Bill requiring police to wear body cams while on duty heads to governor

Amid calls for increased scrutiny of law enforcement, the House of Representatives voted 44-26 to approve a measure that would require all New Mexico police officers to wear body cameras. 

The legislation, passed by the House two days after the state Senate concluded its business and departed a special session that focused on shoring up the state budget, now heads to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk. Lujan Grisham praised the work of the Legislature during the special session, but noted it is only the start as New Mexico looks to the 60-day session in January amid a severe economic downturn brought on by falling oil prices and the COVID-19 crisis. “Let me be clear: The work of rebuilding our state economy has only begun,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “But we will, I have no doubt, construct a more robust and inclusive economy than ever before as we continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic with everything we’ve got. “And the work we’ve begun on civil rights and public safety reform and election accessibility and small business relief will remain a chief priority of my administration,” she added.

Committees start talks on budget fix, with lots of debate to come

State workers would see a drop in their pay raises for fiscal year 2021 and spending for most agencies would be cut significantly under the draft budget overhaul lawmakers began debating Wednesday. Whittling a record $7.6 billion budget to $7.34 billion — and filling wide spending gaps with cash reserves, pandemic-related aid from the federal government and other measures — is no small task for the New Mexico Legislature as it convenes Thursday for a special session to address a steep decline in projected revenues. Members of the state House and Senate finance committees met Wednesday to review the plan, which would slash higher education spending by 6 percent — the biggest cut for any single agency — and reduce the 4 percent pay raises for state workers, approved earlier this year, to 1.5 percent for those who earn less than $40,000 a year and 0.5 percent for higher earners. Funding for the new Early Childhood Education and Care Department, set to take over all services for young children July 1, would be cut by $3.3 million; the spaceport would lose $600,000; and $17 million would be slashed from the Medicaid program. Lawmakers, however, hope to shift money from the Tobacco Settlement Permanent Fund to fill the Medicaid gap.

Superintendents: Proposed cuts to education will worsen racial and economic inequity

Proposed education budget cuts could worsen racial and economic inequities in the state, according to some school superintendents. Veronica Garcia, the superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said that if the Legislative Finance Committee’s proposed budget cuts in education are passed, she expects to be looking at a $10.3 million hole in her district’s budget. She is starting with a $7 million deficit in her school budget and if the LFC’s proposed cuts go through, she expects to see another $3.3 million loss. Like the state, Garcia has to balance her budget annually. She says that situation will leave her with no choice but to make cuts that will enlarge classroom size, reduce programming and shrink ancillary roles such as social workers, librarians, nurse aides and nurses.

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.

Spending plan to increase pay for New Mexico’s teachers

A key House budget panel met Saturday to review a spending plan that offers higher K-12 teacher pay raises and more money for early childhood services than suggested by the Legislative Finance Committee. The House Appropriations and Finance Committee reviewed a spending proposal that includes about $61 million more than recommended by the LFC, coming close to midway between Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s and the LFC’s competing budget plans, which featured a $132 million overall difference. A document provided by the Legislative Finance Committee on Saturday shows that House Bill 2 will include $35 million more for public education and $4.7 million more for higher education than the LFC budget. It does not include money for the governor’s Opportunity Scholarship, which would cover public university education for New Mexico residents. State Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said funding for the scholarship could still be offered in an amendment to House Bill 2 on Monday, when the committee plans to vote on the budget bill.

Two contraception bills advance

A bill that would go beyond both the governor’s and Legislative Finance Committee’s appropriation recommendations for long-acting reversible contraceptive training to medical professionals passed the Senate Public Affairs Committee 4-2 Thursday. The vote fell along party lines for SB 40, which would provide $1.2 million from the general fund to the state Department of Health to mentor health care providers on long-acting reversible contraception. Democratic Senators Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez of Albuquerque, Elizabeth “Liz” Stefanics of Cerrillos, Jerry Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque and Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces voted in favor. Republican Senators Candace Gould of Albuquerque and Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho opposed the bill, while Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle was absent. Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, is sponsoring this bill as well as another, SB 41, which provides $500,000 to the Department of Health to raise public awareness on long-acting reversible contraception.

Chief Justice Nakamura urges lawmakers for funding

New Mexico Chief Justice Judith Nakamura on Monday pushed lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee for more funding for new judge positions and beefed-up security in courts across the state. The committee is not directly involved in crafting the state budget, but Nakamura and Arthur Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, discussed what they argued is a need for $1.53 million to hire more judges, including one in the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe, and more than $2.7 million to bolster court security in a state where only two of 47 Magistrate Courts have armed security guards. “Courts tend sometimes to be fairly volatile places, so ensuring that those who work in the courts as well as those who use the courts remains one of our highest priorities,” Nakamura said after the hearing. “Police departments, sheriff’s departments, are themselves strapped for resources, or districts are so large they’re off patrolling other areas,” she continued. “And we do have some courthouses where there isn’t security neatly available for a variety of reasons, [or] their call button doesn’t go to the closest sheriff’s department but one that could be a hundred miles away.

State looks to address Texas v. New Mexico water case

State leaders looking for a way to address a litigated claim that New Mexico is not providing enough water to Texas under a decades-old compact want funding for a water conservation pilot program south of Elephant Butte. Though the plan remains vague, both Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislative Finance Committee are proposing to support it by allocating funding to the project in the 2021 fiscal year. 

The plan would let water users in the southern part of the state figure out how and when to leave certain areas of their farms unplanted — or fallow — to conserve ground and surface water. 

“It’s the start of a solution to the lack of water resources south of Elephant Butte,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who first announced the plan at a Journey Santa Fe event this month. “It’s critical that the solution comes from the farmers down there.” The Governor’s Office is proposing a $10 million allocation in next year’s budget for a year’s implementation of the pilot program. The LFC’s $30 million proposal takes a three-year approach to the plan, Wirth said.

Education committee members decry public school spending plans

Lawmakers on the state House and Senate education committees on Wednesday decried the lack of funds proposed for some of their priorities for fiscal year 2021, indicating a deeper conflict is broiling over the largest share of the state’s budget as the Legislature and governor begin hashing out differences in their spending plans. During a joint hearing on public school funding proposed by both the Legislative Finance Committee and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, education committee members said their input over the past year has been ignored. The initiatives they cited as underfinanced or omitted completely ranged from cybersecurity to teacher recruitment and retention efforts to providing feminine hygiene products for teen girls. Rep. Linda Trujillo, a Santa Fe Democrat and former school board member who serves on the interim Legislative Education Study Committee, said she didn’t think the voices of educators, school administrators and higher education officials were “entirely reflected” in the competing budget proposals. “I feel like we have been left in the lurch,” added Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, a former teacher and chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee.

Letters could foreshadow future debates over crime prevention, budgets

The months leading up to legislative sessions are often marked by state agencies presenting progress reports to lawmakers. Crime in the Albuquerque area has been a frequent subject to come up when talking about spending. But those conversations are usually devoted to the road ahead and not to picking apart past budgets. 

But in a letter sent last month, the state’s speaker of the House and a top financial leader in the House asked the Bernalillo County district attorney for an informal audit of millions of dollars appropriated to his office two years ago. In return, the district attorney offered a private meeting with a legislative panel to go over how money is being spent. The written exchanges hint at further budget scrutiny from lawmakers, and also a potential rift between some House and Senate Democrats. 

Progress report

On October 17, New Mexico Speaker of the House Brian Egolf and House Appropriations Chair and Legislative Finance Co-chair Patricia Lundstrom, both Democrats, co-authored a letter to 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez about an upcoming interim meeting with the Legislative Finance Committee.