Early childhood education funding boost clears first committee

The state House Commerce and Economic Development Committee gave the green light Friday to legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to tap more of the state’s nearly $20 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund, even as the governor is prioritizing an alternate proposal to create a new trust fund for a similar purpose. The committee voted 7-4 along party lines to pass House Joint Resolution 1, which would allow additional distributions of 1 percent from the fund to be used for early childhood educational services. Under current law, annual distributions from the fund are 5 percent of its five-year average value. The legislation, which would need to be approved by voters in a general election, has been proposed multiple times in previous years and failed repeatedly. “In order to uplift New Mexico’s children from poverty, we believe it’s of utmost importance to invest in our children,” Rep. Javier Martinez, an Albuquerque Democrat and one of the sponsors of HJR 1, told the committee.

Lawmakers renew effort to alter practice of diverting federal aid to rural schools

New Mexico for years has taken a large share of federal education aid intended for rural schools that lie in areas with large parcels of public and tribal lands and has distributed it to other districts, including urban ones. Legislation that would have undone the long-standing practice quietly died last year. State lawmakers have renewed the effort with more force in the current legislative session, introducing at least four bills designed to make up for tens of millions of dollars in federal Impact Aid diverted each year from rural districts, including many that serve Native American students. “It’s an issue of fairness,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who co-sponsored one of the bills. While New Mexico funds public school districts through a formula based on student numbers using money from several sources — including oil and gas revenues — school districts in many states heavily rely on property taxes.

Long-term fixes for PERA could be tough sell

A Senate Democrat stood outside a Roundhouse committee room Thursday with the head of New Mexico’s retirement system, expressing her concerns about a proposal to reform it. Wayne Propst, head of the Public Employees Retirement Association, tried to alleviate her worries. But Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez isn’t alone. Several members of her caucus, as well as retirees, are expressing unease about the bill, aimed at putting the pension system on a path to solvency. “It is a concern that I’ve been raising,” Sedillo Lopez of Albuquerque said in an interview later, adding she’s getting questions from worried constituents.

Supreme Court action on abortion could prompt special session

Democrats in the state Senate say they still don’t have enough votes to repeal an old, unenforceable abortion ban that remains in New Mexico law. They believe a failed effort in the 2019 legislative session — when a handful of conservative Democrats joined Republicans to block it — could see the same results in this year’s 30-day session. But with the U.S. Supreme Court poised to hear a Louisiana case that is expected to test the landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, Senate Democrats and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham say they are prepared to hold a special legislative session to protect abortion rights in the state if the ruling is overturned. “I think we’d be back in a heartbeat,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said Wednesday, the 47th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling. While some Democratic senators remain staunchly opposed to repealing the state’s old ban, Wirth said some of those votes might change if the state actually criminalized abortion.

Education committee members decry public school spending plans

Lawmakers on the state House and Senate education committees on Wednesday decried the lack of funds proposed for some of their priorities for fiscal year 2021, indicating a deeper conflict is broiling over the largest share of the state’s budget as the Legislature and governor begin hashing out differences in their spending plans. During a joint hearing on public school funding proposed by both the Legislative Finance Committee and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, education committee members said their input over the past year has been ignored. The initiatives they cited as underfinanced or omitted completely ranged from cybersecurity to teacher recruitment and retention efforts to providing feminine hygiene products for teen girls. Rep. Linda Trujillo, a Santa Fe Democrat and former school board member who serves on the interim Legislative Education Study Committee, said she didn’t think the voices of educators, school administrators and higher education officials were “entirely reflected” in the competing budget proposals. “I feel like we have been left in the lurch,” added Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, a former teacher and chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee.

Pueblo eyes film production facility to meet what state says is rising demand

Tesuque Pueblo is actively pursuing plans to turn its old Camel Rock Casino into a film production facility after the space was used last year for the movie production of News of the World, starring Tom Hanks. 

The Pueblo of Tesuque Development Corp. is in talks with scouts for film and television companies about using the location for future productions, said Timothy Brown, the entity’s president and CEO. The former casino, located off U.S. 84/285, could be used on a short- or long-term basis or rented to a major production company, he said. 

“We feel it’s a great use of that facility,” Brown said Wednesday. “It’s a great space because of the numerous rooms and the size of the rooms for production facilities, wardrobe, building sets and for storage.” The pueblo’s pivot to film comes as the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says demand for production facilities in the state is on the rise.

Governor touts efforts to boost education, economy in 2020 State of the State

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham stressed the need for New Mexico to continue investing in education and economic development in her annual State of the State address Tuesday, and urged lawmakers to approve marquee legislation such as the legalization of recreational cannabis. In a speech replete with personal stories and even some jokes, the Democratic governor praised key education proposals on her agenda, including the creation of an early childhood trust fund and her proposed Opportunity Scholarship, which would provide free college tuition for all qualifying New Mexicans. Related: GOP: Governor’s address was ‘love fest’ with no love for oil and gas

“It would be inaccurate to say we chose education as our top priority,” Lujan Grisham said in a section of her speech punctuated with loud applause. “Transforming our public education ecosystem is no less than a moral mandate, an imperative that found us — this group of legislative leaders who are obligated and, I firmly believe, destined to deliver the single best cradle-to-career educational system in the country.” The governor delivered the second State of the State address of her tenure to lawmakers, lobbyists, journalists and the general public in the House chamber of the Legislature on the opening day of the 2020 legislative session. Amid numerous interruptions for applause and standing ovations — largely from Democrats — the governor and former U.S. congresswoman recounted accomplishments from her first year in office and made her case for top priorities for the session.

GOP: Governor’s address was ‘love fest’ with no love for oil and gas

Republicans in the state House and Senate had a common criticism of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s address to the Legislature on Tuesday: She didn’t give credit where credit is due. In her second State of the State address, the governor made the case for increasing education funding and other legislative priorities, including the creation of an early childhood education trust fund and her proposed Opportunity Scholarship, which would cover all remaining college tuition costs for qualifying New Mexicans at in-state schools after other aid is applied, regardless of their income. Lujan Grisham also touted 15,000 new jobs and a better economy after a “lost decade of job growth … stagnation and forced austerity” under former Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican. But Republicans are hammering the governor for not thanking the industry that has provided the jobs and economic growth that is fueling the governor’s political vision: The oil and gas industry.

Musical chairs with Senate committee leadership

The New Mexico Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved three new leaders for key committees, including Sen. Joseph Cervantes as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He succeeds a longtime colleague, Richard Martinez, who was convicted last month of aggravated drunken driving. Earlier in the day, the Senate Committees’ Committee, which chooses members of other panels that debate legislation before it reaches the Senate floor, selected Cervantes for the high-profile leadership position in which he likely will influence two key issues: legalizing recreational cannabis for adult use, which he opposes, and a firearms restriction for people considered at risk of harming someone, which he supports. Martinez, D-Ojo Caliente, relinquished the committee chairmanship after his conviction but did not step down from his Senate seat. Martinez injured two people in a drunken-driving crash in Española in June.

Governor, staff gear up for State of the State address

On the roughly eight-hour flight from Chicago to Dublin, Ireland, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s speechwriter and top communications staffer started a draft of what will be her second annual address to the Legislature. Six hours and 6,000 words later, Tripp Stelnicki closed his laptop and braced himself to meet his sister’s fiancé in Ireland. Since then, Stelnicki said, the document has run the gauntlet, viewed and honed by the governor’s chief of staff, John Bingaman, senior adviser Dominic Gabello and the governor herself. She made some suggestions — a joke here, a little more emphasis here, a cut there. Over time, 2,000 words were shaved off and Lujan Grisham has gone through a dry run of the address, with microphones on, in the House chamber.