LFC report fleshes out crime surge

Lawmakers looking to push through an array of “tough on crime” bills got some legislative ammunition to support their cause this week. The Legislative Finance Committee released a memo to Rep. Patti Lundstrom,  chair of the committee, saying violent crime rates are going up, and not just in Albuquerque. 

The memo says at least 20 New Mexico communities — including Gallup and Albuquerque — have experienced increases in violent crimes. 

Santa Fe was not among those cities. The LFC document says Albuquerque’s 2021 homicide rate of 117 killings represented an “acute rise” from 2020 — a 48 percent jump. And New Mexico State Police investigated 17 homicides in 2021, up from 10 in 2020. 

The memo’s sobering details include that the reasons behind Albuquerque’s homicide rates have drastically changed over the past year. In 2019 just 15 percent of those killings happened through robberies or because of “personal disrespect.”

House passes bill to appropriate $504 million in federal relief funds

An amended version of a spending bill passed both the full House and the House Appropriations and Finance Committee Friday which, if passed by the state Senate and signed by the governor, will appropriate $504 million of the $1.1 billion provided by the American Rescue Plan Act into state relief funds, state Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces said. The bill ultimately passed the House on a 65-1 vote, including changes made in a committee. Small, a co-sponsor of HB 2, introduced the amendment to the HAFC meeting Friday morning. He said the $504 million is slightly less than half of the total funds the state is transferring into a contingency account of the general fund. The $504 million would be expected to be made available to the agencies and is intended, based on federal guidelines, to provide relief due to losses incurred from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Revenue diversification needed as NM looks to transition away from fossil fuels

As New Mexico looks at an inevitable end to oil and gas extraction, some environmental advocates say no new leases should be issued and the United States should work to phase out fossil fuels. This would not have a huge immediate impact on the state, but could result in less revenue and fewer jobs in the future, experts say. President Joe Biden and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a former congresswoman from New Mexico, issued orders in January pausing both leasing and permitting to enable a robust review of the federal processes. The pause in permitting ended after 60 days, but the leasing pause continued until a federal judge issued a temporary injunction earlier this month. The vast majority of federal land available for leasing in New Mexico is already leased for oil and gas production, which limited the impact that the leasing moratorium had on the state. 

“It’s not as if the bottom is going to fall out because of the moratorium,” Kayley Shoup of Citizens Caring for the Future said in a Zoom call hosted by the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter this week.

PED: Pandemic impacts will affect schooling going forward

During the first twelve months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the academic school year was like no other. From March 2020 until April 2021, students in New Mexico public schools learned either remotely or through a hybrid model that included some in-person learning. Remote learning nationwide, on average, put more stress on women than men. According to a Marketplace-Edison Research Poll taken last fall of 1,647 individuals, 63 percent of the women polled said they were primarily responsible for helping kids with online school, compared to 29 percent of men. Several women told NM Political Report last year that they struggled with juggling their children’s online learning needs and the demands of their jobs.

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.

Tough on moms: Stories of struggle and juggling demands during the pandemic

A domestic worker and mother of four, Olga Santa lost her job because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her daughters, age 7, 11, 13 and 15, are all learning remotely this fall in Albuquerque and will continue to do so for some time; the Albuquerque Public Schools Board voted six to one in August to continue distance learning through the end of the fall semester. 

Like other families, Santa is juggling the stress and challenges of her daughters’ remote learning during an unprecedented pandemic. That includes worrying that if her husband, who works in construction, tests positive for COVID-19, they have no backup plan. With Santa out of work, her husband’s paychecks must now stretch to cover all of their expenses. When he was sick this year due to allergies and kidney stones, he still had to appear at the construction site because the family couldn’t afford for him to take a day off.

Pandemic has worsened child well being in state

The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening the progress the state started to make towards ending its long-time position as 50th in the nation for child well being, according to child advocacy organization New Mexico Voices for Children. Emily Wildau, research and policy analyst for New Mexico Voices for Children’s annual Kids Count data book, said the U.S. census polled Americans using both text and computers from the end of April to the end of July to generate early data on how the nation was faring under the pandemic. Some of that data was available at the state level, she said. New Mexico ranked as the lowest in the nation for child well-being in 2020, according to the Kids Count data book, and has done so for years. Recent policy changes and the increased revenue from the oil boom in the Permian Basin last year brought hope for many child advocates of an improved future, especially for children of color and low-income children in New Mexico.  

But according to New Mexico Voices for Children, 51 percent of adults in households with children in New Mexico have lost employment since March.

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.