New Mexico lawmakers prepare for redistricting, funding fights in special session

·9 min read

Dec. 5—The Roundhouse is going to be full of maps next week. And maybe the week after.

State lawmakers will use them to find a rare, perhaps unattainable treasure — a redistricting plan that will satisfy state and federal mandates and avoid litigation.

But redistricting won't be the only difficult issue facing lawmakers in a special session that begins at noon Monday.

The Legislature also will deal with the controversial appropriation of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, a process that already has involved courts and controversy after lawmakers from both political parties teamed up for a lawsuit against Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to determine which branch of government has the authority to appropriate federal funds.

The collision of cartography, politics and pressure should make for an interesting session — one that almost certainly will have long-term ramifications.

First, redistricting.

It's a story that grabs people's attention only once every 10 years. That's because, based on federal census data collected every decade, states are required to draw new district boundaries for various political entities to reflect population changes.

In New Mexico, that means lawmakers will select new map lines for New Mexico's three U.S. House districts, the Legislature and the Public Education Commission.

The stakes are high all over the country, as redistricting can determine which party holds political power, with implications for 10 years or more.

Plus — and here's where it gets bumpy — New Mexico has a long history of lawsuits associated with redistricting, with arguments the process — and the maps — were unfair.

The litigation usually leaves the courts to redraw the lines.

"There's always the possibility of a lawsuit," Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said last week. "My guess is, there probably will be."

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, acknowledged the possibility as well.

"The last two [efforts] have ended up in lawsuits. I don't think that will be different this time," he said. "Whatever maps may be decided, there will be lawsuits — somebody will be unhappy."

In 2012, districts in New Mexico were drawn by a state district judge after then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, vetoed a redistricting plan drafted by a Democrat-controlled Legislature following the 2010 census. The court costs associated with the legal wrangling ranged between $6 million and $7 million, according to media reports at the time.

But good-government advocates who helped push through a process that included public forums and the solicitation of dozens of maps through a Citizens Redistricting Committee, hope this year will be different, said Dick Mason, the redistricting project director for the League of Women Voters of New Mexico.

"We want as much as possible to be open," he said before noting, "We can't control what happens behind caucus doors."

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat who took part in the legislative redistricting process a decade ago, said he thinks the process will be more open in the past, in part because of changes brought by technology.

"We have to publish proposed maps as committees begin debating them," he said. "And with our virtual capacity expanded so greatly, I think we will have plenty of opportunities for the public to see what we are talking about, to see what comes out of the caucuses and what is being proposed and then to weigh in."

That is, if any members of the public show up.

Though redistricting attracts the attention of politicians, members of the media, open-government advocacy groups and others most likely to be affected by shifting precincts or district boundary lines, it's unclear if large segments of the public will be as interested.

"Most people don't even know we're going into a special session next week," Ortiz y Pino said. "I've had people calling me all week long wanting to meet next week, and I tell them, 'I'm going into a special session next week.' And they ask, 'Why are you going into special session?' "

More than one reason

Well, money — and loads of it — is the second reason.

In mid-November, the state Supreme Court sided with lawmakers in their lawsuit against the governor, declaring it is up to the Legislature to decide how to spend the remaining $1.1 billion in federal aid. The state has already appropriated about $600,000 of those funds to shore up the state's unemployment insurance fund, which had been depleted by the high unemployment rates brought on by the pandemic.

But late last week, it was revealed Lujan Grisham's administration had used those funds to make two payments totaling about $283,000, which drew fire from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Her administration said those payouts took place before the Supreme Court issued its ruling and said the appropriations would be rescinded.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, agree the federal funds should be focused on one-time projects rather than committed to recurring expenses.

Baca said the money can be funneled into state infrastructure projects, such as improving or building new roads and bridges. He said he'd rather see the money spent that way than "growing government, creating new agencies that are not necessary."

Wirth said the money has to be used by 2026 and that the Legislature does not have to allot all of it during this special session.

"There's no reason we have to appropriate the money in one shot," he said, adding legislators also can use the regular legislative session, slated to start in January, to do that.

He said lawmakers will be looking for guidance from the Legislative Finance Committee and the Governor's Office in terms of how the money can be best spent.

"I don't think it makes sense to fund a bunch of whole new programs that haven't been vetted," Wirth said.

Charting territory — again

Plans for the special session on redistricting began in last year's 60-day legislative session, when a number of lawmakers pitched ideas for creating the Citizens Redistricting Committee to solicit, review and choose maps for the Legislature to consider. The redistricting law passed by that Legislature and signed into law by Lujan Grisham still gives the Legislature the ultimate right to choose, amend or reject those maps.

That redistricting committee held a number of public meetings and pored over dozens of proposed maps from citizens, advocacy groups, Native American communities and others. The committee was charged with a variety of marks to hit, all ending with the wish to avoid gerrymandering — which would allow maps that would favor one party over another.

In mid-October, the committee chose three maps each for Congress, state Senate, the state House of Representatives and the Public Education Commission.

That's just 12 maps for 112 lawmakers to review, right?

Wrong.

Lawmakers have the right to propose their own maps as well. Some — including Republican Sens. Ron Griggs and William Burt, who represent the Alamagordo area — are looking to propose a map that would alter the boundaries of all three proposed Senate maps, which currently place them in the same district.

This situation, known as incumbent pairing, means if neither Griggs nor Burt retires or moves out of the district, the two would face each other in next year's GOP primary. Burt said he and Griggs are working on developing a map that would respect the integrity of the redistricting committee's action while untangling the incumbent pairing challenge.

They aren't the only two legislators caught up in incumbent pairings. Senators Bill O'Neill and Katy Duhigg, Albuquerque Democrats, are in the same boat. O'Neill said this week it's "ironic" this happened to him, given he was one of the main sponsors of a redistricting committee bill.

"Pairing should be a last resort in my opinion, but something that is necessary sometimes," he said. Like the Alamogordo Republicans, O'Neill said he and Duhigg are talking about a way to address the situation, though he said he did not yet have details.

"It's like a jigsaw puzzle," he said. "You move one district or precinct around in one part of the state and it impacts them all."

The politics of self-interest

There are other potential problems that could arise during the redistricting session. In a July 2020 Retake Our Democracy podcast, Ortiz y Pino and Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, spoke of the infighting that occurs not just between the two main political parties but within a party.

"It's much more night fight in the trenches when it gets down to the caucus level — fighting that happens when you're trying to make sure your district is perfect for your election," Moores said in that podcast. "And the horse trading and fighting that happens at that level is much more intensive than the conflict between Republicans and Democrats."

Asked if she has seen lawmakers work to protect their own territory during previous redistricting sessions, Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, succinctly responded, "Absolutely. That's the truth to it."

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, put it this way: He called redistricting "a canoe race up the river, and everyone is paddling their own boat."

Ortiz y Pino said the changes in the Legislature, including many new faces who weren't around for the redistricting efforts of a decade ago, could be a breath of fresh air.

"It's kind of new ground for all of us," he said. "I've been impressed with the conversations I've had with colleagues on how eager they are to be open-minded on this, to see their district reshaped in a fair way — even though it may make it more difficult for them to get reelected."

The length of the session is unknown, particularly now that the spending of federal relief funds is on the table. Most legislators are girding themselves to be at the Capitol until Dec. 19, though the League of Women Voters' Mason doesn't think that's necessary.

"They could make it run real easily, and fast, if they just adopt the [citizens committee] maps," he said with a laugh.

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