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.

Projections show big budget surplus, thanks to volatile oil and gas money

The oil boom continues to roll, and thanks in large part to the funds, the latest projection finds New Mexico will have nearly over $900 million in “new money” next year. That’s what the Legislative Finance Committee was told at a hearing Wednesday. The latest projections show that, buoyed by the oil and gas revenue, the state could see $907 million in excess of what it spent in this year’s budget, the second straight year with massive budget surpluses. 

The increased revenues gives legislators more money to budget for increased spending in areas like education, healthcare and infrastructure and to add to reserves to guard against future economic slowdowns. Slowdowns could come because of the boom and bust nature of the oil and gas industry, which is over 40 percent of the state’s revenue. And there are some fears that the ongoing trade war with China and other international economic activities could lead to a global recession.

Prosecutors oppose parole changes

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and all fourteen of the state’s district attorneys are asking Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to veto a bill that would change laws governing probation and parole for criminal offenders. The prosecutors said in a letter Friday to the governor that the measure approved by the Legislature would jeopardize public safety. Supporters of the bill said that isn’t accurate. The letter is, at best, disingenuous, said House Judiciary Chairwoman Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, one of the bill’s four sponsors. “We are looking at a new day here and a lot of what is claimed in that letter, the exact opposite is true,” Chasey said Friday.

House OKs public-private partnerships for roads and broadband projects

More than 35 states allow partnerships in which private entities can bid to help finance and build government-owned facilities. New Mexico is not yet one of those states. But it could be if a bill that the House of Representatives approved Friday by a vote of 64-0 makes it into law. House Bill 286, sponsored by five lawmakers from both political parties, would allow any government agency in the state to enter into a long-term agreement with a private entity to finance and build road and broadband infrastructure. In this case, Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, one of the bill’s sponsors, told lawmakers the initiative could help with much-needed road, bridge and internet service in counties and municipalities where capital funds are limited.