For years, it was one of the most talked-about proposals in the Roundhouse.
There was repeated excitement, momentum, controversy and resistance — all over legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to tap more of the state’s nearly $20 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood education. But this year, the atmosphere is more one of muted neglect. That’s likely because there’s a new kid on the block, a proposal to create an early childhood trust fund with other revenue streams. The idea has traveled further in its first year than the land grant proposal ever has — it reached the governor’s desk after being passed by the full Senate on Friday. A big setback for the land grant proposal came on Saturday in the Senate Rules Committee, where most members walked out before the legislation, known this year as House Joint Resolution 1, was heard. Many legislators had been in the room for other matters earlier that morning, yet only four were left when HJR1 was taken up, depriving its supporters of a quorum needed for a vote.
If legislation had taglines, this one’s might be: “How a highly technical bill became the latest partisan punching bag.”
On Friday, the Democrat-controlled House Taxation and Revenue Committee approved House Bill 341, which proposes to transfer money from the state’s enormous Tax Stabilization Reserve fund into its operating reserve if the latter drops to less than 1 percent of total appropriations. The legislation’s proponents say the measure would fix a structural issue created when the rainy-day fund was set up, and would even help the state avoid calling a special session when it’s not necessary. But it became a flashpoint for discord Friday, with Republicans critics contending the bill is a cover for Democrats spending too much during the session. “If we refuse to address the technical problem that has arisen, we’re not doing our job,” House Speaker Brian Egolf said Friday at the committee hearing before voting in favor of the bill. At issue is the balance in the state’s operating reserve, a sort of holding account for the general fund that provides a buffer in case there’s a revenue shortfall.
With a week left to this year’s 30-day legislative session, House Republicans in a Thursday news conference again complained their Democratic counterparts are spending too much, claiming if a “messed up” budget proposal isn’t trimmed, the state may come up short by as much as $200 million.
Leaders on the Democratic side immediately countered, calling Republican claims “ridiculous,” “absurd” and “wrong.” Welcome to the Roundhouse, day 23. During a Thursday morning news conference, Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, and Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, pointed to a Legislative Finance Committee financial update this week that indicated projected revenues would fall short of the proposed expenditures by $200 million. “It’s just another example of the crazy spending going on in your Capitol,” Townsend said. Republicans have recommended a 4.3 percent increase to the 2021 fiscal year budget, far smaller than the 7.5 percent increase passed in the House more than a week ago.
The planned expenditures in the proposed budget, said Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, “are a concern.
With eight days left in the legislative session, passing a cannabis legalization bill is looking more and more like a long-shot. But there are three other bills related to cannabis and hemp that have been moving through committee assignments, some with little to no debate or opposition.
The two cannabis legalization bills have stalled so far in both legislative chambers. The Senate version passed its first committee and is scheduled to be heard Wednesday afternoon in its second. The House version of legalization has yet to be heard in its first committee. Both bills are politically divisive and will likely be subjected to hours of public testimony and legislative debate.
With a vote of 6-0, Democrats on the House Taxation and Revenue Committee passed a bill that advocates say would help the uninsured and the underinsured. No Republicans voted on HB 278. Committee co-chair Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, tried to go to a vote at one point but then appeared to stall. He asked Rep. Deborah Armstrong, also a Democrat from Albuquerque, to talk more about the bill. A few advocates of the bill ran out of the hearing to try to find more Democrats who could return to the hearing.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Attorney General Hector Balderas and Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, are all moving independently to rein in some of the most dangerous practices in New Mexico classrooms: restraint and seclusion. Each is pursuing separate initiatives to enforce stricter reporting requirements for incidents involving the controversial practices.
Their efforts follow an October 2019 Searchlight investigation revealing that New Mexico schools routinely restrain and seclude special education students, often in violation of state and federal law. The state’s largest school district, Albuquerque Public Schools, has restrained and secluded students well over 4,600 times since 2014, the investigation found. It also found that APS repeatedly filed misleading reports to the federal government, even taking the extraordinary step of refusing to provide records to parents whose children were restrained or secluded.
Often referred to as “therapeutic holding” or “physical management,” restraint is a contentious and dangerous method of behavior management derived from karate and judo, in which specially trained school staff place children and youth in physical holds that restrict movement. Seclusion, another behavior management practice, entails forcing a student into isolated rooms sometimes referred to as “scream rooms.”
Child psychologists have decried the practices as ineffective and traumatic — for both students and staff.
The House Taxation and Revenue Committee tabled two bills Friday that proposed to eliminate or reduce the state’s tax on Social Security income. Key legislators had previously voiced support for House Bills 29 and 77, and the majority of public attendees who spoke favored it at Friday’s committee hearing. Yet Democratic and Republican legislators alike said they were worried about altering the tax without having a plan to replace lost revenue.
“You can’t have it both ways. Somewhere you have to pay the piper,” said Rep. Jim Trujillo, a Santa Fe Democrat and co-chair of the committee. “Let’s find a way to pay for it so we don’t create a hole in the general fund.”
The House Commerce and Economic Development approved a bill that would allow for special licenses to grow, buy, sell or manufacture cannabis for approved research facilities Friday by a 6-3 vote. HB 334, sponsored by Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, would allow licensed research facilities to grow and transport cannabis and establish a Cannabis Control Division to regulate licensing. The state’s Regulation and Licensing Department (RLD) would oversee the Cannabis Control Division.
Martínez fielded questions from both Democratic and Republican committee members, but all of the criticisms came from Republicans. Some of those concerns were whether RLD is the best home for the Cannabis Control Department.
Martínez and his expert witnesses explained to the committee that under current federal law, research facilities can get approval from the Drug Enforcement Agency to grow cannabis, but those researchers must get their plants from the federal agency. If passed, HB 334 would allow New Mexico to issue special research licenses and researchers could grow their own cannabis or buy from another approved facility.
Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas, said she didn’t think regulating cannabis is necessarily in the department’s purview.
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.
The chairman of an influential Senate committee proposes to strip out big pieces of a sprawling tax bill, scrapping a proposed increase in New Mexico’s personal income tax rates and scaling back a suggested increase in a credit for families. For backers of House Bill 6, the measure is key to making the tax system more progressive and shoring up the state’s finances before the oil industry takes another dive and New Mexico’s government is left strapped for cash again. But the idea of passing several tax increases at a time when the state anticipates a budget surplus from an ongoing oil boom has drawn plenty of criticism. Some senators on both sides of the aisle have argued the proposed tax hikes are too much, too fast — and potentially a big political liability. Sen. Clemente Sanchez, a Democrat from Grants who chairs the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee, on Tuesday called for changes to the bill that would reduce the amount of money raised for the general fund from more than $300 million in the next fiscal year to an estimated $93 million, not including some other changes.