New Mexico’s centuries-old constitution plays in the hands of oil and gas

The 2022 legislation in New Mexico The session ended four weeks ago, but many who have worked through the session are still puzzled by what they saw.

They were said to be witnessing a biannual meeting devoted to the issuance of the largest state budget in history – a budget largely based on oil and gas industry revenues. But another 642 bills, actions and joint resolutions were tucked into the agenda during the four-week meeting — with legislative proposals ranging from regulating payday loans to a green constitutional amendment to housing and a newfangled hydrogen hub. Most never came close to casting a vote.

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And to top it off, the chaos ended with night-long floor sessions marked by grandstanding and filibustering, both protracting debate and slowing down many bills.

“This session was so crazy,” says Senator Antoinette Sedillo López (D-Albuquerque). “I’m trying to process it.”

Much has not been done, and that comes as no surprise to any lawmakers, activists or academics who have been monitoring the affair. But the sheer scale and importance of this unfinished work – particularly in the environmental arena – leads many to say that the nexus of the problem is the state constitution itself, and that the constitution needs to be changed to prevent powerful interests from playing the system.

“This legislation was drafted in 1911,” says Senator Sedillo López. “It was back when patrons and ranchers would literally ride a horse and carriage into the capital, do a few small chores, hand over the budget, and go home.”

State legislators have tinkered with the constitution more than 70 times over the years, although its basic structure has remained the same.

New Mexico has the only unpaid state legislature in the country, so only people who can stay away from work for a month or two a year can afford to hold office.

“The world is just more complex than it was,” says Timothy Krebs, PhD, chief of the department of political science at the University of New Mexico. He points to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s signature for the session – a hydrogen development bill that has spectacularly failed four times. Krebs was not surprised. “It’s a really complicated law,” he says. For lawmakers in a 30-day session to understand and pass something that covers carbon emissions, grants, loans, bonds, and power plants in one bill? “I don’t see it,” he says.

House Speaker Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe) didn’t see it either. After the governor and others spent months writing and promoting hydrogen hub legislation, Egolf used the power of the Speakership to introduce two versions of the bill without comment, effectively killing them in about 15 seconds combined.

Egolf did not respond directly to questions about the hydrogen bills. “During the 30-day session,” he says, “our main task is to prepare and approve the state budget.”

But in a state that is yet to come for another year crippling drought — fueled in large part by the fossil fuels being dug up within its borders — there is much more for a legislature to do in a year than deal with a budget.

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Legislators traded horse and buggies for cars and trucks, but the impression of a wealthy elite running the state still lingers. That’s because New Mexico has the only unpaid state legislature in the country, so only people who can stay away from work for a month or two a year can afford to hold office. Lawmakers will receive a daily $165 stipend during the session to cover living expenses in the capital, Santa Fe, although hotel costs near the Roundhouse (the state capital) are $200 to $400 a night.

“There are legislators who romanticize this citizen legislation,” says Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces). “But this romanticization has driven our inability to truly plan for a just future for all, and instead enabled a system that is favorable to greed and corruption. Right now it’s absolutely impossible for a normal New Mexican to serve without making some real personal and professional sacrifices,” she says.

“Unless you are retired or independently wealthy, how long can you afford to serve?” asks Krebs. “You’re trying to serve the public while trying to keep a roof over your head… It’s difficult.”

Retirees are common on both sides of the aisle. “There’s no way I could have done that in my 30s, in the middle of my career,” says Sedillo López. “But I’m retired and that’s the only thing that allows me to do that.”

Short sessions exacerbate the problem. The legislature deals with budgets during month-long sessions in even years and everything else during two-month sessions in odd years. The time pressure means that “we’re constantly lagging behind other states when it comes to addressing really important political issues,” says Sedillo López.

“During my first year in the legislature, I was shocked when someone told me if no one was available to answer my questions, just ask a lobbyist.”

~ MP Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces)

The biennial establishment also means that legislation that stalls in one session often has to wait two years before being proposed again. “The issues they’re dealing with are very complex,” Krebs says, “and even during the 60-day session … it’s still not really enough time.”

Most states with short sessions overcome this problem with a large legislature, but New Mexico’s ordinary legislature doesn’t have that luxury. Committee chairs and members of important committees have staffs to help analyze what’s at stake, but most lawmakers have to figure things out for themselves.

“During my first year in the legislature, I was shocked when someone told me if nobody was available to answer my questions, just ask a lobbyist,” says Rubio.

“They often don’t have the ability to make … sensible, rational, and good decisions,” says Krebs. “This will have long-term implications for the state.”

It also gives lobbyists and others additional powers 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,” says Rubio. “But it’s normalized.”

* * *

“Oil and gas are powerful because they have expertise,” says Krebs. Oil and gas lobbyists (among others) are paid to work on policy and legislation year-round. As New Mexico lawmakers go about their daily business, powerful interests can “work quietly behind the scenes and get what they want from the legislature.”

In addition, especially in the last session, everyone was talking about the oil and gas industry, as its revenues accounted for 40% of the state budget. Historically, it also distributes campaign funds to both sides of the political aisle, albeit in general[%7B1%7Cgro=y,c-t-p”>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 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 didn’t answer questions about the ingrained problems legislators face, but her press secretary, Nora Meyers Sackett, wrote, “Gov. Lujan Grisham is proud to be leading one of, if not the most, climate-forward administrations in the country, and her 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.”

That actually has Sen. Sedillo López worried, because much of the governor’s work has been done by executive order. “It’s not enshrined in law and statutes,” she says.

Since New Mexico is the second-largest producer of oil in the country, environmental and climate legislation here can have an outsized impact at the national level — if it passes.

Sedillo López points to the administration of Bill Richardson, which created a raft of climate and environmental regulations through executive order. His tenure ended 11 years ago, and he was succeeded by Susana Martinez, a Republican. “And within 10 months, the Martinez administration had reversed all of that,” Sedillo López says.

The Green Amendment that she has championed in the past two sessions would have made a healthy environment a constitutional right and would have helped enshrine some environmental gains in law — but it was knocked down again this session after strong lobbying from the oil and gas industry. That despite apparent strong public support.

“Legislation like that doesn’t pass because of our dependence on oil and gas,” Rubio says.

Other major environmental legislation that failed after fossil fuel groups lobbied against it included clean fuel standards and statewide greenhouse gas emission limits. Since New Mexico is the second-largest producer of oil in the country, and 53% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the oil and gas industry’s operations, environmental and climate legislation here can have an outsized impact at the national level — if it passes.

“There are probably some things that [the Legislature] could have an immediate effect,” says Krebs. “To extend the legislature… to pay the legislature… probably the biggest thing is to increase the staff.”

Rubio tried to get this process started during the session. Among the many bills she carried, two dealt directly with legal issues — one with create a commission To set salaries for elected and other officials (it didn’t pass committee) and another at that finance a study of legislative periods and salaries. That died after the “Junior” funding bill that included it was not signed from the governor.

Until the law is changed, Sedillo López believes it is unlikely that lawmakers will be able to pass major legislation efficiently, let alone successfully regulate fossil fuel interests. “That agenda would be full-time for months, I believe. But we don’t have that,” she says. “It’s a lot easier for oil and gas to stop things they don’t want because we see each other so infrequently.”

While this legislative session looked like a chaotic four weeks of accomplishing very little for New Mexico, it has actually been a very productive year for oil and gas. “They had a successful session,” says Sedillo López.

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