ByAlgernon D'Ammassa, Las Cruces Sun-News, New Mexico In Depth |
Seated on the floor of First Christian Church on a recent Sunday morning, Pastor Dave Rogers pierces the heart of a debate in Carlsbad as it adapts to a historic oil and natural gas boom. Rogers recounts to three children the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man from a despised group helps a traveler beaten, robbed and left for dead after religious passers-by ignore him. “I wonder what it’s like to be a neighbor to somebody we don’t know and that needs our help,” Rogers asks his young listeners as a dozen or so adults, mostly senior citizens, look on. Welcoming strangers and helping neighbors are values many in the small congregation – and broader community – identify with Carlsbad.
The months leading up to legislative sessions are often marked by state agencies presenting progress reports to lawmakers. Crime in the Albuquerque area has been a frequent subject to come up when talking about spending. But those conversations are usually devoted to the road ahead and not to picking apart past budgets.
But in a letter sent last month, the state’s speaker of the House and a top financial leader in the House asked the Bernalillo County district attorney for an informal audit of millions of dollars appropriated to his office two years ago. In return, the district attorney offered a private meeting with a legislative panel to go over how money is being spent. The written exchanges hint at further budget scrutiny from lawmakers, and also a potential rift between some House and Senate Democrats.
On October 17, New Mexico Speaker of the House Brian Egolf and House Appropriations Chair and Legislative Finance Co-chair Patricia Lundstrom, both Democrats, co-authored a letter to 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez about an upcoming interim meeting with the Legislative Finance Committee.
This week, Intel announced it would hire 300 more employees. Those new hires would bring the number of employees at its massive Rio Rancho plant to around 1,500, well below the peak of nearly 7,000 employees, decades ago. Economic Development Department Secretary Alicia J. Keyes called it “good news” as the state tries to diversify its economy. Diversifying the economy has been a rallying cry for years, as the state has increasingly been reliant on oil and gas money to balance the state budget. If the most recent Legislative Finance Committee hearing last week is any indication, those efforts are still a work in progress.
The New Mexico Senate and House of Representatives appeared to have an agreement on a $7 billion state budget late Friday after ironing out differences over pay for educators, funding for roads and college athletics. In the end, the biggest sticking point turned out to be a tiny but politically fraught piece of the spending plan: $700,000 for legislators to hire additional staff. The House passed the budget Feb. 21 and the Senate approved a series of changes on Wednesday. But the House did not accept those changes, spurring a round of negotiations between members of the budget committees in both chambers in an effort to reach consensus before the legislative session ends at noon Saturday.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made her last pitch to a Senate committee Friday for additional funding for early childhood education. But she couldn’t get a vote. With her 3-year-old granddaughter in tow, the newly elected Democratic governor called for lawmakers to consider using a larger share of the state’s nearly $18 billion land grant permanent fund to pay for pre-kindergarten programs.
Lujan Grisham had backed a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide whether to take an additional percentage point from the fund for early childhood education, on top of the 5 percent the state currently uses each year for public schools and other institutions. When Democrats joined with Republicans on the Senate Rules Committee to block that idea, Lujan Grisham threw her support behind a measure that called for half a percent. Senate Bill 671 passed the chamber’s education committee.
Eight Senate Democrats joined with Republicans Thursday evening to defeat a measure that would have removed a currently non-enforceable ban on abortion. State Representatives Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, and Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, sponsored House Bill 51. which would repeal a 1969 state law which made both performing and receiving an abortion fourth-degree felonies, except with special permissions. The law is currently unenforceable because of the landmark Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision which federally recognized the right to have an abortion. “We’re terribly disappointed,” Ferrary said.
The New Mexico House of Representatives rejected the Senate’s proposed budget on Wednesday, raising objections related to teacher pay, road funding and the pension plan for public employees. The differences are not insurmountable, leaders in both chambers insisted, but they delayed final action on a whopping $7 billion spending plan. The Senate approved its version earlier in the day with a vote of 39 to 2. But the House voted overwhelmingly against that budget, leaving some questions over how to divvy up appropriations as the state increases spending by 11 percent over the current fiscal year, with big boosts in funding to schools, infrastructure and child services. “This isn’t war or anything,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Democrat from Gallup who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
A key Senate committee on Monday unveiled 123 different changes to a $7 billion state budget approved by the House of Representatives, tweaking proposed raises for school teachers, funding for a marquee economic development program and plans to bring back soccer at the University of New Mexico. The budget would mark an 11 percent increase over the current year’s spending plan as New Mexico enjoys a windfall of tax revenue from an oil and gas boom and as the new Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, sets out an agenda that includes big education funding increases as well as filling vacant positions across state government after years of budget cuts. The House approved the budget mostly along party lines last month, sending it to the Senate, where the Senate Finance Committee on Monday added about $19 million in spending to the plan and rearranged other expenses. The changes include more than trebling funding for an economic development program to $60 million from $14 million. The Local Economic Development Act allows the state to pay for brick-and-mortar upgrades such as roads and utility connections as well as other costs associated with setting up businesses to the state.
New Mexico’s governor and other statewide elected officials would get 15 percent raises starting in 2023, under a bill approved Thursday by the state Senate. The proposal, Senate Bill 547, next goes to the House of Representatives for consideration. The state’s five public regulation commissioners, who are elected from districts, also would receive 15 percent increases. Salaries for the governor and other statewide elected officials were last increased in 2002. Sens.
In a clash between urban and rural lawmakers, the New Mexico Senate voted 22-17 on Wednesday to outlaw coyote-killing contests that are staged for prizes or entertainment. The proposal, Senate Bill 76, now advances to the House of Representatives. Similar bills have twice cleared the Senate in the last four years but died in the House. Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said he had a simple reason for co-sponsoring the latest attempt to end the contests targeting coyotes. “I don’t want to live in a culture of wanton killing,” Moores said.