Effort to eliminate Social Security tax gains momentum

The push to eliminate New Mexico’s income tax on Social Security benefits is gaining traction at the Roundhouse. Two senators, Democrat Michael Padilla of Albuquerque and Republican David Gallegos of Eunice, introduced separate bills Thursday that would eliminate the tax on Social Security income. Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, previously introduced a bill to repeal the tax, but it would still affect higher earners and increase the tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products to make up the loss in state revenue. Padilla said his proposal, Senate Bill 108, has been endorsed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who called on lawmakers Tuesday during her State of the State address to end the tax and whose office issued a news release late Thursday reiterating the request. “We have never had a better opportunity to eliminate income taxes on Social Security like we do right now,” Padilla said.

Senate adopts rules for legislative session amid mask debate

Lawmakers gathered in Santa Fe for a 30-day legislative session meant to deal with budget and tax issues are supposed to be fighting on New Mexicans’ behalf. But on the second day of the session Wednesday, members of the state Senate continued to fight over face masks. The Senate eventually voted 32-7 to adopt rules for the chamber, including a face mask requirement, but not before a back-and-forth on the floor. Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, kicked off the debate, saying he wanted to speak to his colleagues from the heart. “I’m just so disappointed that this rule is even needed,” Steinborn said, referring to a face mask requirement.

Dow seeks ban on teaching critical race theory in schools

By Robert NottThe Santa Fe New Mexican

A leading Republican lawmaker and gubernatorial hopeful has introduced a bill to prohibit the state from including critical race theory — a controversial and often-misunderstood concept that is seen by some as a potential electoral wedge issue — in New Mexico’s school curriculum. 

Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences said Wednesday the theory is “racist” and is being misrepresented. 

“We are a state of diverse cultures, and we should be promoting the thinking of Martin Luther King Jr.  — judging people on their character and not color of their skin,” Dow said. “Critical race theory takes us in the wrong direction.” A draft copy of her bill, which Dow provided to The New Mexican, says the state Public Education Department “shall not allow a course in critical race theory to be taught in public schools.” The legislation says critical race theory “espouses the view that one race is inherently racist, sexist or intentionally or inadvertently oppressive.” Some of Dow’s critics were quick to point out critical race theory isn’t currently part of curriculum in New Mexico and is an attempt by the lawmaker to increase her profile among the eight candidates vying for the Republican Party’s nomination for governor in 2022.

Republicans react to governor’s State of the State address

State Rep. Jim Townsend, the House minority leader, said for a second he thought the governor “almost became a Republican.” In a news conference Tuesday at the Roundhouse after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s State of the State address, the Artesia Republican said the most “heartening” part of her 25-minute speech was the talk on fighting crime. The governor reiterated her plan to push for a package of measures to toughen penalties for certain violent crimes and make it more difficult for defendants in violent crime cases to be released from jail before their trial. “That must be addressed, and it must be addressed quickly,” Townsend said. Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, the Senate minority leader said the governor’s “tough-on-crime” rhetoric seemed like an effort to court state residents fed up with rising crime rates.

Free college tuition proposal could get a second chance

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s plan to offer free tuition to all New Mexico residents attending in-state colleges might get a second chance. A new proposal backed by two Democratic lawmakers and the state Higher Education Department would cover tuition for up to 35,000 eligible students — regardless of their income status. The plan would combine all of the state’s existing college scholarships into one aid pool and steeply increase the available funding. “The real goal is to ensure college affordability, to establish an all-encompassing free college package combining all the scholarships for New Mexicans looking to enroll,” Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of the possible legislation, told lawmakers on the interim Legislative Education Study Committee during a meeting Monday. For years, New Mexico has developed initiatives to cover some tuition costs for in-state college and university students, including both new high school graduates and adults.

Stansbury speaks in support of renewing the federal Child Tax Credit

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury called renewing the federal Child Tax Credit an equity issue during a press conference on Thursday. The federal Child Tax Credit, which provided $3,000 per child between ages 6 and 17 and $3,600 per child under 6 the last six months of 2021, was a measure within the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The average Child Tax Credit payment per household was $444 in December according to a U.S. Senate Joint Economic Committee report. Democrats are now seeking to renew and extend the federal Child Tax Credit through the Build Back Better Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in Nov. by a vote of 220–213, along party lines, but the bill has stalled in the U.S. Senate which is more evenly divided.

Poll shows Hispanic families hit hard by pandemic

A poll of 1,000 New Mexico Hispanic families indicates that Hispanic families have struggled financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic. BSP Research released a statewide survey Thursday done on behalf of several organizations detailing the economic hardships those polled said they faced. Some of the key findings include that the poll found that 28 percent of Hispanic families polled earn less than $20,000 in 2020 and 60 percent have $1,000 or less in savings. Marcela Diaz, executive director of Santa Fe-based Somos Un Pueblo Unido, said several nonprofit and grassroots organizations collected at the onset of the pandemic to form the Economic Relief Working Group to provide information between Latinos in the state, the immigrant and Spanish-speaking populations and policy makers and the government in Santa Fe. The Economic Relief Working Group commissioned BSP Research to conduct the poll and produce the survey based on it.

Medicaid coverage could be extended to 12 months for postpartum care

New Mexico could expand Medicaid coverage for postpartum care from two months to a full year starting this spring. The New Mexico Human Services Department is working to have the new rules in place by April 1, Nicole Comeaux, Human Services Department Medicaid director, told NM Political Report. The federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) made changes in how the state can ask for Medicaid dollars to encourage states to expand Medicaid for pregnant women. Comeaux said this change enabled HSD to start the process of expanding Medicaid coverage to all expecting individuals, including those who miscarry. She said it could impact up to 17,000 individuals in the state.

Pressure mounts to protect Mexican Gray Wolves

Last year, advocates for the Mexican gray wolf cheered when a judge ruled the problem of poaching was not adequately addressed in a management plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those same groups now want the agency to address sustainability goals. Mary Katherine Ray, wildlife chair for the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter, said there is currently only one population of 186 Mexican gray wolves or “lobos” living in areas of New Mexico and Arizona. “Currently they’re listed as being non-essential, which means that the Service believes the wolf population — if it were to completely disappear — that’s the definition in the Endangered Species Act — that it could be replaced,” Ray explained. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated Interstate 40 as the northern limit of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Area, meaning wolves can be removed or killed if they travel beyond the boundary.

BLM hosts roundtable discussion about federal funding for orphaned wells

Randy Pacheco, the chief executive officer of the San Juan Basin-based A-Plus Well Service, said the state’s workforce needs to be built up to address the orphaned oil and natural gas wells that dot the landscape in many states including New Mexico. 

Pacheco was one of the panelists who participated in a roundtable-style webinar discussion about the federal orphaned well program and the Bureau of Land Management’s efforts to implement it. The bureau hosted the webinar, which drew hundreds of people, on Thursday. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was signed into law in November provided $4.7 billion for clean-up, remediation and restoration at orphaned well sites. That led to the U.S. Department of the Interior releasing initial guidelines on Dec. 17 for states to apply for funding.