New Mexico’s century-old constitution plays oil and gas game
The 2022 New Mexico Legislature session ended four weeks ago, but many who worked during the session are still scratching their heads over what they saw.
Apparently, they attended a biannual session dedicated to allocating the biggest state budget in history – a budget built largely on revenues from the oil and gas industry. But 642 other joint bills, measures and resolutions were slipped into the docket during the four-week meeting — with proposed legislation ranging from payday loan regulations to a constitutional green amendment, to housing, to housing. by a new hydrogen hub. Most have never come close to a floor vote.
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And to top it off, the chaos ended in all-night floor sessions marked by grandstanding and filibuster that both prolonged debate and ran out the time on many bills.
“This session was so crazy,” says Sen. Antoinette Sedillo López (D-Albuquerque). “I’m trying to process it.”
Much has not been done, and that is no surprise to any lawmakers, activists or academics who have followed the case. But the scope and importance of this unfinished business – particularly in the area of the environment – have many saying that the crux of the matter is the state constitution itself, and that the constitution needs to be changed to prevent powerful interests from playing with the system.
“This legislature was conceived in 1911,” says Senator Sedillo López. “That was when the bosses and ranchers would literally go to the Capitol on horseback and buggies and do a few little bills, pass the budget and go home.”
State legislators have amended the constitution more than 70 times over the years, although its basic structure remains the same.
New Mexico has the only unpaid state legislature in the country, so only people who can miss work for one or two months a year can afford to hold office.
“The world is simply more complex than it used to be,” says Timothy Krebs, PhD, chair of the political science department at the University of New Mexico. He points to Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s signing act for the session – a hydrogen development act that failed spectacularly four times. Krebs was not surprised. “It’s really complicated legislation,” he says. For lawmakers to understand and decide on something that covers CO2 emissions, grants, loans, bonds and power plants in one bill in a 30-day session? “I don’t see it,” he said.
House Speaker Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe) didn’t see it either. After the governor and others spent months drafting and promoting hydrogen center legislation, Egolf used the power of the presidency to introduce two versions of the bill, without comment, effectively killing them in about 15 seconds in total.
Egolf did not respond directly to questions about hydrogen bills. “During the 30-day session,” he says, “our primary duty is to create and approve the state budget.”
But in a state facing another year of crippling drought — caused in large part by fossil fuels unearthed on its borders — there’s a lot more for a legislature to do in a year than manage a budget.
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Lawmakers swapped horses and buggies for cars and trucks, but the impression of a wealthy elite ruling the state still holds. This is because New Mexico has the only unpaid state legislature in the country, so only people who can miss work for one or two months a year can afford to hold office. Legislators receive a daily stipend of $165 to cover living expenses in the capital, Santa Fe, during the session, though hotel costs near the Roundhouse (the state capitol) run between $200 and $400. $ per night.
“There are lawmakers who romanticize this citizen’s legislature,” says Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces). “But this romanticization is what has driven our failure to truly plan for a just future for all, and instead enables a system that benefits greed and corruption. At present, it is absolutely impossible for a New -Regular Mexican to serve without making real personal and professional sacrifices,” she said.
“Unless you are somehow retired or independently wealthy, how long can you afford to serve?” Krebs asks. “You’re trying to serve the public at the same time you’re trying to maintain a roof over your head… It’s hard.”
There are many retirees on both sides of the aisle. “I couldn’t have done that in my thirties, mid-career, absolutely not,” says Sedillo López. “But I’m retired, and that’s the only thing that allows me to do that.”
Short sessions aggravate the problem. Legislators deal with budgets in one-month sessions in even years and everything else in two-month sessions in odd years. The lack of time means that “we are constantly behind other states in solving the really important political problems”, says Sedillo López.
“My first year in the Legislative Assembly, I was shocked when someone told me that if there was no one available to answer my questions, just ask a lobbyist.”
~ Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces)
Setting every two years also means that legislation stalled in a session often has to wait two years before being proposed again. “The issues they’re facing are really complex,” Krebs explains, “and even in the 60-day session…it’s still not enough time.”
Most states with short sessions overcome this problem with large legislative staffs, but New Mexico’s grassroots lawmakers don’t have that luxury. Committee chairs and members of key committees have staff to help analyze what’s at stake, but most legislators are on their own.
“My first year in the Legislative Assembly, I was shocked when someone told me that if there was no one available to answer my questions, just ask a lobbyist,” says Rubio.
“They often don’t have the ability to make…reasonable, rational, good decisions,” Krebs says. “It will have long-term impacts for the state.”
It also empowers lobbyists and others with the means to devote time and resources to shaping legislation to suit their interests. In New Mexico, that means oil and gas.
“It’s such an unfair advantage,” Rubio says. “But it’s normalized.”
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“Oil and gas are powerful because they have expertise,” says Krebs. Oil and gas lobbyists (among others) are paid to work year-round on policy and legislation. While New Mexico lawmakers go about their daily business, powerful interests “can work quietly behind the scenes and get what they want from the legislature.”
Moreover, especially in the last session, the oil and gas industry was in everyone’s mind, because its revenues paid 40% of the state budget. Historically, it splits campaign money equally on both sides of the political aisle, although generally more for Republicans.
“There is a bipartisan relationship with the oil and gas industry,” says Erik Schlenker Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center. “It raises a legitimate question of whether the legislature is driven by the interests of the people or the interests of the oil and gas industry.”
Gov. Lujan Grisham’s office did not respond to questions about the entrenched issues facing lawmakers, but his press secretary, Nora Meyers Sackett, wrote, “Gov. Lujan Grisham is proud to lead one of, if not the most, climate-friendly administrations in the country, and its work to mitigate the effects of climate change while creating jobs and a clean energy future for generations of new Mexicans to come will continue. .”
This actually worries Senator Sedillo López, because much of the governor’s work has been done by executive order. “It’s not written into the law and the statutes,” she said.
Since New Mexico is the nation’s second-largest oil producer, environmental and climate legislation here can have an outsized impact nationally — if passed.
Sedillo López evokes the administration of Bill Richardson, which created a series of climate and environmental regulations by decree. His term ended 11 years ago and he was replaced by Susana Martinez, a Republican. “And within 10 months, the Martinez administration had reversed all that,” says Sedillo López.
The Green Amendment she has championed in the past two sessions would have made a healthy environment a constitutional right and helped enshrine some environmental gains into law – but it was again overturned this session after strong lobbying of the oil and gas industry. This despite very apparent public support.
“Legislation like this doesn’t pass because of our dependence on oil and gas,” Rubio says.
Other major environmental laws that failed after fossil fuel groups lobbied against it include clean fuel standards and statewide greenhouse gas emission limits. Since New Mexico is the second largest oil producer in the country and 53% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the operations of the oil and gas industry, environmental and climate legislation here can have a disproportionate impact at the national level – if it passes.
“There are probably things that [the Legislature] could do that would have an immediate effect,” Krebs says. “Increasing the legislative session…paying the legislators…probably the most important thing is to increase the staff.”
Rubio tried to start this process during the session. Of the many bills she sponsored, two dealt directly with legislative matters – one to create a commission to set the salaries of elected officials and other public servants (it was not passed by the committee) and another to fund a study of legislative sessions and salaries. This died after the “junior” funding bill in which it was contained was not signed by the governor.
Until legislative change occurs, Sedillo López thinks it’s unlikely lawmakers can effectively pass significant legislation, let alone successfully regulate fossil fuel interests. “That program would be, I think, full-time for months. But we don’t have that,” she says. “It’s a lot easier for oil and gas to shut down things they don’t want because we meet so rarely.”
So while this legislative session may have looked like a chaotic four weeks in which very little was accomplished for New Mexico, it was actually a very productive year for oil and gas. “They had a successful session,” says Sedillo López.
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