An advocate for one of the plaintiffs in the landmark court case mandating improvements in New Mexico’s public schools said Wednesday that state lawmakers are failing to comply. “The Legislature has dropped the ball on funding needed to move the state toward compliance with the court ruling,” said Preston Sanchez, an attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represents one set of plaintiffs in the case. The Legislative Finance Committee has proposed spending an additional $416 million for public education in the coming year. Of that total, $113 million would be directed toward at-risk students who headlined the lawsuit. “It’s not enough,” Sanchez said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham launched the New Mexico Legislature’s 2019 session Tuesday by calling on lawmakers to pour a half-billion dollars more into education, raise the minimum wage, pass gun control and expand the state’s tax incentives for the film industry. The new Democratic governor used her first State of the State address to double down on a series of liberal priorities she made the centerpiece of her campaign, arguing New Mexico should seize what she described as an opportune moment as it sees a windfall of oil revenue — and the ascent of new political leadership. Standing in front of the most diverse House of Representatives in statehistory, Lujan Grisham urged New Mexicans to “get excited, stay excited, get active and stay active.” “This moment is greater than the state of our budget, or any of the numbers that suggest we can now begin to make the transformative investments our schools, our economy and our communities have always deserved,” she said in a 50-minute address. “I believe this is an opportune moment, perhaps the greatest moment of opportunity in the history of this state, because we have the strength, and the vision, and the willpower to deliver together.”
Top lawmakers on Monday rolled out a proposed $7 billion state budget that would include a whopping $600 million for public works projects around New Mexico as the government’s coffers swell with a windfall of revenue from an oil and gas boom. The Legislative Finance Committee’s proposed budget would mark almost an 11 percent increase in spending by the state. That is less than what Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has proposed in her own version of the state budget, which would raise spending by about 13 percent. But as lawmakers prepared to convene Tuesday for a 60-day legislative session, leaders indicated they are not far off from an agreement with the new governor when it comes to some spending on the issue that is sure to dominate the agenda: education. Faced not only with a judge’s order to come up with ways of improving education for many of the state’s most vulnerable students but also with a bright financial outlook in the short-term, legislators echoed Lujan Grisham’s own call to greatly increase funding for New Mexico schools.
Analysts told lawmakers projections show New Mexico will have $1.1 billion in “new money” to spend compared to last year. But they also urged caution on how to spend that money, given the state’s reliance on volatile oil and gas revenues and the need to replace the money legislators used money from various state programs in recent years. Members of the Legislative Finance Committee, which hears regular budget updates throughout the year, were briefed on the numbers from their chief economist and members of outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez’s cabinet. The sky-high budget numbers were slightly lower than the August forecast, but still much higher than the state has seen since 2005, before the Great Recession of the late 2000s. The budget boom doesn’t necessarily mean that legislators will fund new recurring programs.
Committee chairwoman, and House Appropriations and Finance Committee chairwoman, Patty Lundstrom, outlined in the most-recent LFC newsletter where the money would likely go.
The Roundhouse, January 2011: Flanked by colorful bouquets, a pink and white corsage pinned to her dark blue suit, Gov. Susana Martinez invoked the blossoming of a new era for New Mexico in her first State of the State address. She was the nation’s first Latina governor, soon to be named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. She had a plan for New Mexico and intended to execute it with a prosecutor’s precision. Her message: New Mexico was in a state of financial crisis. “No more shell games,” she announced to applause.
TAOS — The interim Legislative Finance Committee heard the latest rosy budget projections, which show revenues from booming oil and gas activity leading to $1.17 billion in new money for the next fiscal year, bringing total revenue to $7.3 billion. But analysts cautioned the surplus is the result of increasing reliance on oil and gas revenues—which are notably volatile. Because of this, they recommended setting aside at least 20 percent of the revenue in reserves in case of another crash in the oil and gas market or a recession. Legislators will decide during next year’s legislative session what to do with the revenues. In the past, when oil and gas prices fell, previous reserves weren’t enough to make up for the losses and legislators had to cut the state budget.
Billions of taxpayer dollars have flowed out of state since 2013 due to government purchases that are not filled — or cannot be filled — by New Mexico companies, a Searchlight New Mexico analysis finds. Over the past five years, 43 cents of every dollar the state paid companies and consultants went outside New Mexico’s borders, according to Searchlight’s analysis. That price tag stands at $3.2 billion and is growing. According to the state’s own data, spending on outside vendors grew faster than spending on in-state vendors over the past five years of Gov. Susana Martinez’ administration. That dynamic is unlikely to change without a significant overhaul of the state’s economy, according to several experts interviewed for this article.
New Mexico legislators tried to understand what’s happening with plans to divert water from the Gila River during a committee meeting earlier this week. While the Senate Conservation Committee will hear related bills later this session, they first requested an update on the project’s plans and a recently issued engineering contract. At its January meeting, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) approved the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity’s request to issue a quarter-million dollars in contracts for the diversion project. One of those contracts, for $150,000, is for Occam Consulting Engineers, Inc.
That company is owned by Scott Verhines, who was appointed State Engineer by Gov. Susana Martinez in 2011. As an ISC member, Verhines voted in 2014 to move forward with the diversion rather than use federal money for conservation and efficiency projects in the region.
At the end of every legislative session, there are dozens of bills that die on the House or Senate floor. When asked what happened, legislative leaders invariably shrug their shoulders and say, “We just ran out of time …” Which is true. But in the days and weeks that lead to the last moments of a session, lawmakers eat up untold hours — joking around, talking sports, engaging in ceremonial activities and spending time on legislation that doesn’t have the force of law. Call these activities “time bandits.”
ANTHONY — A tall chain-link fence splits the preschool campus behind Anthony Elementary in southern New Mexico: federally funded classrooms on one side, state-funded classrooms on the other. The fence serves as a literal and symbolic divide segregating two sets of classrooms outfitted with the same child-size tables, chairs and toys; two sets of highly trained teachers; two separate playgrounds — and a bitter competition for 4-year-old children. As New Mexico has expanded early education for toddlers over the past decade, the state has created a system that bars providers from mixing state and federal funds in the same classroom. It’s a policy – not a law – that effectively separates kids into rival programs, often divided by income. Head Start serves the lowest income families in New Mexico; the state programs serve families from a range of income levels.