SANTA FE – Top Democrats in the New Mexico House have chosen to dissolve a legislative committee that deals with Hispanic land grants, traditional irrigation districts known as acequias and other local government and cultural affairs.
The recent decision announced by House Speaker Brian Egolf after the recent special session is spurring criticism from Hispanic lawmakers, including two members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation.
U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján said he was disappointed in the decision to dissolve the New Mexico Local Government, Land Grants & Cultural Affairs Committee.
“The representation of land grants, acequias, traditional and rural communities must always be at the forefront of New Mexico public policy. They are a critical part of the heart, soul and history of our state,” Luján said in a statement. “These communities also represent the economic potential that our future holds, but only if we keep them as a top priority."
It was the senator’s father, former House Speaker Ben Luján, who created an interim committee to work on issues related to these communities when he controlled the House. Egolf made it a standing committee in 2017.
Luján and U.S. Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández, whose district encompasses many of these communities, both said they had conversations with Egolf. They said he intends to meet with leaders from land grant and acequia communities about how best to move forward.
Days after making the announcement that the panel would be dissolved, Egolf said the needs of land grants and acequias needed to be elevated but that it wasn’t being accomplished through the committee in its current form.
He said a final change will be made in the upcoming 30-day legislative session.
For New Mexicans like Andrea Padilla and Paula Garcia, the committee performs important work they worry will now be overlooked, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.
“It took years of work by grassroots community leaders and legislators to establish a standing committee that could properly address the nonpartisan, 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.
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 that the resignation of Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, as committee chairman presented an opportunity to shift land grant issues to another larger committee with higher visibility.
Miguel Garcia did not return messages seeking comment.
House Republicans contend Egolf improperly dissolved the committee after 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.
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.”