A man with a 10-year-old chicken in his lap testifies in support of a cage-free egg bill during a hearing of the Senate Conservation Committee on Thursday.

Days remaining in session: 23

Teacher pension contributions: A bill that would require employers to pay more into the retirement fund for New Mexico educators passed the state Senate on a 36-6 vote Thursday.

Senate Bill 42, which was among eight pieces of legislation the Senate approved during a fast-paced floor session, would raise the employer contribution rate to the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board by 1 percent a year for the next four years.

"The current contribution from the employers is 14.15 percent. This would move up over four years to 18.15 percent," the sponsor, Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said.

The bill also would extend a return-to-work program for retired teachers. "The superintendents of our state have asked for this to be extended for two years," Stewart said, adding approximately 1,400 teachers participate in the program annually.

The portion of the bill that calls for an increase in the employer contribution rate generated the most pushback. "I absolutely agree that this is needed. But I don't think this solves the problem. This just kicks the can down the road again," said Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington. "This is the year to actually do real reform, and I fear we're not. This is going to pass, and we're going to squander an opportunity that we have to do real reform." 

Stewart argued the increase was necessary for the solvency of the pension system, which covers all employees in K-12 schools, public colleges and universities. "I think maintaining the viability of the fund is a commitment that New Mexico [needs to make] to its educators," she said.

Cage-free eggs: Eggs sold in New Mexico by large commercial producers would have to be laid by cage-free chickens under a bill the Senate Conservation Committee advanced Thursday on a 6-3 vote. Dubbed the Confinement of Egg-Laying Hens Act, Senate Bill 347 would prohibit the sale of eggs if they came from caged chickens.

"This is the trend and what's happening across the country," the sponsor, Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, said. "Many companies like Denny's, Kellogg's, Smith's, Walmart, Cisco and others are going to 100 percent cage-free hens laying eggs."

The bill also would require cage-free chickens on any operation with more than 3,000 hens in New Mexico, which currently doesn't have any such operation. Though the bill made it out of committee, even supporters expressed concerns about the legislation, primarily over cost increases that could be passed on to consumers. 

"We need to just make sure that we're taking care of our lower-income folks," Sen. Harold Pope, D-Albuquerque, said, adding that when he was growing up with a single mom and four siblings, he was lucky to get eggs at all.

Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, who chairs the committee, echoed the sentiment, saying she didn't want to hurt poor people either. "We had eggs once a week when I was growing up," she said. "That was the extent of the finances [in our] home."

Corralling wild horses: A substitute bill that allows for the capture and permanent removal of wild horses trotted out of the Senate Indian, Rural and Cultural Affairs Committee on a 6-0 vote Thursday. Under Senate Bill 385, a wild horse could be captured if it presented a physical threat, needed veterinary care or the land where it roamed exceeded its carrying capacity.

The legislation also would establish guidelines over the permanent removal of a wild horse, including if the horse were too unhealthy or injured to return to its range or if the agency with jurisdiction over the land developed and implemented a herd management plan with disposition options. 

"Even before I took my oath … this was the very first constituent issue that appeared in my email box, and so I decided very early on, I'm not going to ignore this," said Sen. Brenda McKenna, D-Corrales, who teamed up with Republican Sen. Pat Woods of Broadview on the legislation.

Tribute to Gloria Vaughn: Members of the House of Representatives paused for a moment of silence for former Rep. Gloria Vaughn, R-Alamogordo, who died at the age of 84 in December.

House members recalled a vibrant and sometimes flamboyant legislator who loved coming to the Capitol to serve her constituents.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, recalled Vaughn's way of letting the assembly know it was getting late for debate. "She came in wearing her pajamas and carrying a pillow," he said. Egolf said Vaughn "enjoyed every minute" of her work as a lawmaker. Vaughn served from 1995 to 2010. 

Later in the day, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who knew Vaughn, said she was ordering state flags to be flown at half-staff from Friday through Sunday in honor of the former representative.

In a news release, the governor wrote of Vaughn, "She was an affable, kind and hilarious woman, as well as a decent and honorable public servant and I have happy memories of working with her."

Lawmakers have human rights: During a virtual news conference Thursday, Egolf said he plans to propose changes to the state Human Rights Act to ensure it holds legislators accountable. The law prohibits discrimination based on race, age, religion, color, ancestry and gender, among other factors.

Egolf said he will present the proposal to the Legislative Council, an interim committee of lawmakers from both major parties and both legislative chambers, sometime this spring. The idea, Egolf said, is that if any member of the public expresses concerns about a lawmaker violating the law, a legislative panel can investigate and "consider taking action if a member's behavior is inappropriate."

Last weekend, leaders from the state's Black community raised concerns about the behavior of two Republican lawmakers — Sen. Greg Baca of Belen and Rep. Stefani Lord of Sandia Park — in two separate instances at the Capitol.

Asked if his initiative had anything to do with Baca and Lord, Egolf said it was something that "has come up over the years. … It's important for us to look into."

Quote of the day: "I think I can now mark off that a chicken has shown up in my Zoom meeting on my Zoom bingo card, so thank you very much for that." — Sen. Carrie Hamblen, D-Las Cruces, after a man testified in support of a cage-free egg bill in front of the Senate Conservation Committee with a 10-year-old chicken in his lap.

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

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