Lawmakers point state to new educational future

It was a good year for education. Whether it was great depended on who you asked. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislative leaders, both Democratic and Republican, extoled investments New Mexico made in education Saturday as the 60-day session came to a close. 

“This is a Legislature that delivered a moonshot,” the governor nearly shouted during a post-session press conference in her Cabinet Room on the fourth floor of the Roundhouse. 

State lawmakers pumped an additional $500 million into the public schools budget and created a new early education department. Teachers and school administrators received a salary increase. And money for early childhood programs got a boost. 

But bills that emphasized multicultural, bilingual education and strengthened the community school model – ideas that some lawmakers and education advocates consider transformational – seemed destined to die, stuck in legislative committees. 

Then in the final hours of the 2019 legislative session, two of them were pulled from certain death and placed on the Senate floor Saturday morning. 

The Multicultural Education Framework, a centerpiece of the Transform Education NM coalition of Yazzie Martinez education lawsuit plaintiffs and community advocates, was defeated, going down on  on a 14-22 vote, with seven Democrats voting against the bill. 

In contrast, a bill that strengthens the community school model, cleared the Senate after contentious debate on a bipartisan vote of 24-15 and and is headed to Lujan Grisham’s desk. A priority of the governor, the community school model provides social supports for struggling students and makes schools a community hub. 

Sen. Mimi Stewart, a retired teacher who chairs the Legislative Education Study Committee, put up a spirited defense of the legislation. 

The community schools idea had been long studied by the LESC, she said.

Needs improvement: Legislative session ends with mixed results for NM kids

It’s a Wednesday morning at Kids Campus at Santa Fe Community College, and Sacha, an 11-month-old girl, has just taken a few wobbly steps. Staff members hold their breath, and one person exclaims, “Look at her!”

“Many of our kids start in the baby room and work their way through [the pre-K program]” and eventually all the way to college, said Michelle Rosen-Hatcher, a director at Kids Campus, one of a handful of infant care centers in Santa Fe. “We love that we can provide that continuity of care for our kids.”

Unfortunately, New Mexico children haven’t received the same support from state lawmakers, who have effectively marched backwards in recent years. A 2019 report by the Santa Fe Baby Fund shows that there is only enough high-quality center-based care for 7 percent of babies born in Santa Fe. The shortage reflects one of New Mexico’s most entrenched problems. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the state ranks dead last in the country in overall child well-being.

2019 a big year for environmental legislation

After eight years of ignoring most environmental issues, the New Mexico Legislature got busy on water, energy and climate change this year. According to the nonprofit Conservation Voters New Mexico, legislators took up more than 100 bills this session related to the environment. Some didn’t pass, including Sen. Mimi Stewart’s solar tax credit bill (Senate Bill 518). That bill would have allowed New Mexicans a personal income tax credit of 10 percent of the cost of installing a solar thermal system or solar photovoltaic systems on homes, businesses or farms. Other bills that might get a second (or third, or fourth…) chance in later years include the Healthy Soil Act (House Bill 204/Senate Bill 218), the Environmental Review Act (House Bill 206), the Strategic Water Reserve (House Bill 281/Senate Bill 277), the Wildlife Protection and Public Safety Act (House Bill 366) and a number of bills related to water planning. For some of the bills passed into law, the devil will be in the details of implementation.

Mixed bag for cannabis legislation in 2019

After Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was elected and New Mexico’s House of Representatives saw a major increase of Democrats last fall, many New Mexicans speculated whether the state would also see cannabis legalization in 2019. The short answer was ultimately, no. But, the legislature enacted some major changes to the existing medical cannabis law and took at least one step towards decreasing jail time  for the use or possession of cannabis. Medical cannabis in schools (SB 204)

Senate Bill 204, sponsored by Albuquerque Sens. Candace Gould, a Republican, and Jacob Candelaria, a Democrat, and Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, would allow some students to use medical cannabis while at school.

Same-day, automatic voter registration and more: How elections and voting bills fared in 2019

With a larger majority in the House this year, Democrats passed a number of changes to the state’s voting system as part of the flood of legislation sent to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk. Some had passed only to be vetoed by former Gov. Susana Martinez, while conservative Democrats killed other efforts before reaching the governor’s desk. The bills included some progressive priorities, including expanding disclosure of campaign finance information and expanding automatic voter registrations. Passed

Early & Auto Voter Registration (SB 672)

In the past, conservative Democrats blocked the expansion of automatic voter registration and same-day voting registration. Once Lujan Grisham signs the bill, as she is expected to do, beginning in 2021, New Mexico voters will be able to register to vote or update their registration at polling locations when voting.

Change in grading schools dies in Legislature

Two bills that would have created new guidelines for grading New Mexico’s teachers stalled during the just-completed legislative session, but the state Public Education Department will continue to transition away from the evaluation system implemented by the administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez. Troubled by a teacher shortage, department officials say they are aiming to finalize a new rule outlining teacher evaluation standards that could become law in the 2020 session of the state Legislature. “We are trying to rebuild some trust between the department and educators. Across the board we are looking to change how we give schools or teachers feedback,” PED Deputy Secretary for Teaching and Learning Gwen Warniment said. “The old system did not offer teachers any type of mechanism through which you were able to become a reflective practitioner.

Prosecutors oppose parole changes

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and all fourteen of the state’s district attorneys are asking Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to veto a bill that would change laws governing probation and parole for criminal offenders. The prosecutors said in a letter Friday to the governor that the measure approved by the Legislature would jeopardize public safety. Supporters of the bill said that isn’t accurate. The letter is, at best, disingenuous, said House Judiciary Chairwoman Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, one of the bill’s four sponsors. “We are looking at a new day here and a lot of what is claimed in that letter, the exact opposite is true,” Chasey said Friday.

Sine die: Legislature adjourns from busy session

The 60-day legislative session ended Saturday with a down-to-the-wire agreement on a sweeping tax bill that will raise rates on e-cigarettes and new vehicles while nearly doubling an income tax credit for some families. The scaled-back version of House Bill 6 approved by the Senate in the last 20 minutes before the final bang of the gavel was a fitting end to a session dominated for better or worse by the state’s financial outlook. Driving the session was a whopping budget surplus and the substantial increases in funding for education that it has financed. An oil boom generated the windfall, but there was fear among several lawmakers about what might befall New Mexico if fickle energy markets take a turn. For Republicans and even some skeptical lawmakers on the other side of the aisle, the tax bill represented a sort of “only in Santa Fe” paradox, with newly elected Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham looking to raise revenues at the same time that the state had a surplus of $1 billion this year.

After difficult session, House GOP promises a comeback

With only minutes left on the clock on the last day of the legislative session, Republicans in the state House of Representatives didn’t even get one last chance to raise a ruckus. All they could do was raise a collective “Nay!” when asked if they approved a House-Senate compromise on a $7 billion state budget for fiscal year 2020. Outnumbered 46-24 by Democrats, the House Republicans were essentially muted as the session neared its close Saturday. And that’s how it had played out for most of the 60-day session.

What lawmakers did, didn’t do

Here’s a capsule view of what happened during the state Legislature’s 60-day session that ended Saturday. Not so high: No, New Mexico isn’t legalizing recreational cannabis this year. But Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told reporters she will put it on the agenda next year. “We’re going to make that a priority,” she said. While the possibility of legalization captured attention this session, lawmakers drastically reduced the penalties for possessing the drug.