N.M. citizen activism averts threatening legislation

By Dan Lorimier and Mona Blaber

The 2015 New Mexico legislative session might have been contentious, but it was also marked by an encouraging — and successful — upswell in citizen engagement and by legislators who worked tirelessly to protect our air, land, water and wildlife.

With the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives seemingly intent on expressing an industry-profits-at-all-costs agenda, there were far more threats than opportunities for the environment. Yet several positive pieces of legislation passed, including extension of solar tax credits and a plan for a Rio Grande Trail.

And despite a hostile House and a Senate that is often dominated by an anti-environment coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats, none of the most dangerous legislation passed. The story of this session was really the stupendous effort by pro-environment legislators — and you. You rang your representatives’ phones off the hook when the Renewable Energy Act was threatened. You filled e-mail “in” boxes to stop an attempt to privatize our drinking water; you crowded hearing rooms to ban coyote-killing contests; you attended our training sessions to learn how to make your voice heard at the Roundhouse. And the results were inspiring.

Here are some of the major threats you helped prevent:

Federal land grabs: HB291, HJR10, HJR13 and SB483 were different forms of attempts to ease the path for the state to seize our federal public lands, which would then open them to being sold off to private interests. None of these bills passed either chamber.

Gutting the Renewable Energy Act: HB445 would have eliminated New Mexico’s requirement for utilities to provide 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy by 2020. This bill passed the House by one vote but was killed in a bipartisan vote of the Senate Conservation Committee.

Assault on the Mining Act: HB625, which was never available for the public to see, would have stripped oversight from copper and uranium mining and allowed new mines to pollute our water for thousands of years. Your calls and e-mails in key districts stopped this bill from being heard. (See Page 7).

Oil and gas pre-emption: HB366, HB199, SB421 and other bills would have pre-empted county and local ordinances governing oil and gas drilling and given sole jurisdiction to the political appointees at the Oil Conservation Commission. HB366 passed the House but died in the Senate, and the Senate Conservation Committee tabled the others.

Privatization of our water: “Public-Private Partnerships” (HB299) would have allowed private companies to run public entities, including water utilities, and would have instructed the General Services Department to use taxpayer money to search for private partnerships. This bill passed the House and Senate Conservation before dying in Senate Judiciary Committee.

One negative bill that did pass would make it illegal for boaters, hikers, anglers, etc. to wade a public stream or river where it crosses private property. The governor has not yet signed this possibly unconstitutional bill.

Some proactive bills passed both chambers, including an extension of the existing Residential Solar Tax Credit (SB391) and the establishment of a Rio Grande Trail from Colorado to Texas (HB563).

Gov. Martinez signed the trail into law, but let the clock run out on the solar legislation, even though once again you demonstrated the power of the people. Hundreds of you called Gov. Susana Martinez’s office urging passage of the solar bill. We’ll try again next year, as the tax credit runs out in 2016.

Among good bills that died were those prohibiting coyote-killing contests and banning trapping on public lands. Despite the success of the residential solar tax credit, bills to renew expiring tax credits for utility-scale renewable energy failed. Our efforts to pass a tax credit for electric vehicles and charging units came very close but died after passing the Senate and two of three House committees. Three bills (SB461, SB542, SB455) aimed at transparency and accountability at the Interstate Stream Commission all failed.

While this session’s gridlock drew much attention, the volume of bills passed shouldn’t be the measure of success if those bills profit a few at the expense of the many. Those who watched floor and committee debate this session could see many of our elected officials exposing the dangers of harmful legislation with thoughtful, well-researched arguments. Champions like Brian Egolf, Bill McCamley, Bobby Gonzales, Jeff Steinborn and Javier Martinez in the House and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, among many others, worked throughout the session to stop dangerous and harmful legislation.

All our successes are in conjunction with the Environmental Alliance of New Mexico, which includes Environment New Mexico, Food and Water Watch, Conservation Voters New Mexico, the Oil and Gas Accountability Project and others. We worked on the EV tax credit with the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. On wildlife legislation, we joined forces with Animal Protection Voters of New Mexico.

But it is you, our members and supporters, who hold the real power. We logged 2,963 messages to legislators, hundreds of calls, hundreds of concerned citizens packing committee rooms and dozens of people attending our lobby trainings. Your impact was tangible. These bills, the good and the bad, will be back at future legislative sessions. We hope you’ll be back, too. Our members respond in very large numbers to district-specific alerts on important legislation, both good and bad. The impact of these messages to legislators is evident at committee hearings and during floor sessions, where the Chapter is regularly recognized as having a very involved and committed membership. The Chapter also trained and applied our persuasive and informed volunteer lobby corps to the issues, hearings and members at the Legislature. We fill hearing rooms and offer compelling testimony that changes the way legislators vote. This is an impressive capacity and really boosts the Chapter’s effectiveness as we work at the Capitol.

People ready to sacrifice clean air, clean water and our land and wildlife for short-term profits hold more power at the Legislature than for the past 60 years. This means the fight to protect our natural resources in New Mexico will be tougher until our voting power changes the make-up of our Legislature. The Roundhouse is where we get what we ask for at the polls.

Featured photo by Pabak Sarkar

N.M. citizen activism averts threatening legislation