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Cervantes looks ahead to legislative session


New Mexico’s next legislative session — the second for the state’s 56th Legislature — opens at noon on Tuesday, Jan. 16. Lawmakers will have just 30 days to agree on a budget, appropriations and capital outlay, as well as other matters Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will put on the agenda.

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, which often meets into the night; but Cervantes sits on another committee that will feel intense pressure at the beginning of the shorter session: the Committees’ Committee.

The 30-day sessions, occurring on even-numbered years, are meant to focus on budgetary matters, plus items called for by the governor. The Committees’ Committee decides what is “germane” for that agenda, based on how it fits in with budgetary matters or a governor’s message.

Nearly all of the hundreds of bills that will be filed comes before the committee, Cervantes said, which will then decide whether each will be heard, and by which committees.

The Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, is known by some lawmakers as a place bills go to die, if nothing else because of the volume of legislation assigned to the committee and its reputation for amending bills before passing them along.

Governors and legislators, Cervantes said in an interview, “rely on that committee to really, ultimately, vet and modify the legislation. Of course, it’s the committee where they park the lawyers in the legislature, and so that’s where most of the legislation really gets written and rewritten, and a lot of it doesn’t get heard. As the chair, it’s my job to decide which of the bills deserve a hearing and which ones do not.”

Cervantes said the governor may be asked by lawmakers for hundreds of messages for legislation they wish to file, and the governor has announced items of her own: Besides her request for a $10.5 billion budget with a nearly 10 percent spending increase, Lujan Grisham has called for public safety measures including gun control legislation that will surely spark lengthy debate, and there are likely to be changes to the Cannabis Regulation Act, the 2021 law that legalized cannabis possession and use by adults and also called for a system of regulations managing licensure and operations for growers, manufacturers and retailers.

Asked whether the multiple billions of dollars of projected revenue, mostly from the state’s oil and gas sector, make it easier or harder to negotiate state spending in balance with investing surplus dollars in reserves, Cervantes said austerity years are simpler – “You just say no to everybody” – but when there is money, more accountability and discipline are needed.

And times are changing: New Mexico aims to produce 50 percent of its energy through renewable sources by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040, with zero-carbon targets set for the decade after that. This inevitably alters the revenue lawmakers will have to work with in the future.

“Many of my colleagues and political leaders who are the most critical of the oil and gas industry are more than happy to spend that money,” Cervantes said. “We seem to be, as a policy which I support, moving toward renewable energy resources that ultimately will mean that all those oil and gas revenues will begin to compress at one time, by our own design.”

In future sessions, he anticipates hard choices based on lower revenue, particularly with respect to public education, with a recommended appropriation of over $4 billion this year. Cervantes added: “If we’re smart, we’re putting a good share of this boom revenue into long-term investments that will continue to fund government into a future when those revenues are not here anymore.”

For this year, Cervantes suggested two gun control measures had a chance of making it through the legislature: Increasing the minimum age for purchasing rifles, shotguns and other long guns from 18 to 21, as is already the case for handguns; and a waiting period for gun purchases, which he argued would would save lives otherwise lost to suicide or impulsive violence.

Cervantes also said to expect to hear about “purely political” bills filed to attract headlines but die in committee, as 2024 is an election year for both House and Senate.

He demurred from making an announcement about his own plans – he’s been in the Senate since 2013, and served in the House for over a decade before that, and once made a run for governor.

“It’s my intention to fully continue to serve in the Senate as long the voters will have me,” he said.