New Mexico state legislators from both the House and the Senate met Wednesday (July 7) during a town hall meeting to highlight their efforts from the last legislative session, and take questions from the community about their priorities heading into the next.
The online event included State Rep. Kristina Ortez, D-Taos, State Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, State Sen. Leo Jaramillo, D-Española, and State Sen. Roberto "Bobby" J. Gonzales, D-Ranchos De Taos. The town hall was hosted by Devrim Tiryaki, District Coordinator at the Office of the Speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives.
"I am a freshman. This was my first year in the Legislature. I think the only word that I have been using to describe my experience is bonkers," said Ortez. "That really encapsulates what happened over the Legislative session, with many of us working at home, logging in to our committee meetings and on to the House floor."
The 2021 Legislative session, which ran from Jan. 19-March 20, was closed to in-person attendance for lobbyists and the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Legislators had a choice of working in the Roundhouse, or dialing in from a remote location using video conferencing software.
"I got four bills off the House floor and over to the Senate. I got two bills passed by the Senate -- HB-15, which is the Sustainable Buildings Tax Credit, and HB-168, which was a Floodplain Management bill," said Ortez. "Those bills were signed by the governor a couple of months ago, and that was really exciting."
"For next year, I'm now involved in my interim committees. I'm on the New Mexico Finance Authority Oversight, Water and Natural Resources Committee. I'm a designee for Revenue Stabilization and Tax Policy," said Ortez, who also serves on the Economic Development and Policy Committee. "I'll be attending those committee meetings all summer long, and learning about what constituents around the state really care about."
"I had one constituent, they said, 'the session was like this séance. Are you there? Can you hear me?'" said Jaramillo.
"But others really felt comfortable in the fact that we were able to share our committee meeting on the Internet. Those people were able to participate more, not having to worry about traveling, to find a sitter, to worry about parking, to think about a committee that might be rescheduled," he said.
"It was nice for an individual to be able to participate, but as Representative, I can tell you, broadband was an issue for so many others that weren't able to participate because they couldn't connect," said Jaramillo.
For those that could access the 2021 Legislative online session, language translation was offered, allowing constituents to hear the debate in either English or Spanish.
"Major legislation that I helped with included human rights, working on acequias and water rights. And a major one was here in Española -- we got bond money, where 80 percent of the voters voted on getting a nursing home in Rio Arriba county after the only nursing home in Española closed its doors," said Jaramillo. "We're gonna continue to work with our governor to ensure that we can get that nursing home constructed."
"The bill that I wanted the most was the broadband bill," said Herrera, who is serving her second term in office. "We ended up getting $86 million for broadband legislation. And what you all need to know is that state broadband money is about a 10 percent match to the federal money. So we're bringing in billions to the state."
"But it's gonna take a long haul. The real work, after you get the legislation passed, is to then get it implemented. And so we're all on the phone, once a week, to see how we're going to make this happen, so that that money flows down to local regional organizations who plan broadband for their region," she said.
"I had two water bills -- I almost got a water bill for $5 million for rural water systems. It got tied up in the Senate, in the Senate Finance Committee," said Herrera. "We'll bring that again next year."
"I worked a lot on predatory lending. We got it through two committees. Well, the Senate passed it -- God bless you guys -- and it came over to the house. It almost died in two committees and I put together a compromise and got it onto the floor. Again, it passed the House floor, and then died in that conference committee," she said. "But we're still working on that, and we're going to bring it up next year."
"The Legislative Finance Committee, we will be going into our fourth meeting this year already, and they have been all in person," said Gonzales. "And so the process for establishing the budget for 2022-23 is on its way."
"One part that I want to encourage our legislators that are present today, and also our audience, is the Legislative Finance Committee will be holding its August meeting at Taos Ski Valley. And what is important about this meeting, is this is when the revenue projections by the economist comes into a consensus," said Gonzales. "They're fairly accurate, and that gives you a good base of how much we will have to work with. So I do encourage you to attend."
Gonzales said he is trying to establish a transportation and infrastructure interim committee, so that the legislature is not "at the whim of the Department of Transportation until January."
"The governor signed six bills that I introduced," said Gonzales. "And two of those bills were extremely important, because they open up the individual bonding capacity to the Department of Transportation."
"We are really tackling our debt service, and we're seeing the light now -- by 2028, and at the very maximum, 2030, we should be completely debt free," said Gonzales. "And this is something that we have not had for many years, because a good portion, I'm going to say, about a third of our revenue goes into paying debt services."
When asked what their number one legislative priority is for next year, Rep. Herrera replied, "Working on water, getting more money for rural water systems, mutual domestic water systems. A second is -- we have a huge problem in the watersheds in rural New Mexico and the north, which we represent. We're going to need some kind of infrastructure funding to really make that work over the long haul."
"Picking a number-one issue is sort of like picking your favorite child," said Ortez. "But I will say that we need to tackle climate change. We need to look at a whole group of bills that tackle that, including infrastructure, funding for water, to build resiliency in communities. It's not a one-size-fits-all."
"We have a crisis in Northern New Mexico -- in Taos in particular -- related to behavioral health. We need to build the detox facility in Taos County," said Ortez.
"We just celebrated Pride Month, where we celebrated the LGBTQ community and the struggles that we face -- the issues that we continue to face," said Jaramillo. "One bill that myself and members of the LGBTQ caucus introduced was a gay panic bill. I'm passionate about bringing that back, because that means anybody who commits a crime against anybody who's transgender, or from the LGBTQ community, can use the defense that they panicked, and that's why they hurt, or sometimes killed, an individual."
"The human rights legislation are bills that I'm passionate about. And also, those that include water and land usage. We talked to ranchers in Northern New Mexico -- they talked about big game, and about legislation that could possibly help them in ensuring that they protect their land. And then when it comes to our acequias, and water -- water is major in every part of the state."
"Those are my top three -- human rights, protecting our lands and ensuring that we protect our water," said Jaramillo.
"What is very important is that we really utilize every single dollar that is coming to us from the federal level," said Gonzales. "I think we need more awareness -- looking at our timelines and then looking at the expectations. How are we going to put this out there for implementation?"
"I have always had something very, very clear -- that this position does not belong to me, it belongs to the people," said Gonzales. "So, it is important that we are a citizen's Legislature. Our dynamics are always there to work with our state government, but also to understand our constituents."