State budget troubles are prompting the New Mexico Higher Education Department to make cuts to a program local students use to attend colleges in nearby states for programs not offered at home. New Mexico pays into the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE) Professional Student Exchange Program that allows local students to go to dentistry and veterinary schools outside of the state at a reduced rate. To qualify for the loan for service, students must sign a declaration of intent to return to and work in New Mexico once they finish school. Currently, 67 students from New Mexico benefit from the WICHE exchange program. By next fall, that number will drop by six students.
Spaceport America, which has generated plenty of controversy because of the tax subsidies it receives, now says its success depends on less public scrutiny. The Senate Public Affairs Committee obliged Friday, backing a bill to exclude many spaceport business dealings from the state’s public records law. Its members voted 5-2 to allow the spaceport to withhold information about clients in the space business. Sens. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, and Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, dissented.
The House on Thursday rejected a two-and-a-half-year moratorium on licensing new charter schools in New Mexico. Thirty-four House members voted to pass House Bill 46, which would have prohibited a chartering authority — the state or a local school district — from accepting or approving any new applications until Jan. 1, 2020. But 34 representatives also voted against it. In a tie vote, a bill fails.
What began as a bipartisan compromise bill to ban people from openly carrying guns in the state Capitol is now bogged down in the Senate and at risk of being defeated. Senate Bill 337 would restrict possession of guns in the Capitol to police officers and people with a license to carry a concealed firearm. Sponsored by Sens. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, and Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, the bill cleared two Senate committees after being pitched as a way to balance the rights of law-abiding people who want to arm themselves and the impact on visitors to the Capitol who said they were intimidated by others openly carrying firearms, including long guns. The bill has been on the legislative calendar for a vote by the full, 42-member Senate for a week.
Financial bonuses for state lottery officials and contractors would be tied to increases in scholarship money available to New Mexico college students under a bill that got unanimous bipartisan approval from a House committee Monday. House Bill 250, sponsored by Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, also would require the state lottery to transfer money from unclaimed cash prizes — usually $2 million to $4 million a year — to the lottery scholarships fund. In addition, the bill would halt a pilot program launched last year in which lottery tickets are sold at self-serve gasoline pumps. Lottery officials launched the program at 13 gas stations — and 100 gas pumps — around the state, despite the fact that a House committee in 2015 killed legislation sought by lottery officials that would have legalized gas pump lottery ticket sales. HB 250 would prohibit all video lottery games connected with fuel pumps or automatic teller machines.
Storefront lenders would be limited to charging interest rates of 175 percent under a bill that cleared a Senate committee Monday, but consumer groups called the measure inadequate. The bill sponsor, Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, said his plan would stop interest rates of 300, 500 or even 700 percent that have led to dozens of futile attempts by legislators to regulate an industry that critics say preys on the downtrodden. “It will eliminate the high interest rate loans we have heard about for years,” Sanchez told the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee, which unanimously advanced his proposal, Senate Bill 388. The committee, which Sanchez chairs, rejected reforms backed by a coalition of consumer advocates. Then it embraced Sanchez’s proposal, supported by many in the storefront lending industry, to cap interest rates for short term-loans and effectively ban payday loans.
With the state still running a deficit and reserves depleted, Democrats in the New Mexico House of Representatives have identified four tax or fee increases they say would prevent more cuts to education and put the state on better financial footing. The initiatives — taxing all internet sales, raising the permit fee on heavy trucks, closing a loophole that benefits nonprofit hospitals and increasing the tax on vehicle transfers — could raise more than $200 million in ongoing revenue. Some of it would go to avoid cuts in state agencies and some to beef up reserves. The move to bring together the House Democratic caucus came on the same day as state economists restated a revenue forecast from December that shows the economy has stabilized but reserves are far below the desired level of $300 million, or 5 percent of recurring revenue. The reserve account for the $5.6 billion budget at the end of the fiscal year on June 30 is projected at 1.6 percent.
While state lawmakers are pulling out all the stops to find “now money” to plug an expected deficit in the next fiscal year, Rep. Jason Harper has introduced a bill he hopes can put the state on better financial footing for decades to come. Harper, R-Rio Rancho, admits that House Bill 412, the New Mexico Tax Reform Act, is not a quick fix and will not patch the budget in fiscal year 2018 or even 2019. But by restructuring the state gross receipts tax and simplifying income and other tax policies, New Mexico will position itself for more solid growth in the new economy, he said. “It doesn’t help us fix the current budget problem,” Harper said of his bill, “but this hopefully prevents another budget problem.” The measure comes halfway through the 2017 legislative session, when reserve funds have been depleted by efforts to balance budgets for the last fiscal year and the current year, which ends in June, and many lawmakers are focused on raising enough new money to get through the upcoming year.
Debbie Pace says she cries when she goes to the Smith’s grocery store because she “can’t afford anything.” Pace, 59, of Albuquerque, says she receives just over $730 a month in Supplemental Security Income from the federal program for the disabled and others with little income. She also receives $33 in monthly food stamps. The $33 in food stamps goes quick, she says. So, she goes to a local church for free food.
A framed newspaper clipping adorns the wall outside the office of New Mexico Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth. The piece, dated May 25, 2002, serves as a reminder of the time when Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, who had vetoed 700 bills in six years, finally overplayed his hand. One of those vetoes was the $3.9 billion spending plan for the coming fiscal year, a 1.1 percent increase over the previous year. Johnson, a fiscal hawk, said the plan didn’t go far enough to control the growth of Medicaid. With just a few weeks left in the fiscal year, the Democratic Party-controlled House and Senate called themselves back to Santa Fe for a special session to override the veto and keep the government operating.