Rep. Christine Chandler
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
House District 43 Rep. Christine Chandler reported to the Los Alamos County Council last week on the recent legislative session covering everything from the new Broadband Access & Expansion Act to legislators being surprising productive as they operated under very unusual circumstances.
“The Roundhouse was closed and under heightened security for reasons deriving from the fact that there was an insurrection in January and there were concerns about the safety of many state capitols. That’s what started it and then we had the COVID crisis on top of it all,” she said.
Chandler noted that the House operated in a hybrid mode with all committee meetings held virtually and physical presence optional for floor sessions.
“I spent my time at the Roundhouse almost every day that we were in session and participated largely from my office, sometimes from the floor. The Senate operated a little bit differently in that their committee meetings were virtual but their floor sessions were all live. They have a smaller number of people and I think the feeling was that they could operate safely,” she said. “We observed COVID protocols; everyone was required to wear a mask of course. There was weekly testing for employees and on a voluntary basis legislators were tested as well. It went reasonably well. We had very few cases of COVID detected through our testing process.”
Chandler said the state budget is of course the most important thing legislators do and that fortunately the state’s financial position is improving. She recalled that last summer, with COVID and plummeting oil prices, the state was in a very tight situation. She noted that oil prices are back up, and that state and local governments are receiving a lot of federal support that has helped as well.
“Our budget this year is $7.44 billion and that represents almost a 5 percent increase. Public education got a significant increase of 5.8 percent, higher education got a 2.8 percent increase, and we continue to have healthy reserves, close to 23 percent which is $1.76 billion,” she said.
One of the principal and early focuses in the session was additional COVID relief for businesses through HB 11, cosponsored by Chandler which provides some $200 million in direct financial support for small to mid-size New Mexico businesses. Under SB 1, a four-month gross receipts tax holiday was created for restaurants, and a $600 tax credit was created for those earning $ 31,200 or less, Chandler said.
“We expanded additional money to the Small Business Stimulus Act that was originally enacted in June of last year that was an effort to support businesses as well. I’m optimistic that these programs as well as the federal programs will have significant effect in terms of rebounding and supporting our economy here in the state,” she said.
Chandler spoke of the Alcohol and Licensure Reform Act noting that it significantly changes how alcohol licenses are distributed in the state. She said notably it creates a class of license that is very affordable and that restaurants would be eligible to supplement their beer and wine license by selling spirits. She said the law is very expansive and the state will be issuing information about it.
“It is in a way a remarkable feat. It was a heavy lift and it’s a reform that’s been talked about in the state for decades,” she said.
Chandler said the Cannabis Regulation Act was passed during the special session and allows for the production, sale and adult possession and use of cannabis. It creates a regulatory and taxing framework for adult use cannabis. There is lots of work to be done in terms of regulations and issuance of licensing and local governments will receive guidance from the state.
Another bill Chandler worked on during the special session, SB 1, creates a funding mechanism for Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) projects whose construction costs are likely to be equal to or greater than $350 million.
She was also successful with HB 291 which expanded tax credits and rebates to provide more money for low income families and of course one of her major victories was the passage of the Healthy Workplaces Act which guarantees the right for workers to earn up to 64 hours of sick leave which allows them to stay home when they are sick. Healthcare Affordability legislation also passed which Chandler said lowers health care premiums, expands coverage to an estimated 23,000 uninsured New and prohibits cost-sharing by insurers on behavioral health services
Chandler spoke at length about the Connect New Mexico Act and the broadband issue which she has been working on for some time with a group of eight female, mostly sophomore legislators.
“The legislature was very, very aware of a need to focus on broadband and ensure that there is a cohesive program to expand access across the state. Unfortunately New Mexico is at the bottom in terms of connectivity and we really saw it when COVID hit and students and others needed to participate remotely and we didn’t have the infrastructure to support it,” she said.
The women began working on the bill in April after the COVID crisis began. Chandler said a number of the women in the group are teachers who were really feeling the pain of many of their student who didn’t have strong broadband access.
“We said to ourselves, ,’We need to fix this. It’s not for us to wait for people to bring us solutions’. We really wanted to focus on where the problems were and how we could come up with an expansive bill that would address those problems. Connect New Mexico is an act that we put together that is designed to do just that and it stems in part from a study that was done and published in June last year by the IT Department of the state and it provided a road map of the things we need to do,” Chandler said.
She said the state needed a centralized location in the state that’s responsible for broadband.
“Prior to this legislation and companion legislation, SB 93, broadband was sprinkled across many departments in the state and certainly that will continue to some degree, but there is now one point of responsibility, planning, funding and so on, and that is the Office of Broadband. Our bill creates a council that is responsible for prioritizing projects across the state and working with the federal government and local governments to support broadband initiatives,” she said.
There is now a broadband fund that was created that received close to $100 million through the general fund.
“Those monies are intended to help leverage federal funds that are out there, have been out there for some time, but right now the federal government’s focus on broadband is tremendous and this is the time for the state to try and leverage those monies, to bring those monies back to the state and investment them directly into broadband. I would encourage the County Council and staff to reach out directly to the state broadband department to look for ways for the County to leverage monies such as these because the County should be eligible to receive funds and to receive federal monies and often matching grants are necessary,: she said. “I haven’t followed the County’s program recently, but I encourage you strongly to explore avenues from the federal broadband initiatives to bring monies into the County and leverage those monies to work on your own broadband expansion. It’s very important.”
The Early Childhood Education House Joint Resolution passed. Chandler said this is an initiative that has been out there for a number of years and the intent is to draw an additional amount of money from revenues generated by the Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood education and care programs as well as K-12 education by tapping an additional 1.25 percent of revenues. This measure is a constitutional amendment and will be placed on the ballot.
She also noted the passage of the Civil Rights Act following many modifications, a number of which were at the request of the Municipal League or the New Mexico Association of Counties such as the limit on damages and attorney’s fees.
“A bill that I know is near and dear my heart and Council Vice Chair James Robinson’s heart is Roxy’s Act which is also known as the Wildlife Conservation and Public Safety Act, that prohibits the use of traps, snares and poison on public land. I was a cosponsor on that bill which also passed,” Chandler said.
Chandler was also happy with the passage of SB 304 establishing a bipartisan redistricting committee at the 11th hour.
Two environmental bills she sponsored, State Government Air Quality RegulationsAct, which grants the state the ability to adopt more rigorous air quality and hazardous waste regulations, and the Air Quality Permitting Act, which allows the New Mexico Environment Department to consider a permittee/applicant’s history of non-compliance when issuing, renewing or revoking an air quality permit, also passed. Chandler. NMED can now develop comprehensive regulations for PFAS.
Following the presentation, Councilor David Reagor immediately confronted Chandler about using the word “insurrection”.
“I’m just wondering, Christine, are we going to have to listen to these national media frauds being presented in our Council meetings because that happened once already and I don’t need to listen to any more talk about the fake insurrection. It’s about as real as the Gulf of Tonkin incident which was used as a justification for other uncivil action. I hope that everyone in the Council will stop mentioning these kind of national media frauds that then I have to answer and waste time on,” he said.
In response to questions about her work on broadband, Chandler said she thinks the state has for too long had a hands-off approach to stimulating the development of a comprehensive program. She noted that the Office of Broadband will have additional employees.
“There is going to be a director. There is going to have to be better coordinator through this Council that will include all of the department s that touch broadband or internet in some way. I think that’s one of the most significant problems. There was no central place. It was underfunded. When there is no central place then no one is responsible and when there’s no one responsible there’s no way for them to have accountability so this will create an accountability mechanism and the legislature will know who to talk to to make sure things are happening,” she said.
Chandler said one thing she heard about consistently when talking to ISP providers and others is the right-of-way problem.
“It sounds like a small thing but it’s huge because we have federal lands, we have state lands, we have Native American lands and we have different agencies that manage rights-of-way. Each agency has different policies and some of them are not well defined so it’s often a ‘bring me the lock’ kind of thing. So let’s say a provider wants to put in some broadband or cable. Sometimes, they are starting from scratch,” she said, adding that there is no unified program or consistency between state departments.
Chandler also discussed the definition of quality of broadband service that is imbedded in the legislation. She noted that areas that are currently underserved or unserved will be the focal point for the broadband council to jumpstart.
“Access to towers is another thing we need policies on The state owns 100 or so towers. A lot of them are owned by the Transportation Department or the Public Safety Department and we need an easier way for private entities to get access to those towers so they’re not building towers themselves. To build a tower in some areas with very rough terrain is very expensive but if we could develop easy mechanisms for ISP providers to get east access to those towers it would help tremendously,” she said.
Asked how she felt how she felt about the hybrid model of attendance at the legislature, Chandler said she thought it worked very well.
“I frankly was very skeptical going in…. I really like the personal contact and I was certain it was going to be horrible. It was not horrible. Early on there were occasionally glitches we had to understand better with the technology but frankly those smoothed out over time and it worked out very well. Some legislators worked remotely and it worked out very well,” she said. “What it did was it opened up access for the public in ways we have not seen before.”
She noted that maintaining some kind of remote access for the public in the future is being considered because there was so much public interest in certain bills. There were very few technical problems she said.
“There were occasions when frankly when citizens had weak broadband but we also had the alternative of a phone in so people could call in if they didn’t have string internet service. I thought it worked well. I think my colleagues were happy with the how well it worked…. It all came together just fine after a few days of juggling around with technology and the logistics of it all,” she said.