Land Grant Permanent Fund constitutional amendment is years in the making

In November, voters will vote whether an additional 1.25 percent of distribution will come from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to help support early childcare education in New Mexico, as well as address some of the concerns raised in the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit. The fund, also known as the Permanent School Fund, at around $25 billion, is one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world. It grows annually based on a rolling five-year average, which protects the fund from stock market crashes and reductions in oil and gas revenues. The state currently distributes 5 percent of the fund, annually, to the New Mexico Public Education Department and to 20 other public institutions. For 10 years legislators and early childcare advocates worked on a joint resolution that would allow voters to decide if an additional 1.25 percent of the fund’s growth could be spent on early childcare and at-risk students.

Joint Senate committee advances broad crime reform bill to floor

With just a few days to go before the end of this year’s legislative session, members of both the Senate Finance Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously voted to approve a broad crime reform bill — though it isn’t keeping critics from lambasting Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. But rather than focus on imposing stricter laws and penalties, Senate Bill 231 targets providing stipends to recruit and retain police officers; adding more officer training programs; creating a statewide database through which state and federal law enforcement agencies can share information; and generating three additional judgeships to increase trial capacity. The bill now goes to the Senate floor for a vote. 

The vote came in the same week police arrested two people, including a man with a lengthy criminal record, in the nonfatal shooting of a state police officer near Edgewood, and the random stabbings of 11 people in Albuquerque Sunday. Some lawmakers alluded to those events as they discussed the merits of SB 231 during a Monday morning joint committee hearing held on the floor of the Senate. 

Initiatives included in the legislation, its supporters said, will do more to prevent crime than locking criminals up for longer periods of time. Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said longer incarcerations are an “overly simple” approach to fighting crime, and did not deter Caleb Dustin Elledge, the suspect in the shooting of the state police officer, from committing more crimes. 

“He wasn’t too concerned about serving the original sentence or an enhanced sentence,” Cervantes said of Elledge, who is from Los Lunas.

Effort to eliminate Social Security tax gains momentum

The push to eliminate New Mexico’s income tax on Social Security benefits is gaining traction at the Roundhouse. Two senators, Democrat Michael Padilla of Albuquerque and Republican David Gallegos of Eunice, introduced separate bills Thursday that would eliminate the tax on Social Security income. Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, previously introduced a bill to repeal the tax, but it would still affect higher earners and increase the tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products to make up the loss in state revenue. Padilla said his proposal, Senate Bill 108, has been endorsed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who called on lawmakers Tuesday during her State of the State address to end the tax and whose office issued a news release late Thursday reiterating the request. “We have never had a better opportunity to eliminate income taxes on Social Security like we do right now,” Padilla said.

NM expands early childcare subsidies

For the next two years, New Mexico will raise the income eligibility for childcare assistance from 200 percent of the federal poverty level to 350 percent of the federal poverty level with a phase out at 400 percent of the federal poverty level, officials announced Thursday. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Early Childcare Education and Care Department Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky, Lt. Gov. Howie Morales and state Sen. Michael Padilla spoke during a press conference Thursday to announce the change. The press conference was also part of a one-year anniversary celebration for ECECD, which is an agency that began under the Lujan Grisham administration to improve early childcare education. The press conference was held in Santa Fe and online. The department will use emergency funds available through the federal American Rescue Plan to increase the assistance starting August 1.

Senate committee advances paid sick leave bill

Private employers in New Mexico may no longer get to decide whether paid sick leave is a benefit they want to offer their workers. A bill that would ensure employees in the state have access to paid time off when they’re sick cleared the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee on a party-line 6-3 vote Sunday. “Access to paid sick leave protects workplaces, families, and communities statewide,” read a tweet sent from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s account minutes after the vote. “I appreciate so many key stakeholders being at the table for this important discussion and I look forward to signing this legislation when it gets to my desk.” Known as the Healthy Workplaces Act, House Bill 20 would require private employers in the state to provide workers at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work, or 64 hours per year.

Gas tax increase aims to help state’s subpar roads

New Mexico’s roadways are in terrible shape, and they’re costing the average driver $767 annually in additional vehicle operating costs, according to a new report. But motorists don’t need to read a narrative to understand the condition of New Mexico’s interstates, highways and roads. “All you have to do is hop in your vehicle and drive a couple of miles,” Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said Thursday during a virtual news conference. “Our roads at the moment are a complete disaster, and we do need to take it seriously,” added Padilla, vice chairman of the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee. The report by TRIP, a national transportation research nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., found 56 percent of major roads and highways in New Mexico are in poor or mediocre condition due to inadequate state and local funding.

New Mexico broadband bill passes first committee

Despite investments of hundreds of millions of dollars, access to broadband services has remained out of reach for many New Mexicans in rural and impoverished areas. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated that problem, especially when it comes to public school students trying to learn remotely. 

That’s the message members of the House Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements Committee heard from a number of lawmakers, experts and members of the public during a Tuesday hearing on the issue. “We don’t need to talk about the need, we need to talk about the how — how are we going to do this?” said Rep. Natalie Figueroa, D-Albuquerque. 

Figueroa is one of five House legislators, all Democrats, pushing for passage of House Bill 10, an initiative that would create a broadband division within the New Mexico Department of Information Technology. The committee voted 8-1 to approve the measure, sending it on to the House Appropriations Committee. 

That proposed department would serve as a center of operations to provide planning and technical assistance to local governments, state agencies and public education institutions to develop and initiate broadband programs. Assistance will include guidance in applying for funding for such initiatives. 

The goal, Figueroa said, is to create a central state agency focused on expanding affordable broadband access to all parts of the state.

Nondiscrimination bill to protect cultural hair and hairstyles receives unanimous support in Senate Education Committee

A nondiscrimination bill to protect cultural hairstyles in the workplace and school settings received bipartisan support in the Senate Education Committee Friday. The No School Discrimination for Hair bill passed unanimously in the Senate Education Committee Friday. More than one state senator expressed shock that discrimination around

cultural hair and hairstyles is still possible with impunity. “We should’ve been doing this decades ago,” state Sen. Michael Padilla, a Democrat from Albuquerque, said. Sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Harold Pope Jr., of Albuquerque, SB 80, protects children in public and charter schools and people in the workplace from discrimination based on cultural hair and hair styles, such as braids, locs, twists, and knots.

ACLU spending on education in two state senate districts targeted by progressives

Two progressive Democrats, Siah Correa Hemphill and Pam Cordova, who are challenging  incumbents who lean more to the right within the Democratic party, are getting a boost in their campaign efforts. Correa Hemphill is running against incumbent Democratic state Sen. Gabriel Ramos. With her May filing report, she has outraised Ramos by $53.26. Ramos, who was appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to replace Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, is running his first election for the seat. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico is spending $150,000 in the remaining weeks of the primary to educate voters on the fact that Ramos and state Sen. Clemente Sanchez, also a Democrat, both voted against HB 51 in 2019.

Bill that helps kids who ‘age out’ of foster care passes Senate

A bill to provide support to children who have “aged out” of foster care but still need a safety net passed unanimously in the Senate chamber Monday. SB 168 would allow children who are 18 to 21 who lack resources necessary to enter adulthood to access aid from the Child, Youth and Family Services Department. CYFD would be able to leverage federal dollars to pay for the services. Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, is sponsoring the bill. Padilla said while on the Senate floor that the bill aligns New Mexico with federal law and federal requirements for funding already available.