January 18, 2023

GOP senators criticize State of the State address

Matthew Reichbach

By Scott Wyland, The Santa Fe New Mexican

As could be expected, some parts of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s State of the State address that drew standing ovations among her supporters Tuesday were attacked by Senate Republicans. 

“We heard more and more and more about all these problems we have, and the [governor’s] one answer is money and spending,” Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca said at a news conference after the speech. “The answer isn’t throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into education, hundreds of millions of dollars at renewable energy.” 

Baca, R-Belen, acknowledged the Legislature has ample money this year, but he contends it still must be spent prudently and not treated as a cure-all. The governor has proposed a $9.4 billion budget, about 12 percent more than the $8.3 billion in the current fiscal year. 

Increased funding has failed to deliver on Lujan Grisham’s vow upon taking office to greatly improve education, which she termed a “moonshot,” Baca said.

“We were promised a moonshot,” Baca said. “That moonshot blew up on the launching pad.” 

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said during Lujan Grisham’s tenure, New Mexico’s schools dropped from 48th to 51st in the nation. The additional notch downward means its ranking fell below the District of Columbia, which previously occupied the bottom spot, he said. 

While Lujan Grisham’s administration sank more money into education, it eliminated teacher evaluations and relaxed standardized testing, weakening accountability, Brandt said.

Piling more money onto the problem won’t fix it, he said. A better solution is giving parents more say in how their children are educated and which schools they should attend, he said. Brandt has introduced legislation to this end, filing a bill to create “education freedom accounts” to help pay for students’ private school tuition.

Baca said the GOP supports clean energy and a healthy environment, but fossil fuel remains an important economic player that can’t be ignored, given that it’s the source of the record revenue the governor is enjoying.

“We have a governor who’s subject to far-left extremists at this point,” Baca said. “We heard about energy, but we didn’t hear one utterance of oil and gas.” 

When asked about Lujan Grisham’s proposals to ban assault weapons and enable the victims of gun violence to sue firearm manufacturers, Baca said the way to quell violent crime is to more effectively enforce current laws. 

He and the other Republicans grudgingly supported the governor’s call for increased funding for law enforcement and cracking down on criminals. 

But at the same time, Baca said, the state should not hamper law enforcement agencies by taking away their qualified immunity, referring to a recent law that allows New Mexicans to file civil complaints against government agencies if they believe their civil rights were violated.  

For years, the provision known as qualified immunity shielded government workers, including law enforcement, from personal liability when they were accused of violating people’s constitutional rights. New Mexico passed a law in 2021 prohibiting the use of qualified immunity as a defense, one of just three states to have taken this step.

The Republican senators also decried the governor’s call to significantly increase funding for health care after she also backed updates to the state Medical Malpractice Act that increased the damages caps on claims to $750,000 for doctors. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, suggested the increase in doctors’ potential payouts had driven many out of the state. Baca said everyone wants well-funded medical programs, but they mean nothing if there aren’t enough doctors to care for patients. 

On top of it all, New Mexico is one of the worst places in the country to start a business because of cumbersome regulations, Baca said. 

“It starts by being responsible within our statutes, laying down laws that will regulate but allow businesses to operate freely,” he said.