Public lands matter: BLM should protect Otero Mesa

Southern New Mexico is blessed with a rich heritage of public lands, and should have a strong voice in the discussion about how to protect and manage those public lands. Right now, we have an opportunity to guide land-use decisions so that they weigh and balance the needs of all stakeholders: a Bureau of Land Management Resource Management Plan (RMP), which includes Otero Mesa. A draft RMP is expected this year, and by using our voices we can call on the BLM to use all of the tools at their disposal to create a balanced plan that adequately protects the Otero Mesa landscape. Bill Soules is a Democratic member of the Senate from Las Cruces representing District 37. Otero Mesa contains the largest and wildest Chihuahuan Desert grassland left in America.

Guv’s cuts to summer learning hurts vulnerable children, worsens achievement gap

Recently—and very quietly—the state Public Education Department (PED) appears to have cut $3 million or more from a popular summer learning program for young children ages 5 to 8 set to begin next month. As a result, 6,100 fewer children across New Mexico will receive classroom instruction that is proven to narrow the achievement gap between low-income students and their peers, increase skills, and improve student test scores. The state-funded K–3 Plus initiative is innovative – and it works. PED’s decision to slash funding for it is morally wrong and should be reversed. K–3 Plus extends the school year for children entering kindergarten through third grade by 25 instructional days beginning in the summer before school starts, in eligible schools.

Reading bill dies quietly

For seven consecutive years, Gov. Susana Martinez has unsuccessfully pushed a bill to hold back thousands of third-graders who score below par on standardized reading tests. A pair of similar bills this year haven’t even received a hearing before a legislative committee. And with just five days left in the 60-day legislative session, it is unlikely that they will. Democratic Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said she didn’t know whether the panel would have time to hear House Bill 114, introduced by Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque. But even if Garcia Richard’s committee takes up the measure, it almost certainly would table it.

Industry comes out in force, committee kills energy surtax for early childhood ed funding

On Tuesday a bill to fund early childhood education programs with two new taxes on energy and electricity producers failed to make it out of committee. During the Senate Conservation Committee meeting, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, sought support for a bill that would create an early childhood education fund paid for by a one-hundredth percent oil and gas energy surtax and a one cent per kilowatt hour tax on electricity produced in New Mexico. The two revenue sources would generate more than $320 million annually, according to the fiscal impact report for Senate Bill 288. Once the meeting was opened for public comments, not one audience member spoke in support of the bill. But more than a dozen lobbyists and representatives of the oil and gas industry and utilities like PNM, El Paso Electric, Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission opposed it.

Higher ed changes could ‘whitewash’ universities, some professors warn

Some professors, students and advocates at the state’s flagship university are warning proposed sweeping changes to the state’s higher education system could undermine academic freedom and programs like ethnic studies. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs would scale back the number of required credit hours students take in public university “general education core” classes and establish “meta-majors.”

“Meta-major” classes are defined in the bill as “lower division courses” that are set by the department and include general education courses and prerequisite courses. At a Senate Education Committee hearing last week, Kernan said her bill’s purpose is to make it easier for students who transfer to different universities to use the credits they’ve already earned from previous courses toward their college degrees. Kernan’s bill is supported by New Mexico Higher Education Department Secretary Barbara Damron. At last week’s hearing, Damron described meta-majors as a group of courses set under a list of broad subjects that undecided college students can choose from to create a path toward their eventual major.

House committee advances bill to raise state’s minimum wage

Lawmakers took a step Wednesday toward raising New Mexico’s minimum wage. Members of the House Labor and Economic Development committee voted 6-5 along party lines to advance a bill sponsored by Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, that would increase the state minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $10.10 over the next three years. Tipped employees would have to be paid at least 40 percent of the minimum wage, a boost from the $2.13 per hour they’re now paid. And starting in 2021, the minimum wage would be adjusted annually based on the cost of living. Business groups have fiercely opposed such legislation.

Minimum wage increase, harsher criminal penalties among pre-filed legislation

State lawmakers have been able to prefile legislation for the upcoming legislative session since last Thursday. Already, they have introduced some high profile bills such as increasing the minimum wage, automatic voter registration and increasing penalties for certain crimes. Two efforts to amend the state constitution to tap the land grant permanent fund to provide money for early childhood education as bills will likely also make headlines when the session starts in mid-January. As in the past two legislative sessions, proposals to increase the penalties for crimes largely come from members of the House. Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque will again try to expand the state’s three strikes law.

New Mexico Super PACs: Winners and Losers

Gov. Susana Martinez took out her major target in Tuesday’s election, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez. But that single victory came at a cost. Republicans lost the state House after two years in control, while Democrats strengthened their margin in the state Senate. The Democrats will control the House by at least a 37-33 margin, with an outside shot at a 39-31 split. Two races are going to recounts.

Pro- and anti-abortion rights groups spend thousands on local races

In a campaign season dominated by Donald Trump’s comments on groping women and several allegations against him of doing so, media attention on traditionally hot-button electoral issues like abortion access has been relegated to the side. But that doesn’t mean advocates aren’t using the issue of abortion to influence elections this year. On the local level, two political action committees on opposing sides of abortion rights are injecting thousands of dollars to influence down-ballot races. Planned Parenthood Votes New Mexico, for example, raised $10,000 to target four hotly contested state legislative races that could help decide which party controls the state House of Representatives and state Senate. The Right to Life Committee of New Mexico PAC, on the other hand, has spent more than $4,500 in the primaries and general election to encourage its base, which opposes abortion rights, to vote in a year that’s expected to be an uphill climb for Republicans.

Cig taxes, lottery scholarship and more: Pre-filed legislation from Senate

The legislative session starts today, but already Legislators have introduced hundreds of bills, memorials and joint resolutions. The Senate has over 150 such pieces of legislation. NM Political Report took a look at the pre-filed legislation two weeks ago. Now, we will look at the rest of the legislation introduced between then and the end of pre-filing on Friday. Yesterday, we took a look at the pre-filed legislation from the House.