Budget? What budget?
Though 30-day sessions are specifically designed for lawmakers to create and approve a financial blueprint for the next fiscal year, the state’s growing crime problem, public education woes and continuing efforts to battle the pandemic likely will take center stage when the New Mexico Legislature goes into action Tuesday afternoon.
With more than $1 billion in new revenue, plus additional federal pandemic relief funds to distribute, the 2022 session won’t be a battle over crumbs, but more likely a tug-of-war of ideas and ideals as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and many members of the Legislature prepare to run for re-election in November.
In all, New Mexico’s budget will approach $8.4 billion to $8.5 billion in fiscal year 2023.
Toss in exploding new COVID-19 cases and simmering resentments from a recently completed special session on redistricting, and even some of the calmest members of the Legislature know fireworks are possible.
“It’s a 30-day budget session in an election year in the middle of a COVID spike,” said Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, the Senate majority leader. “It’s challenging on all fronts.”
Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, announced her budget priorities in a news release Friday, though most had been well-known for weeks or months. She’ll push for large salary raises for teachers, $100 million in funds to hire new police officers, a voting rights initiative and efforts to turn the state into a center for clean hydrogen production and use.
Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, the House floor leader, said Friday he expects Democrats to focus on public safety bills “that both address the issue of repeat offenders but look at ways to prevent the root causes of crime.” He said the state’s crime rates, including homicides, are growing “not just in the urban cores but throughout the state.”
And people want something done, as lawmakers from both parties have said in recent weeks.
Addressing crime has often paid dividends at the ballot box, and it’s clear both Democrats and Republicans want to dominate the issue — with the GOP insisting it’s long been ahead of Lujan Grisham and the Democrats as killings and violence have risen in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and even some of the state’s smaller cities.
Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, the House minority leader, said Friday his caucus will also introduce a slew of crime bills, some of which fit into Lujan Grisham’s agenda — and which have roots in Republican-led initiatives of the past.
“They used to say all Republicans talk about is crime all the time,” he said. “Now they [Democrats] are. After we’ve had record homicides in Albuquerque, they think those are really good ideas. We’ll help get those through. That needs to get done.”
Townsend and other House Republican leaders sent a letter to Lujan Grisham on Wednesday, asking for support on a variety of efforts, including more support to reform the troubled Children, Youth and Family Department.
Their letter made it clear they could contest yet-to-be-filed voting rights legislation — an effort Lujan Grisham said would provide easier access for voters to cast ballots on Election Day. But Republicans — outnumbered in voter registration statewide and nowhere close to Democrats’ numbers in either the House or Senate — suggested such efforts will only increase the chance that “election results can be manipulated for partisan benefit.”
The election, of course, is of critical importance. Republicans, desperate to regain some traction and influence in state politics, have said they believe Lujan Grisham is vulnerable in November, though their ability to win legislative races in places like Albuquerque has virtually evaporated over the past several years.
Still, Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said in an interview Friday the budget will be of primary concern and she will do what she can to ensure unnecessary legislation does not muck up the proceedings.
Finding a midway mark between the two proposed budgets at hand — the governor’s $8.4 billion proposal and the Legislative Finance Committee’s $8.46 billion proposal — may not prove difficult. Both are similar when it comes to funding public education at around the $3.8 billion mark.
But there are slight differences in some areas. The governor wants the minimum wage raised to $15 for state employees, while the Legislative Finance Committee suggests $13.50. The governor proposes close to $140 million for state Department of Public Safety initiatives, while the committee proposes closer to $173 million.
The specter of the COVID-19 pandemic clearly will hover over the session, which will be open to members of the public who can show proof of vaccination, including a booster shot. While the House will hold virtual committee meetings and allow members to participate in floor sessions remotely in certain circumstances, the rules for the Senate have not yet been finalized.
The Senate Rules Committee took no formal action Friday, when it discussed the issue but seemed to be leaning toward a hybrid model, in which lawmakers and the public will be able to participate in committee meetings in person or remotely. The committee also discussed precautions to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as restricting the number of people attending meetings in person and providing overflow rooms.
“Typically, we have a room packed full of people that are waiting to hear the bills down the agenda, and I think one of the things that’s going to be important is that we do each bill, one at a time, because that will just limit dramatically the number of people that are in a room,” Wirth said during Friday’s meeting.
Despite precautions already in place, the coronavirus already has infiltrated the Roundhouse.
Stewart said the Legislative Council Service set up testing guidelines for staff and uncovered a handful of positive test results for COVID-19 in recent days. Of the 91 tests, five were positive, all asymptomatic.
“We are looking at very intense transmissibility right now with omicron,” Stewart said during a committee hearing Friday, referring to the virus’ highly contagious variant that has led to skyrocketing cases statewide and in Santa Fe. “But the good thing is that everyone in this building will be vaccinated and with a booster and wearing a mask. And if you’re doing all of that, the likelihood of you getting really sick seems to be very low.”
The session is scheduled to begin at noon Tuesday with a State of the State speech delivered by the governor. Lujan Grisham said Friday she will deliver the address remotely out of an “abundance of caution due to the heightened spread of COVID-19.”
The speech will be live-streamed on the governor’s website, Facebook page and YouTube account. KNME-TV also will broadcast the speech live.
Santa Fe New Mexican reporter Daniel Chacón contributed to this story.