By the time this issue circulates, the New Mexico Legislature will be more than halfway through its 30-day Legislative Session. Whether that lawmaking occasion will produce or amend any oil and gas legislation is a question on the minds of some, but answers won’t be clear until the proceedings are well under way. By Feb. 20—the third Thursday of the month—the session must be concluded.
Carroll Leavell, a New Mexico state senator representing the 41st District, which sits in the extreme southeastern corner of New Mexico, has served 16 years in the senate. Prior to the start of the session he spoke to PBOG about what the session likely would entail.
“The [state’s] Constitution says that the sessions held in even-numbered years are to be limited to a 30-day time period,” Leavell said. “And during those 30 days, there are only three things that can be brought forth by legislators. One of these is any item to do with either revenue or expenses. Another is [the provision that] any vetoed bill from the previous session can be called back for reconsideration. And the third item would be any issue that the governor will put ‘on the call.’”
Leavell said that “we are very fortunate that we have a governor who is business-friendly and who understands oil and gas.”
“And she has put people into management positions, such as Secretary David Martin, on Energy and Minerals,who was working with oil and gas,” Leavell added. “Now, having said that, I’m not anticipating any legislation coming before us that will be very detrimental to the oil and gas industry. I just don’t see that at this point in time. The oil and gas industry in Southeast New Mexico is pretty well carrying the revenues for the state, and the state is still in recovery, if you will, from our 2008 downturn. But Lea and Eddy Counties are making up a big part of the difference.”
Mike Miller, a New Mexico lobbyist who represents the interests of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, likewise commented on the limitations of this biennial gathering. The full 60-day legislative session is held in odd-numbered years, he said, while the abbreviated 30-day session falls in the intervening years.
Only fiscal matters can be taken up as bills, Miller indicated. “So that means taxes and appropriations. Now, the governor can place on her ‘call’ anything she would like to ask the Legislature to consider. If the Legislature wants to deal with a specific issue that doesn’t have anything to do with a fiscal matter, then the Legislature can appeal to the governor and ask her to put it on her call. We don’t know what she is going to put out there on her side. There’s another thing a legislator can do, and that is he can attach appropriation or some sort of revenue incentive on a bill and then strip it at the very end. That is, put something on there and then strip the appropriation or the fee at the very end, and get the bill heard. So the 30-day sessions are sometimes… well, I wouldn’t say unpredictable. But not as predictable. Because you don’t know what they will come up with.
Miller said the 60-day sessions, in the odd-numbered years, “are more no-holds-barred, if you will.”
Another interesting thing about this year’s January-to-February session, according to Miller, is the election implications.
“In New Mexico, our state senators are on a four-year term, not staggered. And our House members are on a two-year term. Accordingly, we have 70 members of our House that are up for re-election during 2014, along with the governor. So, you see, these sessions are also sometimes less predictable, especially when the governor ‘s up, because… lots of politics happen. And by that I mean that legislators of the opposite party of the governor’s will introduce bills that will hopefully get to the governor that will hold the governor accountable during the campaign, for having signed or vetoed something.
“And as I said, this being an election year for the House, there’s probably not much of a flavor for anybody to pass anything of a tax increase. And of course the governor won’t sign one. This governor won’t sign one. So this session, there is posturing, if you will, by members of the House. And there are two legislators who have announced their intention to file for the governor’s office who are of the opposite party of the governor: Senator Hal Morales and Senator Linda Lopez. Plus, our attorney general Jerry King has announced his intent to run for governor. So that always makes things interesting as well.”
Despite the fact that the session does not seem to be a likely stage for oil and gas discussions, Miller did indicate that his office is on the lookout for a few things.
“It was rumored that the attorney general may try to bring—on behalf of the attorney general—a bill that we killed on the floor of the House last year—a bill that would make some amendments to the oil and gas act. What it would do is, it would increase civil penalties from a thousand dollars a day to $15,000 a day, for certain violations. The bill would make it easier to bring an action against a company or industry for violations. Right now, if someone wants to bring an action based on a company’s violation, they normally have to go through the departments, like the Environment Department or the Energy and Minerals Department, and establish there that this person or this company is guilty of a violation. What this bill seeks to do is allow individuals to go straight to court, bypassing the usual procedure.
“So, anybody could bring suit against the industry just because they wanted to. Let’s say that you think a company is violating a clean air ordinance. Right now, you would go straight to the Environment Department, and the Environment Department would investigate and then they would determine whether or not there is a violation and they would determine what fines or corrective action are needed. But under this proposed legislation, any citizen could do that and take it directly to court. So, that would be awful, right? And the other thing that happens is that.. right now, what happens, under the act, if something does go to court, it says that the jurisdiction of the court will be in the venue of the violation. So, in other words, if it is something that is in Eddy County, it is an Eddy County district court that hears it. The bill wants to propose that all of these actions will be in the first judicial district, which would be Santa Fe.”
Miller said that he thought that the opposition party—opposition to the governor—would love to see this bill come up in session, because it could perhaps be pushed through the Legislature and could land on the governor’s desk, where it would be vetoed. All of which could give the opposition party something from which to make political hay.
“They could say, the governor doesn’t want to protect your water, the governor doesn’t want to protect your air, etc., etc.,” Miller said.
Leavell, meanwhile, said that he thought it was possible the session would touch upon the business of water in the oil and gas fields.
“Water is a precious commodity in Southeast New Mexico, as it is throughout the Permian Basin, and we’re seeing a movement from the oil and gas companies to try to re-use their frac water,” he said. “And I think that that is a do-able issue. It might help if we had some tax credits for maybe taking up some of the expense of recycling.
But I haven’t at this point in time come upon any legislation or seen legislation that I’d be pleased to carry regarding oil and gas—and water issues.”
Added Leavell: “I’ve never seen the economy more robust than it is right now. I’ve never seen oil and gas activity more robust than it is right now.”