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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Governor lauds legislators’ work on health care issues, cites unfinished business on crime

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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham laughs alongside Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, left, and Lt. Gov. Howie Morales during a Saturday news conference after lawmakers finished a 60-day legislative session. The governor said she does not have immediate plans to bring lawmakers back to Santa Fe for a special legislative session. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham didn’t get everything she wanted during this year’s 60-day legislative session.

But, fresh off winning reelection to a second term, the Democratic governor said she was able to work with lawmakers to win approval — with a few exceptions — for most of her top priorities.

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Shortly after lawmakers wrapped up their work Saturday at noon, Lujan Grisham said she did not foresee bringing legislators back to the Roundhouse for a special session.

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She also lauded legislators for their approval of a slew of bills dealing with health care access and abortion protections, saying New Mexico would be a national “beacon” as other states enact restrictions on abortion medication and gender-affirming care.

“If you’re looking for a shining moment for this Legislature, look no further than their work on health care,” said the governor, citing the creation of a new state health care authority, prescription drug changes and approval of a rural hospital fund.

Lujan Grisham also praised legislators for their approval of legislation providing free school meals for all K-12 public school students and for crafting a bipartisan compromise to resolve — at least for now — a fight over the state’s medical malpractice laws.

She was directly involved in the negotiations, said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, at one proposing a phone call to insurance industry officials. That led to a deal being struck shortly thereafter.

However, Lujan Grisham was less effusive in her praise for lawmakers on crime-related issues.

She said only about one-quarter of the total bills dealing with public safety were approved by legislators, and vowed to keep pushing for policy changes aimed at making it easier to keep defendants charged with certain violent crimes in jail pending trial.

Proposals seeking to overhaul the state’s pretrial detention laws have stalled in the Democratic-controlled Legislature in each of the last two regular sessions, due to concerns about the legality of such a shift and whether it would be even be effective in reducing violent crime rates.

“I know that you want me to say I’m disappointed, but I’m motivated,” Lujan Grisham said during a news conference in the state Capitol. “I’m very motivated to find additional ways to make sure that we really do everything in our power to make our communities and state safer.”

“I think that each of us are dedicated to that, but we come at it a little differently,” she added.

House Speaker Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, defended lawmakers’ handling of crime issues, as a $9.6 billion budget bill includes $100 million for a law enforcement officer recruitment fund and $10 million for an outstanding warrant roundup, among other provisions.

“I think we did really well when it comes to public safety,” Martínez told reporters during a separate news conference.

He also said changes to the state’s pretrial detention laws would not solve the state’s high violent crime rate, saying, “I’m telling you, that is not the silver bullet.”

Session featured Cabinet-level turbulence

It wasn’t an entirely smooth legislative session for Lujan Grisham, as three Cabinet secretaries left their jobs during the session, including the heads of the state Public Education Department and the Human Services Department.

In addition, confirmation hearings were not held on two of the governor’s appointees — Indian Affairs Secretary-designate James Mountain and Cultural Affairs Secretary-designate Debra Garcia y Griego — who both faced widespread opposition.

The Governor’s Office did not formally submit Mountain’s nomination to the Senate Rules Committee amid an uproar over past sexual assault charges that did not lead to a conviction.

But Lujan Grisham stood by both appointees, with a spokeswoman saying this month the governor had “full faith” in both appointees.

Meanwhile, some legislative initiatives the governor opposed — such as creating a child advocate’s office to help oversee the Children, Youth and Families Department — failed to pass this session, even after early momentum and bipartisan support among lawmakers.

House Minority Leader Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, said the Legislature should more eagerly assert its independence from the governor’s influence.

“There needs to be a healthy tension between the Legislature and the executive, in my opinion,” he said. “I think that’s one of the things that’s been lost in this building.”

Lane said the abortion legislation sought by Democrats this year wasn’t necessary, given that abortion is already legal in New Mexico.

“It’s just inserting partisan politics in a space we don’t need it,” he said.

No special sessions on the horizon

Since taking office in 2019, Lujan Grisham has called at least one special session in every year except for her first year as governor.

She suggested a special session on crime bills would not be in the works, though she cautioned lawmakers to expect public pressure on the issue after an election cycle in which crime played a prominent role.

“I try not to use special sessions as a tool to force issues that we don’t have good collaboration on,” Lujan Grisham said.

But she said she would have called a special session on medical malpractice issues, had lawmakers not been able to broker a late-session compromise.

Looking ahead, Lujan Grisham also said she would continue to seek passage of additional gun-related legislation, citing specifically proposals to enact a waiting period for firearm purchases and increasing from 18 to 21 the minimum age for buying certain types of guns.

“New Mexicans should know that as long as I’m governor, I’m going to keep trying to reduce to the highest degree, gun violence and violence in particular,” the governor said.

She also indicated she would not give up on attempts to change the state’s pretrial detention laws after high-profile cases involving defendants who are released pending trial and are subsequently arrested for another crime.

“Everyone here knows I’m introducing that again — and again — and again,” said Lujan Grisham, who said jokingly she might pursue a constitutional change that would allow her to run for a third consecutive term as governor.

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