By Matt Grubs, NMiF Producer
UPDATED with statement from the governor at the end of the post.
One of the governor’s top priorities was tabled in committee today – “dead” in the words of one senator – without a single Republican vote supporting the measure.
Senate Bill 5, sponsored by Senator Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, is designed to allow a fireworks ban in times of “high, very high, or extreme” fire danger. The bill initially would have allowed the governor to make that declaration, but Senator Feldman shifted that power to allow local authorities to make the call. The compromise would have narrowed the scope of a potential ban and came in response to concerns raised by the fireworks lobby.
The strength of the lobbying effort surprised some as the industry flexed considerable muscle in effectively killing the measure before it reached the Senate floor. After a lengthy debate in the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee, Senator Bill Sharer, a Republican, moved to table the bill. The move was supported by fellow Republicans Mark Boitano and Bill Burt. Committee Chairman Phil Griego, D-San Jose, voted to table as well. Democrats Tim Keller and John Sapien voted against tabling the bill the first time they were polled. David Ulibarri, Tim Eichenberg and George Munoz all passed on a vote during the first polling. When the vote came around again, Eichenberg and Munoz voted to table. With the vote standing at 6-3 in favor of tabling, Ulibarri voted against the motion.
Senator Eichenberg, D-Albuquerque, refused a request for an interview, saying, “Not now. I’m doing something.” A request has also been made to speak with Senator Munoz. In the hall outside the committee room, Senator Phil Griego shook hands with the bill’s opponents and told us, “People in New Mexico are smart enough to understand that [fireworks are not a good idea in times of high fire danger].”
The index to which Griego is referring is the National Fire Danger Rating System of the United States Forest Service. That’s a change from “extreme or severe drought conditions”. As you heard, Griego and others felt the USFS system is too broad a measure. And as he mentioned, the Las Conchas Fire – New Mexico’s largest ever – was not caused by fireworks.
Senator Feldman is one of those who feel, as we indicated to Senator Griego, that this is a near-textbook example of a special interest lobbying hard to kill a bill before a floor vote. Though she told us she’ll keep working for an acceptable compromise, as you’ll hear her say below, she feels as though the industry is happy with the status quo.
UPDATE: The Governor’s Office has replied to our request for comment. Scott Darnell sent us this strongly worded statement just a few minutes ago:
“At one point during last year’s horrific wildfire season, our office received over 700 calls in a roughly 2 week period from mayors, fire chiefs, and concerned New Mexicans who were worried about the prospect of fireworks wreaking havoc and destruction in communities that had already faced weeks of wildfire threats. They expressed frustration that, in these times of emergency, our local governments and the state have their hands tied by the law and aren’t able to take the action necessary to prevent this potential for widespread damage and loss of life.
We all hope and pray that we do not experience another dangerous fire season like we experienced last year, but if it happens again, New Mexicans can rightfully express disappointment that the special interest lobby prevailed among a small group of Senators in defeating a bill that would have given cities, counties, and the state the tools they need to keep our communities safe during the most extreme wildfire emergencies.”
To underscore his point, Darnell attached a list of more than two dozen cities, county officials and fire chiefs who supported the measure.