March 24, 2023

How the Legislature addressed child well being

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

New Mexico continues to rank at the bottom on child well being indexes, but the 2023 Legislature passed some bills that advocates say can make an impact on that low ranking.

A child tax credit was included in the final omnibus tax package and it will help improve racial and gender equity, Amber Wallin, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, told NM Political Report.

HB 547, the omnibus tax bill, underwent multiple conference committees but the New Mexico Child Tax Credit survived the negotiations. It will, among other things, provide up to $600 per child annually as a child tax credit for families earning $25,000 or less a year. For households earning $25,000 to $50,000, the annual child tax credit will be $400 per child and for households earning $50,000 to $75,000, the annual child tax credit will be $200 per child if Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs the bill into law.

She is expected to do so. 

Wallin said that the child tax credit could benefit as many as 350,000 children in the state and would “improve outcomes.”

She said it will also improve racial equity and gender equity because 75 percent of children in the state are children of color.

“Research shows tax credits can have really good benefits to child well being and maternal health; better educational outcomes, reduced hunger, reduced poverty,” Wallin said.

She said when families receive child tax credits, they use it for basic necessities.

“Research shows what types of public policy is most impactful for reducing child poverty. Earned income tax credits and child tax credits are some of the most effective ways to reduce child poverty. It was one of the most critical bills under consideration at the legislature,” Wallin said.

State Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, sponsored the massive tax package.

Wallin said the tax package also includes a rebate to taxpayers which will also be helpful to the lowest earners in the state.

For single filers and married individuals who file separately, the rebate will be $500. For married individuals who file joint returns and heads of household, the rebate will be $1,000.

Besides the tax policy that helps families, Wallin said there are a number of bills that have the potential to make an impact on child well being. 

SB 4, Healthy Universal School Meals sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, passed and has been sent to Lujan Grisham’s desk. The bill aimed at helping with child food insecurity mandates that public schools in New Mexico will offer one free breakfast and one free lunch to all students, regardless of whether their families qualify for federal aid.

The bill also includes a grant program that incentivizes schools to purchase food from New Mexico growers. 

The bill requires that children in grades kindergarten through sixth grade have at least 20 minutes to sit down for a school meal, which is believed to reduce food waste. It also requires that unused food be donated to food pantries, students or charitable organizations.

HB 7, Reproductive and Gender-Affirming Healthcare Act, already signed by Lujan Grisham, is another key piece of legislation to help improve child well being, Wallin said. The law, sponsored by state Rep. Linda Serrato, D-Santa Fe, prohibits public bodies from discriminating against individuals seeking reproductive or gender-affirming healthcare. Serrato said frequently in committee hearings and on the House floor that gender-affirming care can be as simple as using a person’s preferred pronouns.

Wallin said New Mexico Voices for Children “really strongly supported HB 7 for our kids, for child health and child mental health.” Serrato also said during hearings that transgender children, in particular, suffer high rates of suicide ideation and higher rates of suicide and attempted suicide. When they are able to access gender-affirming care, transgender children’s mental health can improve, Serrato said.

HB 134, Menstrual Products in School Bathrooms, also passed the 2023 Legislature. The legislation is sitting on Lujan Grisham’s desk.

Sponsored by state Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, HB 134 mandates free menstrual products to be available in every girl’s bathroom in every elementary, middle and high school in New Mexico. It also mandates free menstrual products available in one boy’s bathroom in the schools.

Advocates spoke during the bill’s committee hearings and chamber floor debates about period poverty and how providing access to menstrual products is an equity issue and helps girls focus better on school studies and also improves school attendance. Wallin said New Mexico Voices for Children also considers this bill one of the more important ones to pass the legislature this year. She called it “key” legislation to help improve child well being and to improve racial and economic disparities.

The state budget, HB 2, fully funded the Opportunity Scholarship program, which makes attending a four-year or two-year college in New Mexico affordable for individuals who reside in the state. Wallin said it’s “a really good choice” and also called it key for access to higher education.

HB 2 included funding for child care assistance and increases for pre-K assistance and home visiting, Wallin said.

“This funding always makes the biggest impact in a child’s life,” she said.

SB 64, sponsored by state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, eliminates the possibility of a life sentence for individuals who commit crimes as children but who are sentenced as adults.

The bill also potentially reduces the amount of time these individuals might spend in prison. Incarcerated individuals who commit crimes as children but are sentenced as adults can face a parole board hearing at 15 years, 20 years or 25 years, depending on the severity of the crime.

Lujan Grisham signed the bill Friday.

Wallin said that despite the number of bills that passed the legislature that can help improve child well being, she said there is more to do.

“We are continuing as a state to really make progress on kids and family in public policy and we did a lot of that, particularly around childhood insecurity,” she said.