News Interview: Talking With Donkeys

Democrats Revisit Recent Successes And Envision A Hopeful Future

August March
9 min read
Talking with Donkeys
Marg Elliston (Eric Williams Photography)
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Looking back on this year’s 60-day legislative session, one thing comes clear. A successful Democratic Party did its utmost to get citizens where they are today. Their meeting will begin to serve as a definition our state’s direction for years to come.

That kind of hopeful rhetoric caught on in both legislative chambers of the Roundhouse this year. The effects are reflected in the names of the policies and laws enacted by a group of politicians that had been marginalized for the past eight years under a Republican administration that did its best to break New Mexico’s back.

Certainly, under
la Tejana may be remembered for their fractiousness, for their ability to take apart years of work begun under the leadership cadre that came before the elephants seized the state house and did things like deconstructing our mental and behavioral health system, devising an education plan that made teachers into the enemy and continued to blindly and wholeheartedly rely on an oil and gas industry that seemed programmed to ignore the facts about global warming.

The truth is, there is so much to be undone that this year’s session must be seen as a beginning, a reckoning. Luckily the humans behind this new deal are Democrats, committed to getting our state back on the road to economic sustainability, renewable energy, early childhood education, rational gun control and perhaps, even on the path to permitting recreational cannabis use in the state.

Given all this potential—as well as the massive blue wave that struck the Land of Enchantment back in November—we here at
Alibi HQ thought it was a good idea to introduce ourselves and our readers to members of the blue team.

This past Friday, with spring in the air and rain on the way, we met with communications director Joel Kasenetz and the current chair of the party, Marg Elliston to discuss the legislature, the state and a future we can all believe in because it’s likely going to be of the same awesome azure as the sunrise we all witnessed in November.

Weekly Alibi: As the work in the legislature rises to a crescendo, what’s important, what are the success stories?

Marg Elliston: Well, we had a great election season, as you know. We elected Democrats up and down the ballot. We turned the leadership of the state completely blue. We’re determined to make a major change in direction for the state. We invested a lot of time and energy in making that happen. We are already seeing the fruits of our labors because of the leadership efforts of Michelle Lujan Grisham, leading the charge, and wonderful folks in the legislature who are working hard every day to enact laws that are going to make a real difference in New Mexicans’ lives.

What are some examples of that leadership and change?

I know that the most exciting news today is that the House of Representatives passed the recreational cannabis bill and sent it on to the Senate. I was really impressed with Representative Javier Martinez; he came up with a compromise measure that reiterated a lot of the stuff the Senate asked for and the governor asked for [in order to assure the bill’s passage].

So this is a different bill, a compromise to what was originally introduced?

Yes. There was a bill that was introduced in the senate as well, by Republican senators. They had asked for specific regulations, like cannabis to be sold in state-run stores. That’s something that Representative Martinez put into the compromise bill. So we did integrate some of those ideas from Republican senators into the new house bill. I think, I believe it’s meeting the criteria that the governor set down, and she will sign the bill if it gets to her desk. She asked that the medical cannabis program be maintained. She asked that children are protected [from cannabis use], and that cannabis is not sold to kids. She asked that money be set aside for prevention and treatment of DUI incidents. All of those ingredients are in this bill.

What’s the next part of the process; is the bill going to be read by a Senate committee?

I presume so; I haven’t seen the committee assignments yet.

With less than a week left before the session ends, is there enough time to get this legislation up to the governor’s desk?

Yes, I think a week is a long time for this legislature.

But it can be an awfully long time, too.

I think we have to thank our legislators for working day and night on this issue.

That’s cool and it’s something New Mexicans are tuned in to. Another bill that’s seen a lot of progress is the clean energy initiative.

Right. We have a real opportunity to become the nation’s leader in clean energy. This bill passing the Senate—it still has to go through the house as well—it passed the Senate on Tuesday, is a real game-changer for New Mexico.

That’s the legislation that will lead to freedom from fossil fuels for home energy needs by 2050, right?

Yes, it’s laid out in increments, so that by 2030 we have get 50 percent of our electrical transmissions from solar and wind; by 2040 the bill calls for 80 percent renewables and 100 percent by 2050.

That’s awesome. I know that Democrats also saw success this session with passage of the universal background check law. Can you tell our readers a little about that legislation?

This is a bill that closes the gun show loophole. It requires that anybody who buys a gun in the state of New Mexico go through a thorough background check. It doesn’t matter if the gun is purchased at a pawn shop or a gun show. They have to do that a pawn shop now, but if they buy the gun at a yard sale or from a private party—the exception being if it’s a relative—they have to undergo a background check.

Several counties in the state have said they are not going to enforce gun control laws. Is that a concern?

Well, I think there are several gun owner groups that are using this as a wedge issue, getting a lot of citizens scared and bothered about the new requirements. I hope that the stories they’re telling will be proven to be untrue. I don’t believe they’re true. There’s a lot of alarm, people are saying “they’re coming to take my guns away.” That’s not at all what this legislation is about.

It’s my understanding that this new law proceeds from the idea that we want gun owners to use their weapons safely and transparently.

There are people who are afraid we are going down a slippery slope of gun regulation. But that’s not what we are about. We are about making our state safer.

How about the healthcare initiatives that are making their way through the House and Senate?

I know that there is a lot attention being paid to access to providers and making sure we have an adequate number of providers across the state. The Medicaid program is also getting the attention of legislators. There’s also a bill to shore up the ACA, to end preexisting conditions as a qualifier.

Earlier we met with folks that were supporting a statewide Medicaid buy in. How is that bill faring?

The Governor has been supporting the Medicaid buy-in. Congressman Ben Ray Lujan (D-New Mexico) is supporting that bill too. Honestly, I don’t know exactly where that legislation is this week. A lot of these bills have been folded into other bills, appropriation bills. But there is a lot of support for a Medicaid buy-in.

What sort of support is there for education reform, particularly funding Pre-K initiatives?

I am really excited about the early childhood education initiative. I spent my career working for kids and families who didn’t get the greatest starts in their lives. I know that when we have quality early childhood education, it makes a big difference. This year we have a bill that’s almost done—it’s on the house floor—that will create a new department for early childhood education. And that new department will bring together the funding for all state programs that serve students from 1 to 5 years of age. Programs in the Children, Youth and Families Dept. and in the Education Department are going to come together in a more unified services delivery system. Another thing we’re going to be a leader in: making full day kindergarten available to all.

There was talk of funding these initiatives using the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund. That doesn’t sound like it’s going to happen this year, but I’m told you all see alternatives appearing for long term funding.

In the short term, the legislature is in the process of increasing funding for pre-K and kindergarten initiatives. If we could access the Land Grant Permanent Fund, we could secure long term funding as well. The Senate held back the proposal to take 1 percent of the fund for early childhood. The governor has come back and said, “can we do half a percent?”. Whatever is decided this legislative session, we want the people of New Mexico to vote on it. If we do go into the fund, it requires the permission of the people. We’re hopeful that if it doesn’t happen this year, it will happen in the near future.
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