New Mexico lawmakers gather for special session on cannabis and economic development funds

Algernon D'Ammassa
Las Cruces Sun-News
  • The Legislature considers cannabis regulations and criminal expungements in separate bills.
  • Senate passes expansion of an economic development grant fund to lure larger businesses to state.
  • 'Feed bill' to pay for special session passes on divided vote due to cannabis provisions.

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers returned to the Capitol Tuesday, ten days after the regular legislative session closed, to open a special session focusing partly on an effort to legalize cannabis for adult use.

Legislative committees got to work considering separate bills that would create a framework of regulations permitting cannabis use by residents aged 21 or older and addressing expungement of convictions for the federally illegal substance commonly known as marijuana.

The bill, which would enact one of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's major legislative objectives, would open the state to commercial sales of cannabis by April 2022. 

Controversy over the measure slowed the progress of the so-called "feed bill" funding the special session, which passed in both chambers on divided votes — mainly over Republicans' objections that the bill also appropriates nearly $7 million for implementation of the cannabis legislation in the event it becomes law. 

HB 2, the Cannabis Regulation Act, received a "do pass" recommendation from the House Taxation and Revenue Committee on a party-line vote after amending it to add a gradual excise tax increase. Eight Democrats approved the bill and four Republicans voted no. It will proceed next to the House Judiciary Committee.

An alternative cannabis regulation bill sponsored by state Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, was not heard.

LEDA expansion passes the senate

The House Tax, Business and Transportation Committee, meanwhile, unanimously approved a Senate bill expanding the Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) to allow sharing of state and local taxes for construction and infrastructure costs that help recruit larger companies to invest in New Mexico. LEDA has been referred to as a "closing fund" for luring economic development from outside the state.

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Projects eligible under the new program would have to be more than $350 million, be limited to new project construction and require approval of the state Economic Development Department as well as local governments affected. 

New Mexico state Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, presents legislation on the floor of the New Mexico Senate on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

Eric Montgomery of the Mesilla Valley Economic Development Alliance in Doña Ana County, speaking in support of the bill, cited the need to compete with neighboring states to lure investments.

“With every single project, we’re competing with Texas," he said. "Texas does not tax construction, and this is a major issue for a number of economic development projects in New Mexico. This legislation helps us address that impediment.”

When asked whether film production companies would be eligible, state Economic Development Secretary Alicia Keyes said they could be except for the fact that their eligible costs would not amount to the $350 million threshold for this program.

State Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, presented the bill on the Senate floor Tuesday night alongside Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo. 

Griggs disclosed that there were three projects under negotiation for LEDA funding that would potentially be eligible for the new program if it passed, but did not disclose details of the projects or parties involved citing the customary confidentiality of potential LEDA projects.

Pirtle called foul, claiming the project was a "sweetheart deal" for undisclosed parties and projects. 

But Correa Hemphill argued the bill would send a message to large companies that New Mexico is "business friendly," and it passed the Senate with a bipartisan 28-10 vote. 

Criminal expungements

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee spent hours crafting amendments to SB 2, the bill related to expungement of cannabis-related criminal records, which supporters of legal cannabis have insisted must pass as well in the interests of justice. 

The issues ranged from legal language some members found vague as well as questions about the scope of a bill amending several statutes pertaining to expungement and criminal records affecting applications for public employment or licenses.

New Mexico state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, chairs a webcast hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

Over several hours, the committee added 10 amendments to the bill, one of which was itself amended. 

"I move a 'do pass' on the bill as many times amended," Senate Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, proposed as the hour drew close to 7:30 p.m. The committee cleared it on a party-line vote of 6 to 3, with all three Republicans on the committee voting no. The bill was expected to be debated on the senate floor Wednesday. 

On the floor Tuesday evening, state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, paid tribute to David Soules, a Las Cruces outdoorsman and author who died suddenly last weekend. Soules was the brother of state Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, and a New Mexico State Game Commissioner.

Soules co-authored the book, "Exploring Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument," and was remembered for playing an instrumental role in establishing the monument. 

Tuesday night work on cannabis bill

The House Judiciary Committee deliberating over HB 2, the cannabis bill, into the night.

The committee approved an amendment urged by chairwoman Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, clarifying that law enforcement agencies, courts and the Children, Youth & Families Department could take actions in the best interests of a child with cause, although mere cannabis use could not, by itself, be a basis for denying custody or visitation or parental rights once it is legal. 

New Mexico state Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on a cannabis legalization and regulation bill on the night of Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, pressed to make sure the law would not allow removal of children from their home unless other conditions constituting a danger to minor children were present. Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said he would have preferred additional language forbidding any use of cannabis in front of minor children.  

House minority floor leader Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, Nibert and Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, combed through the 178-page bill raising questions on a wide variety of issues with the bill's language and provisions.

At 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, Nibert proposed an amendment giving localities the option to prohibit commercial sales in their jurisdiction, and shortly afterward Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, moved an amendment imposing fines for unlawful purchases followed later by an amendment adding penalties for distributing cannabis to a minor. All three amendments were tabled on party-line votes. 

After tabling Rehm's second amendment, the committee swiftly moved a "do pass" motion through on a 7-4 vote at 1:30 a.m., advancing the Cannabis Regulation Act to the House floor for a vote expected later Wednesday morning. 

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