Lock up your cash, bar the doors and hide the booze: The Legislature is about to come to order.
The New Mexico Legislature convenes next week, and it promises to be a feisty one. The 60-day session begins on Tuesday, Jan. 17 and will run through March 18.
As of Jan. 6, some 148 bills, memorials and resolutions had been pre-filed, and many, many more will follow. Issues that will be debated this year include ways to get tougher on drunken driving, a tight and declining state budget, marijuana legalization, and school funding and how to manage it—and that’s just touching the surface.
In 2016, we had a divided house, with the Senate under the control of the Democrats and the House of Representatives dominated by the Republicans. But with the outcome of last year’s general election, both chambers will now see Democratic majorities.
That means it’ll be all the tougher for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez to advance her agenda, which includes another crackdown on one of the state’s biggest public-safety issues—driving while intoxicated. New Mexico leads the nation in drunken-driving fatalities per capita and Martinez is again proposing legislation to address it, by strengthening mandatory sentencing laws and allowing officers involved in DWI cases to testify in court via video conferencing to cut down on the number of dismissals.
These aren’t new proposals. DWI penalties were strengthened when her predecessor, Bill Richardson, was governor—he, like Martinez, made the issue a priority—and video testimony has come up to no avail in past sessions, as has more treatment for offenders and a greater police presence on the streets and highways.
Moreover, another approach to the battle against drinking and driving has failed to garner much traction: holding bars, restaurants and liquor stores more accountable for selling alcohol. Place-of-last-drink measures have been passed in other states, including, in years past, New Mexico. The Martinez administration recently launched an ad campaign, dubbed Buzzkill, emphasizing bartenders’ and servers’ responsibility to cut off drinking customers if they’ve had too much to drink, but so far the emphasis has been on the drunk drivers themselves—especially the repeat offenders. Perhaps this year we’ll see the laws tightened on the sellers of alcohol as well.
The state’s budget, of course, will be a big topic of debate in the upcoming session, as lawmakers and the governor grapple with declining tax revenues as a result of a long-running slump in the oil-and-gas industry. Taxes imposed on this industry account for about a third of the state’s tax revenues, so the slowdown in oil-and-gas production has hit state coffers hard. What to cut and where to raise taxes will be the subject of much partisan debate.
Moreover, lawmakers are looking at ways to revamp the way online retailers are taxed in the state, which many see as an issue of fairness, since brick-and-mortar establishments are already paying their fair share of taxes on goods and services sold in-state.
Pot will also permeate the session, as a proposal to place before the voters the question of legalizing recreational marijuana has its best chance yet at success. Martinez is long opposed to legalization but she can’t veto a legislative resolution that would place it before the voters, and the Democrats now control both chambers. Since it has the potential of becoming a cash cow for the state, as it has become in Colorado and a growing number of other states, it’ll be a mighty tempting way to bring more dollars into state coffers.
And speaking of state coffers, public education is the single most funded aspect of state government, and our schools are also in need of serious reforms. With tax revenues on the decline, lawmakers won’t be able to throw more money at the problem, so they’ll be turning to other means, such as restructuring the oversight and application of public education in our state.
One proposal is already in the works to eliminate the secretary of education post and replace it with a state board of education. Another is to revamp the way the state evaluates students’ and teachers’ success. Educators around the state have been outspoken in their criticisms of the Martinez administration’s methods of evaluating and assessing schools, and these proposals might just gain traction in the upcoming session.
Of course, these are just a few of the hundreds of measures that will come up in the 2017 session. Buckle up and brace yourself, it promises to be quite a ride.
Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.