Legislative Ping-Pong: the fight to save the Water Quality Control Commission

Water is precious.

This is true everywhere, but it’s especially true here in New Mexico.

And water is getting more precious every single day: every day that our state grows and our water supply doesn’t; every day this ongoing drought causes our water supplies to dwindle; every day we don’t tackle climate change — inevitably making the problem worse.

In New Mexico, the body charged with protecting our water is the Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC). It is the only entity in the state authorized to enact rules under the federal Clean Water Act or to set water quality standards. The commission also hears appeals of water pollution permits.

So when water is so scarce, why was the very survival of the WQCC ever placed in jeopardy?

Most boards and commissions have “sunset” clauses built into law; without action by the legislature to extend them every five to 10 years, they cease to exist. This year, polluting industries worked to make sure the WQCC wasn’t included in a routine bill (SB 163, sponsored by Sen. Carlos Cisneros) that extends boards and commissions that are set to expire in the near future. The commission would therefore expire unless the legislature acted to incorporate it into the standard bill.

Well, it turns out the big dairy factories, mining companies and other polluting industries don’t like the commission very much, and even though the commission tends to side with industry — especially since Martinez appointed the commission. In fact, environmental groups aren’t very happy with the WQCC either, because the commission has a nasty habit of bending over backwards to protect industry instead of public health and safety.

What is industry’s solution to their annoyance with the WQCC? Let it expire.

Lobbyists for the dairy factories and mining companies worked with Sen. Phil Griego on another bill to extend the WQCC, while gutting its authority and stacking its membership with allies of those industries (SB 193).

It amounted to simple extortion: “change the committee exactly the way we want, or we’ll make sure it no longer exists.”

CVNM, the NM Wildlife Federation, the NM Environmental Law Center and other allies worked overtime to make sure that our state’s precious water could still be protected.

Sen. Cisneros supported inclusion of the WQCC in his SB 163, the routine sunset extension bill, and the Senate Rules Committee (SRC) refused to pass SB 193, the WQCC extortion bill.

Then the fight was on to keep the WQCC in SB 163. First, Sen. Griego ran a floor amendment in the Senate to strip the WQCC from SB 163, ensuring it would expire. With the hard work of advocates and our legislative allies, that attempt failed by a 18-23 vote. The bill moved to the House with the WQCC still included.

A majority of members of the House Business and Industry Committee (HBIC), strongly allied with polluting interests, tried to strip the WQCC out in a late-session committee hearing. Fortunately, Chair Debbie Rodella maneuvered to get the bill out with a compromise amendment extending the WQCC for only two years. At the time, this seemed like a minor miracle, given the makeup of that committee.

On the floor of the House, on the last night of session, Rep. Rodella defended the WQCC passionately against yet another effort to strip the WQCC out of the bill entirely — this time led by Rep. Nate Gentry, the House Minority Whip. That effort was defeated by a narrow margin of only three votes.

Unfortunately, the WQCC wasn’t safe yet. Because the House had amended the Senate bill, it needed to go back to the Senate for a vote on the House amendment. We knew that industry would try to defeat that “concurrence*” vote. If the Senate didn’t agree with the House amendment, it was likely that the bill would go to a conference committee**, where we would surely lose the WQCC.

The late-night vote for the Senate to agree to the House amendment tied. Lieutenant-Gov. John Sanchez cast the tie-breaking vote against agreement, which seemed to spell doom for the commission.

Luckily, one more opportunity existed to save the WQCC. Before the almost-inevitable conference committee, the House would have an opportunity to withdraw the amendment made by HBIC.

With the help of Speaker of the House Ken Martinez and Rep. Rodella, the item was brought up on the House floor early on the last morning of the session. Rep. Rodella recommended that the House recede from its amendment. There was no opposition to that motion. We suspect that industry and their allies were caught unawares; whatever the reason, the House had backed off its amendment, and SB 163 passed the legislature in the same form it left the Senate: with a full extension of the WQCC through 2019.

Afterwards, CVNM launched an organized effort to ensure that Gov. Martinez signed the bill. Fortunately, because the WQCC was tucked into a measure that affected dozens more boards and commissions — all with critical functions and which the Governor supported — she had little choice but to sign SB 163 into law.

Many individuals and organizations helped with the effort to protect our water by saving the WQCC and, thanks to everyone’s efforts, we succeeded!

*A concurrence vote is the vote to agree with the other chamber’s changes to a bill.
**A conference committee is a joint House and Senate committee that negotiate a final bill when the two chambers fail to agree.

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