The Democratic and Republican candidates for governor outlined their plans for education in the state for a crowd of educational advocates on Monday. While both U.S. Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Steve Pearce seemed to agree there is plenty to fix in the state, their starkest differences came down to state-funded, early childhood education. Their speeches were part of the annual New Mexico Voices for Children Kids Count conference in Albuquerque. Democratic nominee Lujan Grisham told conference attendees she supported tapping an addition one percent from the state’s land grant permanent fund to fund a long term, sustainable early childhood education program.
Proposed, sweeping and dramatic changes to a decades-old federal food aid program could have major negative impacts on many impoverished New Mexicans who rely on the program. Donald Trump’s administration proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps, in his most recent budget recommendation. The proposal included providing food boxes to those who qualify for the program while slashing the amount of money the federal government spends by 30 percent over ten years. All of this would likely result in fewer people receiving fewer benefits through the program. While the state splits the administrative costs of the program with the federal government, the federal government provides funding for the SNAP benefits New Mexicans receive.
Santa Fe voters delivered a decisive rejection of a proposed 2-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages to support early childhood education Tuesday in a special election. As of 10 pm Tuesday night with votes counted in all but one voting convenience center, the proposal was losing by a near-15 point margin. The vote capped the end of an intense, expensive and heated debate that saw nearly $1.9 million in direct spending overall from political action committees on both sides as of May 1. More than $1.2 million of that money was spent on opposition to the tax proposal, while a PAC in support of the tax spent roughly $685,000 to convince city residents to vote yes on the measure. This doesn’t include in-kind donations on each side of the vote.
A progressive group is advocating for legislators to override Gov. Susana Martinez’s vetoes of portions of the budget and an entire tax package. The odds of veto overrides are slim. The bills passed the Senate with wide, bipartisan support but passed more narrowly on party lines in the House. New Mexico Voices for Children urged supporters to contact their legislators to override the vetoes, citing the zeroing-out of the entire higher education budget. “New Mexico’s legislators delivered a balanced budget that funds critical services like education, health care, and public safety, and they came up with a responsible way to pay for it,” the email says.
A proposal to raise the hourly minimum wage in New Mexico to $9 won the backing Monday of a Senate committee as well as business and labor groups. But with several bills floating around the Capitol this year to give at least a slight boost to the earnings of New Mexico’s lowest-paid workers, agreement still seems elusive on how high the state’s minimum wage should go and what strings should be attached. In a 5-3 vote, the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee approved Senate Bill 386, which would raise the hourly minimum wage from $7.50 to $9 but allow employers to pay new hires a training wage of $8 per hour for up to two months. The bill would also raise the minimum wage for tipped employees, such as waitresses and baristas, from $2.13 to $2.63. A major public employees union, New Mexico Voices for Children and the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce have backed the proposal, seeing it as a compromise that would ensure at least some increase in pay for low-wage workers while also proving palatable to some in the business community.
State legislators split along party lines Monday in advancing a proposed constitutional amendment that would use some of the $15 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to help pay for early childhood education and other public education programs.
The House Education Committee voted 7-6 for a plan to fund pre-K programs with an extra 1 percent from the endowment. Democrats supported the measure and Republicans opposed it. “Fifteen-billion-plus dollars — that’s almost richer than Donald Trump,” said Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, in voicing her support for the measure. Groups such as New Mexico Voices for Children have urged lawmakers for years to use a larger share of the money that flows into the $15 billion investment account from oil, gas and mineral extraction on state lands. The proposal, if approved by lawmakers this year and then by voters in the 2018 general election, would supply $39 million for early childhood education and another $91 million for K-12 public schools in 2020.
Five Democratic state senators banded together Tuesday to block a Republican bill aimed at prohibiting people on food stamps from buying soda pop, candy and other junk foods. The Democrats said they appreciated Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, sponsoring the bill to encourage healthy eating habits in hopes of reducing New Mexico’s high rates of obesity and diabetes. But Democrats on the Senate Public Affairs Committee still found flaws in Pirtle’s proposal. “I’m bothered by this because it’s going after our lowest-income folks,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque. “I don’t support this at all because it focuses on one group of people and implies they’re wasting taxpayers’ money.”
The biggest issue for legislators this session is New Mexico’s perilous financial situation—and how they plan to fill a projected $67 million budget deficit. Gov. Susana Martinez has proposed moving $268.5 million from state agencies into the general fund budget. Of that $120 million would come from local public education reserve funds. Martinez’s plan also would require state employees to pay roughly 3.5 percent more into their retirement plans. This piece also appeared in this week’s edition of the Weekly Alibi.
Media coverage of planned tax legislation has so far focused on one hot-button topic of the proposal—reinstating a state tax on food. Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester and advocacy groups like New Mexico Voices for Children have vocally opposed the idea. But the two state representatives behind the proposal have not actually filed any legislation on the matter for the session that begins in January. Legislators could begin introducing bills on Dec. 15.
The battle over restricting methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is headed to Bernalillo County. It’s in the form of a proposed resolution by Democratic County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, with the support of groups such as New Mexico Voices for Children and Hispanics Enjoy Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors (HECHO). The resolution is expected to be heard during Tuesday evening’s meeting. While acknowledging that “energy development is critically important to the economy of both Bernalillo County and the State of New Mexico,” the resolution calls for the Bernalillo County Commission to support stronger rules from the federal government on methane flaring and leakage and to charge royalties on “wasted, vented or flared methane gas” released into the atmosphere. “It really seems to us to make no sense to allow these oil companies to basically waste a resource that should belong to the public, that the production of which should benefit the public,” NM Voices for Children Executive Director James Jimenez said in a short interview.