State budget takes center stage, advancing to full House

A House committee on Monday advanced a $7.6 billion budget plan for next fiscal year, giving Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham much of the education funding she had asked for yet choosing not to back her marquee free-tuition plan. The House Appropriations and Finance Committee approved House Bill 2 with an increase of $529 million, or 7.5 percent, from the current year’s budget. The bill passed by a vote of 11-5 along party lines, with Republicans decrying the spending level as too high. The bill is expected to be taken up by the full House later this week. 

The House panel found a middle ground between the fiscal year 2021 spending plan proposed by Lujan Grisham and that recommended by a key legislative panel. The governor had called for a $7.68 billion spending plan, while the the Legislative Finance Committee recommended $7.55 billion. 

“It’s been a very good working relationship,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, chairwoman of the committee, speaking of the Governor’s Office.

Early ed funding proposals clear House committee — but one faces a tougher future

As the state prepares to consolidate most services for its youngest residents in a newly created department, the House Education Committee on Wednesday approved a pair of measures with different strategies for funding an expansion of programs for children from birth to age 5. Neither idea is new, and both — which head to the full House of Representatives for consideration — rely heavily on the state’s recent windfall of oil and gas revenues. But one measure drew wide support in a committee room crowded with a diverse array of proponents on both sides of the political aisle, while the other — which would create a far larger revenue stream for New Mexico’s kids — intensified an ongoing clash over the potential risks and rewards of tapping an investment fund that now holds nearly $20 billion. The debate suggested that although most state leaders favor increases in early childhood services in an effort to improve education and economic outcomes, the surge in funding some advocates have sought for years isn’t likely to come in this legislative session. “This bill has been before you for far too long,” Paul Gibson, co-founder of the social activist group Retake Our Democracy, told the House Education Committee, urging lawmakers to move forward House Joint Resolution 1 — which would let New Mexico voters decide on a constitutional amendment calling for a 1 percent withdrawal from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund.

Facing down a century-old problem on the Canadian River

HARDING COUNTY, N.M.—Descending the narrow dirt road into Mills Canyon, U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Michael Atkinson jokes that in the nineteenth century some homesteaders headed to California surely reached the rim of the Canadian River, peered down its 1,000-foot-deep canyon and decided to settle here in New Mexico. He points to a small stone building on the floodplain below and explains that in the 1880s, Melvin Mills planted thousands of fruit trees. For more than two decades, horses hauled up tons of peaches, pears, apples and cherries, as well as walnuts, chestnuts and almonds. But in 1904, a flood wiped out Mills Canyon Enterprise and now all that’s left are the stone remains of the storehouse and Mills’s home and this wagon road Atkinson twists down. That’s not the only story this floodplain tells.