Of the 14 standing committees in the state House of Representatives, the Local Government, Land Grants & Cultural Affairs Committee mostly goes unnoticed.
But for New Mexicans like Andrea Padilla and Paula Garcia, the committee performs important work they worry will now be overlooked after House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, announced in the final moments of the special legislative session Friday the committee had been dissolved.
“It took years of work by grassroots community leaders and legislators to establish a standing committee that could properly address the non-partisan, complex governance and natural resource issues that land grants and acequia communities face,” Padilla, president of the New Mexico Land Grant-Merced Consejo, said in a statement.
“Without this committee, issues relating to land grants, acequias, other local governments and cultural affairs will not have an appropriate committee for these to be heard while the Legislature is in session,” she added.
Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, said her group was “deeply concerned” the eight-member committee had been disbanded. She echoed Padilla, saying the committee is the culmination of years of advocacy by land-based communities.
“We were really surprised to see this happen,” Garcia said. “I think it really added a lot to the legislative process because it’s a committee where legislation about land-based rural communities can be heard.”
House Democrats wrote in a statement the work of the committee will continue.
The resignation of Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, as committee chairman “simply presented an opportunity to shift land grant issues to another larger committee with higher visibility,” they wrote. “The Speaker is conferring with House leadership and will re-assign land grants to another committee at the 30-day legislative session” that begins in January.
Miguel Garcia did not return messages seeking comment.
While Egolf said Friday the committee was “hereby dissolved,” the decision is not final.
“This will need to go through the rules changing process this upcoming 30-day session,” Daniel Marzec, a spokesman for House Democrats, wrote in an email.
After Egolf made the announcement, House Republicans said Egolf had “improperly” dissolved the committee following what they called a “spat” with the chairman.
“Once again, we are witnessing the diminishing returns progressive Democrats are finding in Hispanic voting groups,” House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said in a statement. “Not only does the Speaker not have the authority to dissolve a standing committee without going through the Legislature, for him to eliminate a committee whose jurisdiction is to protect ancestral lands and Hispanic voices reveals to every New Mexican how each of us is a political pawn for the progressive Democrats who control this state.”
House Democrats countered Egolf created the first House standing committee dedicated to land grant issues in 2017 and that his commitment hasn’t wavered.
“Land grants are a critical part of our history and our present day, and House Democrats will continue to fight for all of our traditional Hispanic communities,” they wrote.
But land grant advocates and others remain concerned.
Padilla said the land grant-merced community was “dismayed” the committee had been abolished without the consultation of affected organizations and communities.
“This is a really unfortunate turn of events,” she said. “We expect that future consultation between House leadership and our communities will find an amicable solution to properly address our concerns.”
In a letter to Egolf, Paula Garcia wrote the dismantling of the committee comes at a time when policymaking in New Mexico should have a greater emphasis on rural equity.
“Land grants and acequias have unique challenges relating to governance, natural resources, infrastructure, and basic services,” she wrote. “This committee also addresses issues important to historically marginalized communities of color. Without this committee, land grants and acequias will have fewer opportunities to interact with lawmakers who understand our needs in our communities.”