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During African American Day at the Legislature, Rep. Derrick Lente introduces Barbara Aikins, an official of the state and Rio Rancho NAACP branches.

Rep. James Smith addresses the House during a floor session about halfway through the 60-day session.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Legislature adjourns in March

~Signpost Staff

The state capitol, known in some circles as the Merry Roundhouse, is far from merry these days as the sixty-day session slides toward adjournment at noon on March 18.

The session started quickly enough as legislators swept up cash from wherever it could be found just to balance the current budget. Prospects for the budget year beginning on July 1 inspire little joy as taxes and fees from oil and gas production remain low with other revenue sources in a funk as well.

Fewer bills have been introduced than in recent long sessions, fewer elbows collide in the circular hallways, and a pall hangs over the business of debating and advancing bills.

Controversial legislation like background checks for buyers at gun shows still fill hearing rooms, but veteran observers tell the Signpost that the fiscal mess and continued budget slashing have sucked the energy out of the session. “No money, no excitement,” one said.

During a Signpost visit to the capitol, the place was so quiet, lobbyists were schmoozing each other.

Business is still getting done, however, often in front of small audiences and receiving little attention as when Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, gaveled the House Business and Industry Committee to order. Sitting on either side of her were two committee members whose districts cover all of Bernalillo.

Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales, takes in the town west of the Rio Grande plus parts of Rio Rancho and Corrales. The district of Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, sprawls through eastern Bernalillo and northwesterly into Rio Arriba and San Juan counties to the Colorado state line.

On the agenda this day is Lente's bill to restrict bringing firewood into the state that hasn't been treated against invasive forest pests. About twenty states, nearly all in the East, are under various quarantines limiting the movement of woods and firewood without a permit and proof of treatment against pests. That's not the case out West. "That wood is coming into New Mexico without being checked," Brad Lewis of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA) testified. The concern here is introducing parasites into the state, he added.

Lente's bill assigns regulating to NMDA, and a second version received a do-pass recommendation from the committee. At last report, it was awaiting a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.

Among the legislation that Powdrell-Culbert introduced is the Right to Try Act, which would allow terminally ill patients under certain circumstances to receive drugs that have not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. One criterion is the person is ineligible or unable to participate in clinical trials of the drug.

Thirty-three states already have similar laws, according to an analysis of the New Mexico bill. A second version of Powdrell-Culbert's bill won a do-pass recommendation from the House Health and Human Services Committee and also has moved on to the House Judiciary Committee.

When a Republican majority controlled the House during the last two sessions, Rep. James Smith, R-Sandia Park, chaired the Government, Elections, and Indian Affairs Committee. That cut into the time available to work on passing his own bills, he told the Signpost.

"When you're a committee chairman, someone is in your office constantly," he said while waiting for the House Appropriations Committee to meet—of which he's a member. "It's easier when you're in the minority. I pass a lot of legislation."

This session, Smith, a retired educator whose district includes Placitas and Algodones, has taken on the high-profile issue of using physical restraint and seclusion to control students in danger of harming themselves or others. His bill, covering public and charter schools, would allow trained staff to hold a student and move the student to an office or other space only after lesser interventions have failed. The bill prohibits the use of chemical and mechanical restraints.

A legislative report found the state Public Schools Insurance Authority averages about six claims a year for improper restraint or seclusion resulting in about $1.8 million in settlements and court costs. Current state guidelines on restraining students are voluntary.

This is the third year a bill like this has been introduced, and it is not without critics. The Public Education Department favors including restraint and seclusion in the individual education plans for special education students, something the bill would ban.

"This is my first real effort at it," Smith said. "It takes time to get everybody on board with issues like that."


Wallboard plant moves toward reopening   

~Signpost Staff

The American Gypsum Co. wallboard plant that fell victim to the recession in 2010 with a loss of seventy jobs is on track to reopen, according to a public notice and the Sandoval Economic Alliance.

On February 2, SEA President and CEO Jami Grindatto told Sandoval County commissioners that the company is hoping to hire 28 employees in August to start with a limited day shift. Grindatto said the company was already moving equipment in, and later in the month, activity could be seen on the site on North Hill Road adjacent to Interstate 25.

The company's headquarters in Texas has not yet responded to a query from the Signpost on the economic factors behind starting up operations again. The plant opened in 1990 under the Centex name, and many of the Bernalillo workers transferred to the Albuquerque plant.

The recession, beginning in 2008, hit the construction industry hard, reducing the demand for wallboard also known as gypsum board and drywall.

American Gypsum has maintained the plant since the closure, and a public notice indicates an air-quality permit for emissions of particulates and greenhouse gases is still in effect from previous operations. The company notice says a permit modification is pending for enclosing an existing conveyor system.

In 2014, a Texas company leased the site for a short-lived operation transloading crude oil trucked in from the Four Corners to railroad tank cars. The company ran afoul of town zoning for the site and closed down the operation.


Albuquerque foreign trade zone expands into Sandoval County

~Signpost Staff

World commerce just moved closer to Bernalillo and Rio Rancho as an international trade designation grows well beyond Albuquerque's airport.

For companies that qualify, being in a designated foreign trade zone (FTZ) allows materials to be imported and the resulting finished products to be exported without paying tariffs either way.

The FTZ at the Albuquerque Sunport covers 62 acres but has seen little manufacturing over the years. New Mexico's other FTZ covers industrial parks near the U.S.-Mexico border at Santa Teresa in Doña Ana County.

The U.S. Foreign-Trade Zones Board late last year approved reorganizing the Albuquerque FTZ to include all of Bernalillo and Valencia counties plus Bernalillo, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, and Moriarty. The board also permitted a simplified process, allowing companies to pick their own site and receive FTZ authority within thirty days, rather than be limited to preselected sites with the authority already in place.

 
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