SANTA FE — Critical decisions on government spending, voting access, public education and criminal justice await New Mexico lawmakers for their next 30-day legislative session that begins Tuesday.
The New Mexico state government has a general fund surplus of billions of dollars thanks to US government pandemic relief funds and a spike in oil production and natural gas prices.
The state is simultaneously grappling with shortages of teachers, police officers and nurses, as well as a spike in urban violence and concerns about the fragile status of American democracy and the environment.
Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Democratic-led Legislature promise to increase spending, cut tax rates and improve public health and safety. Elections in the fall and a new wave of coronavirus infections loom over deliberations.
The governor’s and legislative leaders’ proposals would increase the state’s general fund annual spending from about $1 billion to nearly $8.5 billion. The 14% spending increase aims to bolster public school budgets and health care access as the federal government cuts pandemic-related subsidies to Medicaid, the program that provides free health care to the needy .
Public spending on education would increase by more than $420 million through new investments in child welfare. The budget would fund more in-home counseling services for couples becoming parents. Public schools would be required to extend classroom learning time.
Salary increases of at least 7% are on offer in public education and most state governments, with higher minimum salaries for teachers and steep salary and retention increases for state police officers. .
The budget proposals would increase scholarship funds for public college education in the state, making tuition free for high school students who graduate with a 2.5 GPA and head to college less than two years after graduating.
Additional scholarships are for teacher career preparation and repayment of previous student loans for active teachers. Together, the student aid initiatives cost nearly $100 million for the coming fiscal year.
Legislative minority Republicans want the state to move toward a voucher-type system for education spending that ties public funding to students to spend in the school of their choice. They also emphasize efforts to stem violent crime, limit vaccination mandates and get public workers back to work in person.
The governor and legislature are proposing a modest reduction in the gross receipts tax on retail sales and business transactions, the state government‘s main source of revenue. Current rates range from approximately 5% to 9% among varying local tax options.
Republicans in the legislative minority are renewing their efforts to end state taxation of Social Security benefits. Democrats might favor the idea of a bill that also increases tobacco taxes.
Amid the difficulties of the pandemic, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe said he hopes lawmakers will consider a new one-time tax refund for essential workers and low-income families. .
Right to vote
Democratic lawmakers plan to push to expand voting access in New Mexico, just as Republican-led states are implementing greater restrictions. In Congress, major Democrat elections and voting rights legislation have stalled.
New Mexico’s Democratic Secretary of State is seeking legislation to make Election Day a holiday to encourage voting and create a permanent list of absentee voters so qualified residents can automatically receive absentee ballots before each election, among other electoral changes.
Currently, voters in New Mexico must request absentee ballot applications before each election to vote by mail or drop-in ballots.
The state’s Republican Party said the changes would invite fraud and confusion and put new pressure on county clerks.
Wirth, the Senate Majority Leader, said “voting and access to voting are under attack.”
“I certainly support national efforts. But boy, until that happens, I think it’s critical at the state level that we make voting access as easy as possible.
A long list of legislative proposals targets violence and urban crime, stoked by outrage over a record year for Albuquerque homicides in 2021.
The governor’s budget recommendations include creating a $100 million fund to help recruit, hire and retain law enforcement officers and personnel across the state. Various enhanced penalties for gun crimes are under consideration.
A separate proposal would deny bail to more people charged with murder or serious gun or sex crimes, overhauling the state’s cashless bail system.
Lujan Grisham said the onus would be on defendants, rather than prosecutors, to prove they would not pose a danger to the community if released before trial.
Public defenders have said bail is not linked to rising violent crime rates and that incarcerating more people before trial or sentencing will ruin lives and harm communities.
On environmental protection, Lujan Grisham has proposed a new state “climate change office,” with a staff of 15 and an initial budget of $2.5 million, to implement climate change standards. pollution for cars and working toward a net-zero emissions state economy in the coming decades. . New Mexico is the second largest oil producer in the United States, behind Texas.
The Legislature will debate a low-carbon fuel standard to help reduce pollution and financial incentives to introduce large-scale hydrogen production in New Mexico, using natural gas to produce fuel. ‘hydrogen.
Subsidies for the production of hydrogen from natural gas are opposed by environmental groups who say it would prolong dependence on fossil fuels thanks to a process that produces carbon dioxide warning the climate that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to capture and store entirely underground.
In health care, key lawmakers want to expand postpartum Medicaid coverage to guarantee enrollment for up to a year after birth, instead of 60 days.
On economic development, Lujan Grisham is asking for money to found a training academy for the film industry to be run by a consortium of existing state colleges and universities and to spend heavily on tourism advertising.