Legislature sends spending bill to Governor’s desk (Updated)

Updated: The House concurred on HB 2 as amended by the state Senate by a voice vote on Thursday. This sends the legislation to the Governor’s desk for signature. HB 2 appropriates $478 million of the ARPA funds into various projects, such as road work, broadband expansion and conservation projects. The Legislative Finance Committee staff put the spending bill together based on requests from state agencies made during interim legislative committee hearings. The spending for some of the money, such as $10 million for smaller airports around the state, has not been appropriated in specific terms and will be left up to the agencies, in this case the Department of Transportation, to make the final decisions on the best use of the funds.

Senate Finance Committee passes amended appropriation bill, reducing allocation to $478 million

The Senate Finance Committee approved an amended version of a bill to allocate some of the American Rescue Plan Act immediately to various agencies. The amendment to HB 2, which passed unanimously, removed $26 million appropriated for broadband and reduced the overall funding package to about $478 million. The vote of approval for the amended bill was unanimous and bipartisan. State Sens. Jacob Candelaria, I-Albuquerque, and Bobby Gonzales, D-Ranchos de Taos, were absent.

Changes coming to appropriations bill after Senate Finance Committee hearing

During a two-hour Senate Finance Committee hearing on HB 2, the committee learned of issues with the bill that will likely require change to the legislation. Department of Game and Fish Director, Michael Sloane, told the committee during the hearing that the department did not request the $5 million appropriated in the bill for property acquisition. He said the department is not currently considering any property acquisition projects. This led to concern among some committee members who brought up Bar L Ranch in Sandoval County, that the money was appropriated for that purchase but Sloane said any talk about the state purchasing that land was premature. Senate Finance Chair George Muñoz, D-Gallup, clarified how the appropriation happened by saying that the Legislative Finance Committee had reached out to the department but, he said, didn’t hear back.

Senate committee hears discussion on $35 million of relief act money

The state Senate Finance Committee heard from two departments that will receive one-time funds of $35 million total if HB 2 passes. The state Senate Finance Committee did not take action on HB 2, as the bill still sits in the  House Appropriations and Finance Committee which originally intended to meet Wednesday to vote on the bill. But state Rep. and HAFC Chair Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said during the House floor meeting Wednesday that HAFC would not meet that day. Lundstrom said on Tuesday that HB 2 needed some language cleanup, and appeared to be willing to consider a new appropriation to help the state’s chile farmers with the red chile harvest. HB 2 appropriates the federal American Rescue Plan Act money of $1.1 billion into a contingency fund of the state’s general fund.

Senate sends amended $7.4 billion budget proposal to House

A $7.4 billion budget that would increase state government spending by 4.8 percent in the upcoming fiscal year cleared the New Mexico Senate along a mostly party-line vote Wednesday after an hourslong debate riddled with political potshots and last-minute amendments. “Not everybody’s going to like what’s in the budget,” said Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat who is the Senate Finance Committee chairman. “Not everybody can get everything they want, but we can try.” The proposed budget calls for $3.35 billion in public education spending, a 5.8 percent increase; $300 million for road projects around the state; $200 million in pandemic recovery grants for businesses; and $34 million to help shore up the pension fund for the state’s educators. The proposal also includes about $64 million for a 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment for all state government, public school and higher education employees.

Civil rights bill passes Senate but must return to House (Updated)

The New Mexico Civil Rights bill passed the state Senate 26 to 15 but with only three-and-a-half days until the end of the legislative session, the bill must return to the House floor for concurrence because the Senate amended the bill. Update: On Wednesday afternoon, the House concurred with the Senate changes on a 41-26 vote and sent it to the governor’s desk. This story continues as originally written below. HB 4 would end qualified immunity as a defense in state civil courts and allows individuals whose civil rights have been violated to bring a case for remedy in state court. State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who is the lead sponsor for the bill in the Senate, amended the bill to make attorney’s fees subject to judicial review and added that a claimant suing law enforcement must notify the police of the lawsuit within one year after an alleged event occurs.

State gets improved revenue projections

The prospect of additional state funds brought welcome news for New Mexico’s college students Wednesday. Based on an improved revenue outlook, New Mexico will have an additional $373 million to spend, bringing the state budget to $7.436 billion, financial experts said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing. 

The extra money would include a one-time appropriation of over $20 million to make college more affordable for New Mexicans. 

Some $11 million of the new money would go into the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gives residents the chance to attend college tuition-free. An additional $10.5 million would shore up the New Mexico Legislative Lottery Scholarship Program so that it would cover 90 percent of tuition for eligible students headed to college. 

“Increasing lottery [scholarship] tuition really reduces the requirement for the opportunity scholarship [program] and expands its reach,” Legislative Finance Committee Director David Abbey told committee members. 

“That’s a pretty significant supplement to financial aid, over $20 million.” A combination of recurring and one-time expenditures would also benefit the public school system, giving it over $3 million in extra funding. Another $1 million is aimed at supporting athletic programs at the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University to help offset lost revenue because of the pandemic. 

Another $34 million in state funding would be available to increase the employer contribution rate to the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board by 1 percent a year for the next four years.

Senate passes bill creating state division to upgrade broadband system

Schoolchildren are still sitting in cars to access Wi-Fi hotspots to take part in virtual lessons, a leading Democratic senator told his colleagues Wednesday. That’s one reason Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, urged the Senate to support Senate Bill 93, which would create a central state office to develop and upgrade New Mexico’s broadband system. The state currently doesn’t have a blueprint for broadband, said Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque and co-sponsor of the legislation. He said creating a plan is the key focus of the bill. 

“Broadband will never happen until we put that plan in place,” Muñoz told the Senate, which voted 33-6 to support the bill following about an hour of debate Wednesday, sending the measure to the House. 

Citing a 2020 report that said despite investments of hundreds of millions of dollars, access to broadband services has remained spotty for many New Mexicans, Padilla said only by creating an agency to focus on the problem will the state solve it. 

Among other functions, the new entity would work to draw matching federal funds for every dollar New Mexico invests in its broadband system — a goal that could bring in somewhere between $9 and $13 for every dollar spent by the state, Padilla said. 

Though improvements and new investments — a total of $325 million between 2015 and 2018 — have been made in offering and expanding broadband, the fact so many state agencies play a role in the effort leads to gaps in data and service, that 2020 report said. 

That report suggested New Mexico create an anchor agency to address the issue. New Mexico often ranks near or at the bottom in national studies when it comes to broadband capability.

New Mexico Senate passes bill to reduce cap on small-loan interest rates

Legislation aimed to rein in what critics call predatory lending passed the state Senate after a tense two-hour debate Monday that sparked accusations of untruths and assertions the bill’s sponsors are oblivious to the tough realities confronted by people who live paycheck to paycheck. Opponents contended Senate Bill 66, which would cut the maximum interest rate on small loans to 36 percent from 175 percent, would do more harm than good for struggling New Mexicans by causing high-risk lenders to shut down. The measure passed on a 25-14 vote and will be considered next by the state House of Representatives. Expect plenty of dissension and disagreement if Tuesday’s Senate floor session is any indication of what lies ahead. One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, said about a third of the people who called him about the legislation were angry it would cap the interest at so high a rate.

Governor signs bill repealing abortion ban into law: ‘a woman has the right to make decisions about her own body’

Called historic, New Mexico decriminalized abortion on Friday when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the Respect New Mexico Women and Families Act into law, after years of efforts by abortion rights supporters. SB 10 repeals the 1969 statute that criminalized abortion by banning it with very few exceptions. 

Lujan Grisham said “a woman has the right to make decisions about her own body.”

“Anyone who seeks to violate bodily integrity, or to criminalize womanhood, is in the business of dehumanization,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “New Mexico is not in that business – not any more. Our state statutes now reflect this inviolable recognition of humanity and dignity. I am incredibly grateful to the tireless advocates and legislators who fought through relentless misinformation and fear-mongering to make this day a reality.