Think New Mexico: 2021 Session Victories, Defeats

THINK NEW MEXICO News:

The 2021 legislative session wrapped up a few minutes ago (at noon today), and between our packed agenda and the remote, virtual format, it was easily the most challenging session we have experienced since Think New Mexico began doing this work more than two decades ago.

In the end, several of our bills – all of which are designed to implement reforms proposed in our policy reports – made it to the finish line.

Bringing Transparency to New Mexico’s Process for Funding Public Infrastructure Projects (House Bill 55)

House Bill 55 was the first bill to pass the House this session, and it did so on a 65-1 vote. It went on to pass the Senate 40-0, a remarkable turn of events after an identical bill went down in a 21-22 vote after a contentious debate on the Senate Floor on the final night of the 2019 session.

This bill takes a first, important step toward reforming New Mexico’s system for funding public infrastructure by revealing the legislative sponsors of every capital outlay appropriation. This information has been kept secret for the last 44 years, and it took us six years to win passage of this reform. We are gratified that, for the first time, all New Mexicans will be able to see how their senators and representatives chose to spend their portion of the state’s infrastructure budget.

House Bill 55 was sponsored by Rep. Matthew McQueen (D-Galisteo), Rep. Kelly Fajardo (R-Belen), Sen. Bill Tallman (D-Albuquerque) and Sen. Steven Neville (R-Aztec).

Ending the Taxation of Delivered Groceries (House Bill 98)

Last night, House Bill 98 passed the Senate 42-0. It had previously passed the House unanimously and is now on its way to the governor’s desk. House Bill 98, sponsored by Rep. Javier Martinez (D-Albuquerque) and Rep. Jason Harper (R-Rio Rancho), will ensure that grocery stores can no longer tax food that is delivered to New Mexicans, a troubling practice that came to light last summer as elderly, disabled, and immunocompromised New Mexicans increasingly relied on grocery deliveries to stay safe during the pandemic.

Coincidentally, earlier in the day yesterday Sen. Ron Griggs had proposed reimposing the regressive food tax as an amendment to an unrelated tax bill – and we were pleased that only seven of 42 senators voted for his proposal.

Ending Predatory Lending (Senate Bill 66)

Our legislation to reduce the maximum annual interest rate of small loans from 175% to 36% came heartbreakingly close to passing, but failed in the final days of the session. Senate Bill 66 got off to a great start when it passed the Senate 25-14, marking the first time this reform has passed a chamber of the legislature since New Mexico repealed its usury laws four decades ago.

Unfortunately, as we reported to you a few days ago, we were up against an army of powerful lobbyists for the predatory lending industry, and they were able to persuade the final House committee to increase the interest rate cap to 99%. The bill passed the full House with that 99% cap in place for all loans under $1,100 (about 62% of all small loans in New Mexico).

A majority of the Senate felt that a rate of 99% for loans under $1,100 was unconscionable, and since the House refused to go any lower, the chambers deadlocked and the bill died, meaning that residents of one of the poorest states in the nation will continue to pay some of the highest rates in the nation for small loans.

Naturally we are disappointed by this outcome, but we are also encouraged by the progress this reform made this session, and especially by the overwhelming public support for it. We’ll be bringing the 36% cap back next session, and for as long as it takes to end predatory lending in New Mexico.

Senate Bill 66 was sponsored by Sen. Bill Soules (D-Las Cruces), Sen. Katy Duhigg (D-Albuquerque), Rep. Susan Herrera (D-Española), and Rep. Gail Armstrong (R-Magdalena).

Financial Literacy (House Bill 163, Senate Bill 170, House Bill 83, House Bill 302)

The House liked the idea of making financial literacy a high school graduation requirement so much that they passed it twice, in both House Bill 83 and House Bill 163! Unfortunately, HB 83 failed to pass the Senate Education Committee, and House Bill 163 ran out of time awaiting a vote on the Senate Floor this morning.

The good news is that legislators from across the political spectrum have expressed their strong support for making financial literacy a graduation requirement, and we received commitments from several key lawmakers that they will work with us to get this reform done next year, as part of a larger overhaul of New Mexico’s high school curriculum.

Sponsors of the financial literacy graduation requirement bill included Rep. Moe Maestas (D-Albuquerque), Rep. Willie Madrid (D-Chaparral), Rep. Gail Armstrong (R-Magdalena), Rep. Cathrynn N. Brown (R-Carlsbad), Rep. Meredith Dixon (D-Albuquerque), Rep. Andres Romero (D-Albuquerque), Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert (R-Albuquerque), Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-Albuquerque), and Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill (D-Silver City).

Repealing the Tax on Social Security (House Bill 19)

Last year, the bills we advocated for to repeal the state’s tax on Social Security income failed to pass due to concerns over how the state would make up for the lost revenue. So this year we supported House Bill 19, sponsored by Rep. Linda Serrato (D-Santa Fe), which proposed repealing the tax on Social Security for two-thirds of New Mexico seniors and paying for that tax cut with a small transfer tax on high-value real estate. Unfortunately, House Bill 19 failed to make it out of its first committee.

However, an interesting development occurred on the Senate Floor yesterday afternoon: Sen. Mark Moores proposed an amendment to an unrelated tax bill to add a repeal of the state’s tax on Social Security. This resulted in the full Senate considering and debating the issue for more than an hour. In the end, the amendment failed 16-22, but several senators who voted against it expressed their support for the idea if it were presented as a standalone bill. We look forward to giving them the opportunity to vote on such a bill next session.

Reforming the PERA Pension Oversight Board (House Bill 162)

The Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) board is responsible for overseeing nearly $17 billion of retirement investments for nearly 100,000 New Mexicans, yet no member of the board is required to have any background in finance, investments, or other relevant fields. The current board is so dysfunctional that its members spent over 40 minutes of a recent meeting arguing over whether or not to approve the meeting agenda, and the state auditor wrote that the PERA “Board’s lack of focus on its fiduciary responsibilities puts our retirees and future generations of retirees at risk.”

To address this serious problem, we worked to pass House Bill 162, sponsored by Rep. Phelps Anderson (I-Roswell), which would have required that a majority of the PERA pension board have relevant qualifications. HB 162 would also have made most board members appointed, rather than elected by PERA members in elections that generally have less than 10% participation. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we were not able to get House Bill 162 enacted this session. The crisis with PERA’s governance will only continue to grow, so we plan to continue working with key stakeholders in the coming months to lay the groundwork for passing legislation next year to revamp the PERA board and ensure that every member is fully qualified.

Work & Save Act Cleanup (Senate Bill 129)

Finally, we partnered with the AARP-NM to pass Senate Bill 129, sponsored by Sen. Bill Tallman (D-Albuquerque) and Rep. Christine Chandler (D-Los Alamos), which makes some minor improvements to the landmark New Mexico Work and Save Act that we successfully advocated for last year. Once it is fully implemented, this law will make retirement savings accounts available to the 330,000 New Mexicans who currently lack access to retirement plans through their jobs.

Thank you all so much for your kind words of support and especially for the 26,280 emails you sent to your legislators and the governor on all of these issues over the last 60 days! Your relentless activism helped us make as much progress as we did during this year’s strange and challenging session.

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