With time running out on session, some lose patience with Senate Judiciary Committee

Algernon D'Ammassa
Las Cruces Sun-News
From left, Senate Minority Leader Gregory Baca, R-Belen, Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, talk on the Senate Floor before the start of the 2021 legislative session in the State Capitol in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

SANTA FE – In the closing days of this year's 60-day legislative session, the New Mexico Senate Judiciary Committee worked into the morning hours Thursday to approve a cannabis legalization bill that may yet make it to the Senate floor before the session closes Saturday. 

As time runs out on another session, days extend longer, the fates of dozens of bills still awaiting committee action grows doubtful and frustrations by lawmakers and advocates rise — along with suspicions that committee chairs might hold up certain bills on purpose. 

Conservation groups on Wednesday criticized the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee's chairman, Democratic state Sen. Joe Cervantes of Las Cruces, accusing him of effectively pocket-vetoing bills unfavorable to the oil and gas industry. 

In January, New Mexico Ethics Watch reported that oil and gas companies, affiliated political action committees and associations, lobbyists and individuals contributed $3.3 million to state candidates. Cervantes is among them.

The conservationists on the call concluded that New Mexico's oil and gas industry was exercising broad influence over leadership's priorities.

Cervantes denied that accusation in an interview Thursday, saying industrial lobbies exert "absolutely zero" influence over committee agendas in the closing days of a session. 

Cervantes, who assumed the chairmanship in 2020, said: "I'm taking the heat that other chairmen before me used to take."

"Prioritization has many, many factors: Principally, close discussions between me as a chairman and the leadership of the Senate and the House," Cervantes continued. "We look at bills that are important to the public and will benefit as many New Mexicans as possible, and we also look for legislation that has been well written and not just cobbled together. We see a lot of poorly written bills and there's only so much time our committee has to rewrite them." 

On Wednesday night, the committee toiled over HB 12, the cannabis bill, for over four hours, examining several amendments as well as a proposed substitute bill. 

"You're spending three or four hours on one bill. That's a lot of disappointed sponsors who didn't see their bills get heard last night," Cervantes remarked.

The organization Food & Water Watch hosted Wednesday's conference with representatives from WildEarth Guardians and Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA). They were joined by state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and state Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, both Democrats from Albuquerque. 

Joseph Cervantes

The lawmakers are also among the candidates seeking to run in the June 1 special election to select a successor to U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland in New Mexico's 1st congressional district. Haaland is vacating the seat to serve as U.S. Interior Secretary

More: U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell opens Las Cruces field office

The organizers complained that a bill proposing a four-year moratorium on fracking, and a joint resolution that would put a constitutional guarantee of clean water and air and a stable climate before voters, were among more than 100 bills assigned to Cervantes' committee. 

The fracking bill, SB 149, was sponsored by Sedillo Lopez and Roybal Caballero and earned a "do pass" recommendation from the Senate Conservation Committee in February on a 5-4 vote. Cervantes, a member of that committee, joined three Republicans in voting against it. 

Sedillo Lopez is also a co-sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution 3, the proposed "Green Amendment," along with Las Cruces Democrats Sen. William Soules and Rep. Joanne Ferrary and Sen. Harold Pope, an Albuquerque Democrat. 

The joint resolution cleared the Senate Rules Committee early in February on a party-line 7-4 vote, but has not been scheduled for its next stop: Judiciary.

"These bills have been thwarted," Rebecca Sobel of WildEarth Guardians charged. "They were intentionally taken off the table and stalled in committee." 

Not so, Cervantes said: "We don't hear a lot of bills in the first two or three weeks. … They usually get vetted in the earlier committees first and only reach Judiciary by about the second, third or fourth week."

That creates a bottleneck on second committees late in the session, a flaw Cervantes acknowledged.

"We really do need to be reassessing how we meet," he said. Although he does not favor moving to a full-time Legislature, he sponsored a bill to make it easier for the Legislature to call itself into session. That proposal did not gain traction with his colleagues, but the Senate passed his bill calling for a state Constitutional Revision Commission to include legislative processes. The bill currently awaits action in the House.

"Our system of making laws in New Mexico is in the dark ages," Sedillo Lopez said during Wednesday's press conference.

The senator complained that New Mexico's part-time legislature, limited to passing bill during annual 60- and 30-day sessions or special sessions, did not have sufficient staffing or time for effective lawmaking. "The world is changing too fast for us to keep up in this current format," she added. 

Roybal Caballero said institutionalized attitudes about gender and ethnic identity also  influences how committee chairs prioritize which bills, and even which lawmakers, win attention. 

"The barriers and the stereotypes and the racist ways in which we operate have to be broken down," she said.

State Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, is seen in a Jan. 21, 2020 file photo at the state Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M.

The 2021 legislative session ends at noon on Saturday, leaving little time for remaining bills to finish readings before committees and reach the House and Senate floors for debate and final votes.

The Legislature can discuss bills during interim committee meetings, but not take action.

More: New Mexico cannabis legalization bill advances

Sedillo Lopez was hesitant to criticize Cervantes directly during the news conference, but after stating that she'd gotten "little response or very unsatisfactory response" to her inquiries, she remarked, "In our system, the chair of the Judiciary (Committee) has a lot of power in determining which bills go forward. There are some leaders who are power sharers and some leaders who are not, and that's all I'm going to say about that." 

Both lawmakers argued the time limits create a system in which bills must be prioritized, delivering excess power to those who set the agendas — committee chairs in particular.

And the bills that are pending are not all related to oil and gas. Another bill from Sedillo Lopez, authorizing court-appointed parent coordinators, awaits action as well as many others

"We have to look at extending our sessions," Roybal Caballero said. "We cannot do our business in 30 days and 60 days and say we are actually doing what we were sent to do in a comprehensive and holistic and effective manner." 

Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, adammassa@lcsun-news.com or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.