Solar tax credit, transmission line bills advance in the Senate

Two clean energy bills cleared the Senate Finance committee on Friday: A bill that would expand power line infrastructure throughout the state, and a bill that would reinstate a solar tax credit that expired in 2016. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has voiced support for both bills. There were two versions of the transmission line proposal, one in the House and one in the Senate. But Republican Sen. Steven Neville presented HB 50 to the committee instead of his own version of the proposal, SB 6, on Friday. “This one’s farther along,” Neville told committee members.

Cannabis legalization stalls in committee

A recreational cannabis legalization bill stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, while a bill that would limit who can become a medical cannabis patient moved on. Both bills are sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, who has pushed for legalization in various ways for a number of years. 

Ortiz y Pino’s legalization bill, SB 115, by far received the most debate and criticism, particularly from the committee’s chairman Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces. Cervantes, who has long pushed for decriminalization, but has said he does not favor full legalization, said he was more concerned with problematic language in the almost 200-page bill. He spent more than 30 minutes going through some of his concerns, one of which was fairness. 

“This bill reflects one of the weaknesses in this state which is the propensity to pick winners and losers,” Cervantes said. 

He meticulously picked apart the bill and cited provisions that he said seemed unfair like a section that aims to include organized labor in cannabis production companies and a section that would create a subsidy program for indigent medical cannabis patients. Cervantes also said he didn’t like that the bill would allow those with previous drug convictions to get into the industry, even invoking the name of infamous drug lord El Chapo. 

The bill was tabled on a 6-3 vote.

Senate approves pension fix

The New Mexico Senate on Wednesday approved a $76 million investment in the state Public Employees Retirement Association in a move to get the pension system on a path to solvency. Senate Bill 72, sponsored by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, also comes with costs for government employers and public workers — who will pay more into the retirement system — and retirees, many of whom will receive smaller cost-of-living increases in their payouts. The state has no choice, Muñoz told fellow senators, because of the $16 billion PERA fund’s unfunded liabilities of about $6.6 billion. “We are avoiding the cliff if we do this,” he said. “At the end of the day, this fund has to be solvent.”

Opportunity Scholarship clears Senate panel

A scholarship plan aimed at covering all college tuition and expense costs for New Mexicans cleared yet another hurdle when members of the Senate Education Committee voted 5-2 to send it to the Senate Finance Committee. But the bill may face deeper scrutiny once it gets there since a Legislative Finance Committee fiscal impact report says it may cost much more than the Higher Education Department estimates. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the program would cost about $35 million a year when she unveiled the proposal last year. Reacting to concerns expressed early in the session, the bill’s sponsors worked on a revamp to make it more palatable to lawmakers. Their alterations increased the cost to $45 million.

Solar tax credit passes first committee

Sen. Majority Whip Mimi Stewart’s bill to reinstate a solar tax credit passed its first committee Monday with a vote of 8-2. Stewart, D-Albuquerque, presented SB 29 to the Senate’s Corporations and Transportation Committee. “I hate to count how many times the committee’s actually heard [this bill],” Stewart joked with the committee. By our count, it’s the fifth time the bill has been introduced since the state solar tax credit expired in 2016. Stewart, who has been working on the bill with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the two of them agreed that “this needed to be a bill that incentivized folks to use solar.”

RELATED: Clean energy top of mind in 2020 legislative session

The legislation would create an income tax credit worth 10 percent of the cost of installation for solar thermal or solar photovoltaic systems for residential, business or agriculture applications.

Policymakers say education overhaul will take years

As Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham enters the second year of an education overhaul she promised on the campaign trail — and a state judge mandated months before she took office — she and other policymakers say the changes will come over decades, not within legislative sessions. They point to persistent problems, such as low rates of student proficiency in math and reading and high numbers of high school dropouts, and say solutions will require years of steadily increasing investments in building an education workforce that suffers from a severe shortage. They say initiating programs to aid the state’s most vulnerable kids and extending classroom time — both expensive propositions — are a start, but add the effort requires New Mexico to rethink how it views education funding. “People say we just throw money at it, but we haven’t ever tried throwing money at it,” said state Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat who serves on the Senate Education Committee. “We’ve done nothing but underfund for years.

Lawmakers renew effort to alter practice of diverting federal aid to rural schools

New Mexico for years has taken a large share of federal education aid intended for rural schools that lie in areas with large parcels of public and tribal lands and has distributed it to other districts, including urban ones. Legislation that would have undone the long-standing practice quietly died last year. State lawmakers have renewed the effort with more force in the current legislative session, introducing at least four bills designed to make up for tens of millions of dollars in federal Impact Aid diverted each year from rural districts, including many that serve Native American students. “It’s an issue of fairness,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who co-sponsored one of the bills. While New Mexico funds public school districts through a formula based on student numbers using money from several sources — including oil and gas revenues — school districts in many states heavily rely on property taxes.

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.

House passes sweeping education bill, with funding boost for adult learners

State lawmakers, facing an outcry over legislation defining “school-aged” students as those under the age of 22, voted Tuesday to provide a year of funding for programs that help adults get a high school education. The provision limiting the age of a public school student would cut off services for some older students who already have been left far behind, opponents argued, and could spell doom for schools like Gordon Bernell Charter School, which serves many students over 21 — including inmates in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque. Sen. Mimi Stewart, a Democrat from Albuquerque and a sponsor of a broad Senate education package, Senate Bill 1, proposed keeping the student age limit in place but also setting aside a year’s worth of funds for schools hit by the change. The age limit provision was just a piece of sweeping education measures in both the House and Senate that would expand a summer program for low-income elementary school students, steer more money to schools serving at-risk students and raise the minimum salaries for teachers and principals. Each chamber passed its version of the legislation Tuesday with bipartisan support, and sent the bill on to the other side.

Senators pare back proposed childhood ed agency

A bipartisan group of state senators on Monday balked at creating a new department to centralize early childhood education programs, stripping the proposed agency of about half of its responsibilities. Members of the Senate Education Committee voted 5-4 to amend Senate Bill 22, which would establish the centralized agency. The change would keep programs for 4-year-olds under the purview of the Public Education Department. The bill sponsor, Democratic Sen. Michael Padilla of Albuquerque, said the amendment hurts his proposal. “It defeats the ability to ensure consistency across the early childhood education spectrum,” he said.