Lawmakers take field trip to get firsthand taste of school meals

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Members of the powerful Senate Finance Committee took a field trip Friday to get a taste of what New Mexico students are eating at school — part of a fact-finding mission as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham champions a proposal to provide pupils free breakfast and lunch regardless of family income. Four of the 11 committee members — three Democrats and one Republican — boarded an electric bus outside the state Capitol just after 10 a.m. and traveled about six and a half miles to Ramirez Thomas Elementary, a school in southwest Santa Fe where all the students receive free breakfast and lunch. Four other committee members, all Democrats, drove separately and joined their colleagues in the cafeteria to break bread with the students. “We just wanted to see what a school lunch menu looks like,” said committee Chairman Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup. “Are they eating it all?

Additional learning time soars through key committee with bipartisan support

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Educators may be divided on a bill that would extend the number of hours they spend teaching students and building their own skills and knowledge, but lawmakers displayed rare bipartisan support for the initiative. The House Education Committee on Friday voted unanimously to endorse House Bill 130, which would mandate an increase in learning time in public schools to 1,140 hours, including up to 60 hours of professional development for teachers, while allowing districts some flexibility in when to add the hours. “This is a good start to address some of the needs we have,” said Rep. Brian Baca, R-Los Lunas. Rep. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, said lawmakers have to take the bill seriously because of the “tremendous negative impact on our students” stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some lawmakers, particularly those in rural communities with four-day weeks in public schools, initially expressed displeasure with the idea of expanding to a fifth day or into the summer months when the plan was introduced.

House panel discusses big changes to Game and Fish management

By Nathan Brown, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Two bills to make big changes to wildlife management in New Mexico got their first hearing in a House committee Saturday. House Bill 183, which would abolish the Game and Fish Department and turn it into a division within the Energy, Mineral and Natural Resources Department, stalled on a 5-5 vote, with one Democrat joining the Republicans to oppose it. However, House Bill 184, which would change the way seats are allocated on the State Game Commission by getting rid of the current system of districts and creating seats for specific groups such as conservationists and hunters, made it out of the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee on a 6-3 vote. Committee Chairman Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, is sponsoring both bills. He and other supporters pitched them as measures to create a better-run and less politicized department.

 Scrase announces retirement as state human services secretary

By Phill Casaus and Daniel J. Chacón

Dr. David Scrase, whose near-weekly briefings during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic often served as a barometer of the state’s desperate fight against the virus, announced he will retire from state government late next month. The announcement came late Friday afternoon, often a time when officials release surprising or disquieting news. Scrase, the Cabinet secretary of the state Human Services Department, is one of the few holdovers remaining from the original members of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Cabinet in early 2019. In 2021 and 2022, Scrase did double duty. He ran Human Services while also heading the Department of Health on an interim basis in the maw of the pandemic, as the state’s tenuous health care system teetered beneath the weight of critical cases.

As Water Trust Fund dries up, Wirth champions bill to infuse it with $250M

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

A state fund that has helped finance dozens of water infrastructure projects around New Mexico since it was created nearly two decades ago is drying up. The State Investment Council has been sounding the alarm for years, warning the so-called Water Trust Fund, which it manages, could be depleted within 15 years without an additional infusion of capital or a restructuring of its distribution requirements of $4 million a year. “This fund is on a terminal path,” Charles Wollmann, the council’s director of communications, legislative and client relations, said Thursday. “It is going to die unless there are additional appropriations or it would have to slash its annual distribution.” A windfall to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars may be on the way.

Bill would add penalties for livestock rustling

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

This is no bull — and no joke. There’s a crime still all too common to those who run farms and ranches around New Mexico: livestock rustling. And not just cattle theft. Horses, donkeys, pigs, llamas and all sorts of poultry are also being hauled away by truck, trailer and any other means possible, agricultural experts say. In the days of the old West, rustlers who were caught ended up hanging from a tree or scaffold, said Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell.

Legislative Roundup: 1/26

Days remaining in session: 51

Active shooter training: The full Senate and legislative staffers attended a closed-door active shooter training Thursday. “Training taking place — no entry,” stated signs on the doors to the Senate gallery. Before a reporter was asked to leave the media gallery overlooking the chamber, Paula Ulibarri, sergeant at arms for the Senate, told attendees she didn’t want them to be paranoid but prepared. “I know you have other places you should be and want to be and have things to do,” she said. “But in this day and age, this is very important to every one of you.”

Ulibarri continued, “This can happen anywhere at any time, and I want you, if nothing else, when you go from this class, I want you to be aware of your surroundings.”

The training was conducted by two New Mexico State Police officers, one of whom told the group the FBI had changed the term from “active shooter” to “active killer.”

“That’s what the person who’s in the building [is] trying to do,” he said.

Governor-backed fund would address shortage of health care providers in rural areas

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Immediately after Dr. Valory Wangler opened a nonprofit health center serving Gallup and McKinley County last year, patients started to pour through her doors. “We certainly could tell that we had identified a critical need,” said Wangler, founder and executive director of Gallup Community Health. Since then, the health center has expanded from mostly only Wangler seeing patients to 11 providers working in the burgeoning facility in some capacity or another. “We believe in paying our staff fairly and making sure that they’re able to meet their basic needs, and that has certainly put us at an operating loss,” she said. Under a bill lawmakers started to pore over Wednesday, health care providers such as Wangler could see some financial relief.

Democrats introduce bill providing $1 billion for governor-backed tax rebates

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

New Mexico taxpayers who received rebates in 2022 are likely to see another round of payments. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said late last year she wanted to use part of the projected $3 billion in new state revenues to provide $750 to individual taxpayers and $1,500 for couples who file jointly. She announced Wednesday the introduction of Senate Bill 10, sponsored by four Democratic lawmakers, which would fulfill her wish. 

The bill would appropriate $1 billion to provide payments to about 875,000 taxpayers who are at least 18 years old. Dependents of other taxpayers would not be eligible for the money. Lujan Grisham said in a news conference Wednesday the money should be seen “as a stimulus.

State Legacy Fund would help draw federal dollars to conservation programs

By Scott Wyland, The Santa Fe New Mexican

At least a billion dollars in federal conservation money is available to aid New Mexico in everything from restoring watersheds and protecting imperiled species to helping ecosystems better withstand climate change. The state is missing out on most of it because it lacks matching funds. Some state leaders, environmental groups and businesses hope the Legislature will approve a $75 million fund to draw federal money to a medley of state conservation programs among a half-dozen agencies. A bipartisan bill to establish the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund is expected to be introduced this week — not to be mistaken with the proposed $50 million bond with a similar name that stalled in the Legislature last year. “Our goal in coming together is to ensure that these programs have a dedicated funding stream at the state level so that they can leverage literally billions of dollars that are available at the federal level that New Mexico isn’t taking full advantage of,” Brittany Fallon, senior policy manager for lands at Western Resource Advocates, said during an online conference.