Legislative roundup, Feb. 23, 2021

The Santa Fe New Mexican
·4 min read

Feb. 23—Days remaining in session: 25

A win for vaccine opponents: Parents or legal guardians who oppose state-ordered vaccinations would have another reason to legally refuse a vaccine for their child under a bill that narrowly made it out of the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee on Monday.

Senate Bill 232, sponsored by Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, would add "for reasons of conscience" as the fourth reason a child should be granted an exemption from state-required immunizations. One of the existing reasons centers around medical exemptions and the other two pertain to religious objections.

"Like most New Mexicans, I believe decisions regarding vaccines are personal," Schmedes, a doctor, said in a statement. "No one should be forced to get a vaccine they feel uncomfortable receiving. The preservation of our right to refuse vaccinations is just as important as our right to access to them. This bill simply codifies your right to bodily autonomy."

The bill, which passed its first committee on a 4-3 vote, advances to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Keeping kids in school: New Mexico's high school graduation rate is around 75 percent — about 10 percent lower than the national average. Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, has introduced Senate Bill 330, appropriating $200,000 to school districts around the state to help them assist those students.

School districts would apply for those funds, targeted at interventions for at-risk students identified through early warning systems. The idea is to ensure they have enough credits to graduate and enough qualifications to get a job. The legislation includes a one-year follow-up measure to keep track of students' progress.

The Senate Education Committee voted 5-3 Monday to pass the bill on to the Senate Finance Committee.

Graduation changes: Meanwhile, the House voted 66-1 to approve House Bill 83, introduced by Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque and a high school history teacher, which would change graduation requirements for public school students. Among those changes: Students would switch to six class periods per semester or year for a total of 23 required credits to graduate. They would have to take Algebra I but not necessarily Algebra II, and they have the option of taking a half-credit of financial literacy or economics.

The bill also would allow students to take a capstone class — a long-term project exploring an interest, such as a professional or social issue — in lieu of a core subject.

"It's about giving students flexibility," Romero told the assembly.

The capstone class, for example, could help students learn talents they might need down the line in the workplace or college. The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Small-loan interest rates: A bill that would cap the interest rate on small loans at 36 percent, down from the current 175 percent, is scheduled to be reconsidered Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senate Bill 66 now includes a number of amendments, prompting lawmakers to request a substitute bill that incorporates the proposed changes. "If we're serious about this bill, we will have the substitute so we're not putting the next committee or the House ... through this process," said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.

Singing Serrato: For years the House of Representatives has had a policy of directing freshman lawmakers sing a tune when they introduce their first piece of legislation on the floor. Rep. Miguel P. García, D-Albuquerque, has been a longtime proponent of this tradition, and he told Rep. Linda Serrato, D-Santa Fe, it was her turn as she introduced House Bill 82.

In the past, some freshmen have balked, while others have belted out opera arias, country-western tunes, ranchera songs and other ditties. Serrato gamely took up the challenge, offering a bar from singer and rapper Lizzo's "Truth Hurts" and winning a bipartisan round of applause.

Anderson can croon, too: Way back in March 1915 the Legislature adopted Elizabeth Garrett's "Oh, Fair New Mexico" as the state song.

On Monday, Rep. Phelps Anderson, once a Republican, now a "declined to state" lawmaker from Roswell, warbled the song to an appreciative audience on the House floor. Rep. Miguel P. García reasoned that since Anderson switched political parties recently after voting with Democrats to repeal a decades-old law making performing an abortion a felony, he was a freshman and needed to prove it with a song. And so he did.

Homage to a fallen comrade: Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, announced during Monday's House floor session that former state Rep. Jack Thomas, a Democrat from Rio Rancho, had died. Thomas served in the House in 2009-10. Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Albuquerque, said you could not find a "more fun, committed public servant." An obituary in the Albuquerque Journal said Thomas, 78, died Feb. 17.

Quote of the day: "What we've often found is that it's kind of a game of whack-a-mole, and people find lots of ways to get around regulation." — Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, speaking about legislation designed to clamp down on predatory lenders.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.