Lawmakers renew effort to alter practice of diverting federal aid to rural schools

New Mexico for years has taken a large share of federal education aid intended for rural schools that lie in areas with large parcels of public and tribal lands and has distributed it to other districts, including urban ones. Legislation that would have undone the long-standing practice quietly died last year. State lawmakers have renewed the effort with more force in the current legislative session, introducing at least four bills designed to make up for tens of millions of dollars in federal Impact Aid diverted each year from rural districts, including many that serve Native American students. “It’s an issue of fairness,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who co-sponsored one of the bills. While New Mexico funds public school districts through a formula based on student numbers using money from several sources — including oil and gas revenues — school districts in many states heavily rely on property taxes.

GOP: Governor’s address was ‘love fest’ with no love for oil and gas

Republicans in the state House and Senate had a common criticism of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s address to the Legislature on Tuesday: She didn’t give credit where credit is due. In her second State of the State address, the governor made the case for increasing education funding and other legislative priorities, including the creation of an early childhood education trust fund and her proposed Opportunity Scholarship, which would cover all remaining college tuition costs for qualifying New Mexicans at in-state schools after other aid is applied, regardless of their income. Lujan Grisham also touted 15,000 new jobs and a better economy after a “lost decade of job growth … stagnation and forced austerity” under former Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican. But Republicans are hammering the governor for not thanking the industry that has provided the jobs and economic growth that is fueling the governor’s political vision: The oil and gas industry.

PHOTOS: Opening day at the Legislature

Elected officials from around the state gathered at the Roundhouse on Tuesday for the opening day of the Legislature. Here’s a look at the day in photos. Climate activists representing the New Mexico chapter of the Extinction Rebellion held banners and waved flags outside the Roundhouse. Extinction Rebellion New Mexico held an event at the Roundhouse on Tuesday to give testimony before the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) at a hearing about PNM’s proposal for replacing power generated at the San Juan Generating Station with natural gas and renewable energy alternatives. Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, center, at the opening day of the Legislature.

Cannabis legalization looms large in session

The 2020 legislative session starts tomorrow and besides the standard 30-day budgetary issues, many eyes are on cannabis and whether this is the year it becomes legal to use recreationally. Last week, two lawmakers filed bills aimed doing just that. 

Rep. Javier Martinez and Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, both Albuquerque Democrats, are cosponsors of the Senate version of the Cannabis Regulation Act. Martinez is the sponsor of the House version of the bill. 

The bills are largely based on recommendations from a legalization work group and a legalization bill that failed to get to the governor’s desk last year. Both bills are 175 pages long and prescribe how recreational should be taxed, age limits for possessing or consuming cannabis and which state entities will be involved. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced last year that she would support a comprehensive legalization bill and added to “the call” this year. It is nearly unheard of for legislation to make it to the governor’s desk without some amendments, so these two bills will likely change in the next 30 days, but here are some key points of the bills. 

Possible heartburn

Various different lawmakers have tried to pass recreational legalization bills over the years, but 2019 marked the farthest in the process a proposal made it in recent history.

Legislators look to craft budget, buoyed by oil and gas money

Despite the wide variety of topics lawmakers will delve into starting Tuesday, this 30-day legislative session is meant to prioritize one thing: the budget. It can be an intimidating monolith. And while its hundreds of line items representing multitudes of state agencies provide plenty of room for disagreement, there’s actually a fairly close connection between the budget recommendations recently released by the executive and legislative branches. The governor is calling for an 8.4 percent increase to $7.68 billion for the fiscal year 2021 budget, while the committee recommends a 6.5 percent increase to $7.54 billion. Either plan would give New Mexico its second straight year of major budget increases fueled by unprecedented oil production in the southeast corner of the state. 

Still, there will be debate, and it may not just be nibbling around the edges. Tension is likely to center on one key area where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislative Finance Committee haven’t seen eye to eye — an Opportunity Scholarship that would provide tuition-free college for New Mexico residents.

Senate approves bill requiring background checks on all gun sales

The state Senate narrowly approved a bill Thursday that would require just about anyone buying a firearm to undergo a background check. This legislation has been a priority for gun control advocates, but all 16 Republicans and four Democrats in the Senate said it would not prevent the sort of mass shootings that have spurred calls for such laws. Scheduled for the first anniversary of a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead, the Senate’s vote was the biggest test yet for gun control during this legislative session. Majority Democrats won the day on a 22-20 vote. Senate Bill 8 now heads to the state House of Representatives, which already has passed a law on background checks this year and might approve this measure.

Bill to shift federal education funding pits urban schools against tribes

Two state senators who represent rural districts hope to topple a long-standing system that uses the lion’s share of a federal grant program to help fund urban schools. Operational money from the grants initially goes to 25 school districts and five charter schools. But then the state shortchanges these needy districts, said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, who called what happens “a shell game.” That’s because the state takes the equivalent of 75 percent of that Impact Aid money and reduces it from those districts’ general fund support for schools. Districts receiving Impact Aid say that means they only get a quarter of the federal money.

Lawmaker aims to ease burden for independents to run for office

If you wanted to run for governor as an independent last year, you would have needed to get more than 15,000 registered voters to sign a petition to get your name on the ballot. It was a nearly impossible goal. New Mexico law sets a high bar for independent candidates to even qualify for an election. A new state legislator wants to make it easier for independents to run for office by drastically slashing the number of signatures they need to file with election officials. While the Legislature has consistently shot down past proposals to loosen up New Mexico’s notoriously tight ballot access laws, one top Democrat appears to be on board with the idea.

Governor backs plan for outdoor recreation agency

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday threw her support behind legislation establishing a state office of outdoor recreation, which an unlikely coalition of backers say would boost an industry they view as key to diversifying New Mexico’s economy. The newly elected Democrat did not just put her political muscle behind the idea, either. She put her calf muscles behind it, bicycling from the governor’s mansion to the Capitol in a show of support for Senate Bill 462. “Montana, you’re done. We’ve got it all right here,” Lujan Grisham later told reporters.

Bill would freeze fracking permits while impacts studied

When you’re driving at night through Counselor, N.M., on U.S. 550 the horizon takes on a dusky illumination, almost like daylight, Samuel Sage said during a Monday news conference in Santa Fe. Bright light flares from natural gas being burned off as part of oil and gas production, which has become increasingly common in that area of Northwestern New Mexico, particularly since 2013, said Sage, a member of the Navajo Nation’s Counselor Chapter House. Sage was among several environmental advocates who gathered at the state Capitol in support of a bill that, if passed, would create a four-year moratorium on any new state permits for hydraulic fracturing — a type of deep horizontal drilling that injects high-pressured fluid below ground. The bill also outlines extensive reporting requirements for several state agencies related to the impacts of fracking. “All we want is clean air and clean water,” Sage said.