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Apr. 7—Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday signed a bill that will create an independent, seven-member commission to redraw election district boundaries later this year — a victory for good-government advocates who say the maps too often are influenced by state politicians' self-interest.
Senate Bill 304, which addresses the process the state will use when the Legislature convenes later this fall in special session to reconfigure districting for the next 10 years, was one of 50 bills the governor signed into law. The day before, she also signed 50 bills.
The bills signed Tuesday included legislation allowing more homegrown food to be sold in the state, the protection of Native American voting access and a bill expanding eligibility for a low-income family tax credit.
But the redistricting bill — which passed through the House of Representatives just 12 hours before this year's regular legislative session ended on March 20 — may be among the most important.
"New Mexico takes a giant leap toward modern redistricting and a leap away from the post colonial gerrymandering of the past," said Kathleen Burke, project director of Fair Districts for New Mexico, an Albuquerque advocacy group pushing for a fair redistricting plan.
She said the initiative allows the public to have a say in the process, though she said a redistricting plan ideally should be left in the hands of a "body independent of the Legislature," such as the commission itself.
Commission members will be chosen by state House and Senate leaders from both parties, as well as the state Ethics Commission. The commission will hold at least six public meetings to gather public input and draft three possible district maps for U.S. Congress, the Public Education Commission, plus the state House and state Senate.
Commissioners will be chosen no later than July 1 and have up to four months to come up with a plan using U.S. Census Bureau data. The coronavirus pandemic has led to a delay in the release of that information, which is estimated to be made public in late September.
The Legislature will then convene a special session, probably in November or December, to choose the final plans.
The legislation also requires online posting of geographic information system data on all of the state's 33 counties on the Secretary of State's website.
Voting districts in New Mexico were last drawn in 2012 by a state District Court after then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, vetoed a plan drafted by the Democrat-dominated Legislature following the 2010 census.
Lawsuits have dominated redistricting efforts in the state dating back to at least the 1960s.
Among the other bills signed Tuesday:
u House Bill 291 expands the Low-Income Comprehensive Tax Credit to taxpayers as young as 18 and to those without Social Security numbers. It also increases the value of the credit by 3 percent for two years and then by 8 percent by 2023. As a result, that tax credit, currently worth up to $450 at most, will be worth up to $730, depending on earned income and the size of the family. The bill also expands the income eligibility for that tax credit from $22,000 to $36,000, meaning many more families can take advantage of it.
* House Bill 128 expands regulations for performing background checks on people working in the school system. It also requires training for school staff and volunteers on how to recognize and report cases of abuse and requires applicants for school jobs to provide a list of former employers and disclose whether they have been under investigation or found guilty of child abuse, neglect or sexual offenses.
u House Bill 177 creates the Homemade Food Act to allow for production and sale of more homemade food items by exempting them from the safety and regulatory provisions of the state's Food Service Sanitation and New Mexico Food acts. Those exempted foods would be items that are safe without time and temperature controls, which are produced at a private ranch, farm or residence and are sold directly to the consumer.
u House Bill 185 alters current jury duty laws to no longer require New Mexican residents over the age of 75 to obtain an affidavit to prove they are 75 or older if they request to be excused from jury duty because of their age. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, said that task can be a chore for seniors, particularly during a public health crisis.
u House Bill 231 amends the state Election Code to ensure Native American voters can access voting facilities during an emergency situation, including a pandemic. The legislation makes sure polling places located on tribal or pueblo lands will not be closed or consolidated with other polling locations without the written agreement of tribal or pueblo leaders. It requires at least one polling place located on those lands to stay open in case those voters cannot leave tribal lands because of emergency restrictions.
u House Bill 244 implements a penalty of $500 if a political committee does not update the information on its statement of organization on the Secretary of State website and requires that state political parties provide a list of all affiliated county political party PACs on a quarterly basis.
u Senate Bill 223 authorizes the New Mexico Finance Authority to issue $22 million more in cigarette tax revenue bonds to complete expansion of the University of New Mexico's Comprehensive Cancer Center.