual and we did that in the last two special sessions in November and June,” Chandler said.
She noted that the June 2020 session was a little rocky but that by November things went a better. The hope and expectation in the house is that representatives are getting better at the virtual system and that it will continue to improve.
“We will continue to invite public participation just as we do when we have live committee hearings so that people will be able to speak to particular legislation as we are hearing those bills. People who have internet can participate through Zoom and for folks who don’t have good access to internet there will be arrangements for calling in by phone and offering their input,” Chandler said.
Floor sessions will be conducted virtually but Speaker Brian Egolf and staff will be on the house floor and members will not be barred from participating from there but will be expected and required to use a virtual medium to participate so everyone will be on an even footing in terms of how they choose to participate.
“The Roundhouse to my knowledge will not be open to the public. There will be some access for the press to be in the building. Members will have access to their offices and are free to use them to participate by Zoom or can stay at home and participate from there. The first day of the session everyone is expected to be there because we will need to enact some rule changes before we move to the virtual process,” Chandler said.
She acknowledged that the session is going to be difficult.
“Everyone much prefers interacting with the public on a one-on-one interpersonal basis and we also prefer interacting with one another one-on- one on a live and personal basis. There is something that is lost in terms of the quality of communication, I think, and the benefits of personal interaction,” she said.
To date, Chandler has pre-filed four bills, two of which are employment-related.
“One is an earned sick leave bill that will require employers to offer sick leave to their employees and the other is a bill I introduced in my first term and I’m bringing it back. It’s a paid family medical leave act bill. They’re related but they’re not identical benefit packages,” she said.
The sick leave bill would allow people to have 5-8 days of sick leave depending on the size of the company.
“I think we all recognize the need for people to have that safety net when they’re not well, so they won’t go to work and expose others. We know people who are at work who are sick are not as productive and employers actually lose productivity when that happens and certainly there’s the public health and safety issue associated with ensuring people don’t come to work sick,” she said.
The paid family medical leave legislation is much more long-term, Chandler said. Employers and employees pay a small amount of money into a trust fund, then people who are eligible for the leave would apply to that program and a portion of their salary would be covered up to a cap.
Chandler said she is also carrying a water leasing bill that’s a priority for the New Mexico Acequia Association that reminds the state engineer of his responsibility to honor due process in the context of water leases.
“Presently the state engineer has engaged in a process of preliminarily approving leases of water without addressing protests. What happens is he frequently preliminarily a lease of water and the protestants have to wait for a long period of time to have their protests heard – all while water is being diverted to the person who is leasing those water rights. It’s an important bill and it’s a bill that recognizes an individual’s property interest and their right to due process,” she said.
Chandler also filed a bill which would provide increase to the low income compensating tax rebate which was designed to address in part the lack of progressivity in the tax code.
“We rely heavily on gross receipts tax as our mechanism for raising revenues to support state operations and I think all of us realize that is a regressive system. Through the income tax avenue we put in place a rebate system for lower income individuals based on their income and number of dependents. We have not adjusted that system since 1998 so it’s way out of date in terms of income levels and the amount of the rebate so I’m adjusting it to the consumer price index,” she said.
She is also likely to be filing a bill to increase tobacco tax this session.
In terms of other things of importance Chandler believes the legislature will be working on, she mentioned that broadband is certainly going to be in the forefront.
“I spent the summer with a working with a group on the issues that need to be addressed with broadband. I understand Sen. Padilla will be introducing legislation that will attempt to provide mechanisms to foster the expansion of high-speed internet service,” she said.
Chandler said the legislature will certainly be hearing about decriminalizing abortion this year as well as legalizing adult use cannabis and adjusting the permanent fund to support early childhood education.
“Those are issues it’s going to be very difficult to address in terms of logistics and we are definitely going to have a very full agenda,” she said.
Gonzales said the senate has been informed that committee hearings, debating and voting on bills will be in person in the senate chamber. The Capitol is closed to the public, he said.
“Right now we don’t have a clear direction. Possibility we will meet at first and then do everything virtually and then come back again. It is a very different year,” said Gonzales who will be at the legislature for his 26th year. “We’re making the best of it, making it work.”
As a former school superintendent, Gonzales noted that one of the big concerns this session is education. He said about two weeks ago he participated in a Los Alamos School Board meeting and heard a presentation by Chamisa Elementary School staff.
“They have made lemonade with lemons. I was impressed by how excited and enthused they were about teaching virtually. One of the things that really hit me was that before COVID, you always looked at a beginning teacher and then someone who has 20 years of experience and of course you thought the more experience the more skill. But by doing virtual, I see that the younger group- they have more of the skillset in the virtual part than some of our veterans,” Gonzales said. “This is probably the first time there’s a level playing field because they’re all doing it virtually which is new so there has to be a lot of strategy and planning on the implementation and how to deliver the instruction. I thought it very fascinating. I was very impressed with Los Alamos Schools and the teachers that were doing that presentation.”
Gonzales said he has pre-filed five bills and is probably looking at another five. Two of the bills he is carrying are the type of legislation that takes a lot of work, he said. One is the Health Security Act that he has carried before with the late Sen. Carlos Cisneros.
“Every year we get a little closer. Last year with the HSA was the first time that we were able to get funding for a study that was to be done,” Gonzales said. “If that happens, it would be a very big plus to our state – to have the health coverage and health security for all the residents of New Mexico.”
Gonzales is also working on a trapping bill that he has sponsored for several years.
“You get a lot of supporters and a lot of opposition… It’s way overdue. We don’t want to see in public lands individuals that have been hurt. I’m very sensitive to the opposition but it still leaves that opportunity for the private land. We will be seeing a lot of discussion, a lot of time on this bill,” he said.
Gonzales said another bill that is very important is a bill that would add a 1 cent increase for gas and special fuels with a 10-year sunset. He lamented that this had not been implemented a long time ago. He said in 1995, the 6 cents gas tax was repealed and it was a popular measure because gas was too high and the repeal was going to help everyone.
“We really shot ourselves in the foot. We have been very strapped for funding since,” he said.
Gonzales has pre-filed legislation making an appropriation to the Public Education Department for a college career readiness program known as AVID which currently has 20 school districts involved.
“It really helps rural areas and minorities by providing another opportunity to be prepared for making career readiness post-high school,” he said. Last years’ appropriation was $100,000 but he is looking for a much higher amount this year.
Jaramillo said he is excited not just because it is his first legislative session as a senator but that more people can be more involved in a virtual setting.
“We will be able to have office hours in virtual format also. I’ve heard from a lot of people that are excited to join in the session because before they normally wouldn’t go because of parking or childcare issues or they couldn’t get to the Roundhouse. This allows them to participate from the comfort of their homes and those without internet can still participate with a phone number they can dial into,” he said.
Jaramillo said bills he will be carrying with fellow senators and representatives include a housing omnibus bill which will update the housing code for equality and human rights. It’s landlord and tenant protection and increased pandemic protections and modernizing the code in general.
While chair of Rio Arriba County Commission Jaramillo said he heard from victims of sexual abuse where children who have experienced violent crimes get really scared to testify against the person who committed the crime and to stand as a witness in trial.
“There’s a bill I’ll be carrying to protect victims from harassment and post crime trauma that can continue to affect crime victims long after. This would mean that a child would do one interview with a professional and their interview would serve as their testimony in a court of law,” he said.
Jaramillo is also working on a bill for the Department of Transportation Department which would allow funds from carrier registration fees that now go to the Public Regulation Commission first, to go directly to DOT.
“This would eliminate the middleman holding back money and taking time to move that money over which means money would go immediately to the DOT so that it could be used for projects that would benefit people throughout New Mexico,” he said.
which the victim made an unwanted non-forcible romantic or sexual advance toward the defendant or the defendant and victim were engaged in a personal, romantic or sexual relationship:
Jaramillo also discussed a bill he is involved in that would prohibit someone accused of a violent crime from using a defense related to the victim’s gender, gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation. The bill would also include circumstances in which the victim made an unwanted, non-violent, non-aggressive advance towards a member of the same sex or by a person who is transgender.
Jaramillo said an issue he ran for election on was tapping into the Permanent Land Grant Fund to foster education for students K-12.
“I’m also interested in working with Representative Chandler on her acequia bill and possibly co-sponsoring it with her. As we say up north, water es vida; water is definitely part of our culture in Northern New Mexico and needs to be protected,” he said.
The three lawmakers spent almost an hour answering questions posed by those attending the forum, including one related to redistricting for the state’s congressional, Public Education Commission, state house and senate districts. They were asked if they would support a bill establishing a redistricting advisory commission. All three responded that the support the concept but would have to read the bill before making a final decision.
Likewise, all three agreed that they would support any effort by the legislature to decriminalize abortion and doctors who provide them.
All three legislators said they would not support ranked choice voting for state elections. Chandler said she recognized that many people feel it might improve participation but that she is skeptical about that and would prefer a system that is more transparent.
“I’m concerned it is a process that confuses and it’s not something that would work well in New Mexico,” she said.