House committee shelves medical marijuana bill

The Associated Press

SANTA FE — A House panel has shelved a Senate-passed bill that would have allowed patients suffering from illnesses like cancer or AIDS to use marijuana prescribed by a doctor to alleviate their pain.

With the end of the legislative session set for Thursday, the move likely kills the bill for this session.

The Agriculture and Water Resources Committee tabled the measure on a 4-3 vote Saturday.

“Why are you trying to kill us?” Essie DeBonet, 61, of Albuquerque shouted at committee members as the vote sank in after an emotional hearing on the proposal.

DeBonet said she has suffered from AIDS for 18 years and needs marijuana to control the pain without giving her nausea that prevents her from eating.

Reena Szczepanski of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, which lobbied for the bill, said supporters will try to regroup and get the committee to reconsider the measure before the session ends.

“We’re really disappointed, absolutely heartbroken,” she said.

The bill would have created a program in the Health Department where doctors could have referred patients with debilitating medical conditions. Patients who were certified under the program would be able to possess marijuana without risk of prosecution by state authorities, but they could not grow it.

The committee’s decision was applauded by law enforcement officers who said the proposal would cause legal problems because it conflicted with federal law and would increase illegal marijuana use and growth in the state.

Errol Chavez, director of the New Mexico High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area in Las Cruces, told the committee that abuse and growth of marijuana increased in California after a medical marijuana law went into effect.

Senate defeats open conference proposal
SANTA FE — The state Senate has defeated a proposal to open legislative conference committees to the public, likely dooming the bill for this session.

The measure generated extensive debate — but only 16 favorable votes — during Friday’s Senate session. Twenty-two lawmakers voted against it.

Backed by the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and the New Mexico Press Association, the proposal has been introduced on and off for a dozen years as a change either to the law or to legislative rules.

Conference committees are the small groups of lawmakers appointed to reach a compromise when the Senate and House pass differing versions of the same bill.

Final decisions on some of the most important matters facing the Legislature, including the annual state budget, are made in closed conference committees.

Legislatures in about 40 other states open such meetings to the public.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, argued that the public “has a right to know how we spend their money and how we make decisions in their name.”

“The state government of New Mexico belongs to the people; it doesn’t just belong to the legislators,” she said.

Opponents said opening conference committees would just mean the real decision-making would be done elsewhere, and that a meeting watched by the press and public would turn into a “partisan show,” curtailing open discussion and debate.

Sen. Rod Adair, R-Roswell, poked fun at what he said were silly arguments against the bill that he characterized this way: “The only way democratic government can truly function is in absolute, total secrecy,” and “If you pass this law, we’re going to violate it.”

Senate rejects ethics proposal
SANTA FE — The Senate on Saturday rejected a campaign finance and ethics reform proposal backed by Gov. Bill Richardson.

The measure would have prohibited larger cash contributions to candidates and required disclosure of more information about campaign contributors, such as their employer.

The proposal was part of a package of reform measures that Richardson developed in the wake of a kickback scandal and federal prosecution of two past state treasurers.

The Senate defeated the measure on a 22-12 vote. Opponents contended that the bill was too restrictive.

Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, objected to a provision that would have required a campaign to disclose a contributor’s employer. Currently, the donor’s occupation must be listed on a campaign finance report.

“I think that’s too much information,” said Sharer, who contended that a donor’s occupation or employer shouldn’t be required on campaign finance disclosure reports.

He and other opponents contended there may be no link between an individual’s contribution and their employer. Sharer argued that an employer might retaliate against a worker for making contributions.

House sends mine bill to governor
SANTA FE — Lawmakers have given final approval to a bill that would require underground mines in New Mexico to quickly notify the state of accidents and provide miners with equipment to speed up their rescue.

The House on Saturday unanimously approved the Senate-passed bill, sending it to Gov. Bill Richardson.

The bill was prompted by recent mining accidents in West Virginia, where a January explosion at the Sago Mine killed a dozen men.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, requires mines to notify an emergency operations center — which will be set up by the state mine inspector — within 30 minutes of an accident, or face a fine of up to $100,000.

Cisneros has said the measure has the backing of the mining industry.

Mine operators would have to provide self-rescue breathing devices that are good for an hour or longer. They would be worn or kept near each miner, with additional devices stashed throughout the mine.

Miners also would be provided with wireless communication devices or two-way radio systems, as well as wireless tracking devices that would make them easy to locate.

There are four underground mines in the state: the San Juan Mine, a coal mine near Farmington; Molycorp’s molybdenum mine near Questa; and two potash mines near Carlsbad.

House passes repeal of bed tax
SANTA FE — The House has passed a bill backed by Gov. Bill Richardson that would speed up a repeal of a tax on nursing home care.

Under the measure approved unanimously Saturday by the House, the nursing home bed tax would be eliminated immediately upon the governor signing the legislation into law. The bill now goes to the Senate.

In 2004, the state imposed a nearly $9-a-day surcharge on each occupied bed at nursing homes and intermediate care facilities for mentally retarded people. The tax, enacted to help finance Medicaid, is estimated to generate almost $21 million for the state in the next budget year.

The Senate already has passed its own version of the repeal legislation. Both chambers must approve the same version of a bill before it goes to the governor.

On Friday when the House initially debated the bill, Democrats thwarted a Republican-backed effort to refund the money New Mexicans paid because of the tax.

House approves earlier liquor sales
SANTA FE — Restaurants, clubs and bars could start selling liquor an hour earlier on Sunday under a bill approved by the House.

Currently, there are no liquor sales on Sunday before noon.
The legislation would allow liquor and beer to be sold for consumption at a licensed outlet, such as a restaurant, starting at 11 a.m. on Sunday.

However, the starting time would remain noon for retail package sales of liquor and beer that is for consumption off the licensee’s premises.

The bill passed the House on a 29-23 vote Saturday and it goes to the Senate for consideration.

Supporters said the 11 a.m. proposed starting time would accommodate patrons of clubs and restaurants who go there to watch televised sporting events. Opponents said increasing the time for liquor sales ran contrary to the state’s effort to curb drunken driving.

House approves prescription drug bill
SANTA FE — The House unanimously approved a measure on Friday to help New Mexicans buy prescription drugs at a lower cost.

The measure would expand an existing program that allows people 65 and older to take advantage of discounted drug prices that the Retiree Health Care Authority contracts for through a group plan.

The legislation would eliminate the age requirement, opening the program to all New Mexicans, said House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe.

The proposal goes to the Senate for consideration.

Committee approves junior budget
SANTA FE — A nearly $46 million “junior” budget bill is heading to the House for consideration.

The measure allocates money for dozens of programs and projects earmarked by legislators and Gov. Bill Richardson.

The House Appropriations and Finance Committee unanimously endorsed the Senate-passed bill Friday after adding about $14 million to fund programs favored by House members.

The committee also made several changes to deal with concerns of the governor. For example, the bill allocates almost $3.9 million to provide prenatal care to more pregnant women through the Medicaid program. When the bill passed the Senate, $716,000 was set aside for those services.

Other provisions of the measure provide $659,000 for a sex offender treatment program, $1.5 million for statewide domestic violence services and $1 million for an administration proposal to help buy health insurance for children of the working poor.