State gets improved revenue projections

The prospect of additional state funds brought welcome news for New Mexico’s college students Wednesday. Based on an improved revenue outlook, New Mexico will have an additional $373 million to spend, bringing the state budget to $7.436 billion, financial experts said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing. 

The extra money would include a one-time appropriation of over $20 million to make college more affordable for New Mexicans. 

Some $11 million of the new money would go into the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gives residents the chance to attend college tuition-free. An additional $10.5 million would shore up the New Mexico Legislative Lottery Scholarship Program so that it would cover 90 percent of tuition for eligible students headed to college. 

“Increasing lottery [scholarship] tuition really reduces the requirement for the opportunity scholarship [program] and expands its reach,” Legislative Finance Committee Director David Abbey told committee members. 

“That’s a pretty significant supplement to financial aid, over $20 million.” A combination of recurring and one-time expenditures would also benefit the public school system, giving it over $3 million in extra funding. Another $1 million is aimed at supporting athletic programs at the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University to help offset lost revenue because of the pandemic. 

Another $34 million in state funding would be available to increase the employer contribution rate to the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board by 1 percent a year for the next four years.

Economic recovery bill hits speed bump in Senate Finance Committee

The Senate Finance Committee voted Tuesday to “temporarily table” a major economic recovery bill to work on amendments and deal with other issues. “There is more than enough time to make sure that whatever version is endorsed by this [committee] at the very least addresses some of the serious issues raised by our staff,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque. “I fully want this $200 million to go out, but we’ve also got to be the adults in the room and be the last line of defense to ensure that money is spent responsibly,” Candelaria added. “I think this committee needs to take some time with this bill.” House Bill 11 and a companion bill in the state Senate are designed to provide businesses with economic relief and also stimulate job growth, part of an ongoing effort to help New Mexicans struggling with the fallout of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Environment Department says they need more funds for inspections, more

New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney told state lawmakers his agency needs more staffing to inspect worker safety violations, ensure businesses are preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus and better protect the state’s air and water quality. Kenney implored members of the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday to approve a $3.7 million increase in the Environment Department’s budget for fiscal year 2022, saying it would beef up understaffed teams that probe workplace safety issues. 

The increase would raise the agency’s general fund budget to $16.8 million and be on par with the 28 percent bump the governor has proposed. 

“That is, all things considered, a very modest increase,” Kenney said. “That investment in the Environment Department — $3.7 million — will definitely save lives [and] protect public health and the environment.” 

In all, the agency’s revenue last year was $90.7 million, counting grants and fees collected.  

The Legislative Finance Committee recommended keeping the agency’s general fund allocations the same as last year’s, which Kenney argued was not enough to provide effective oversight.  

Kenney said the requested funding increase is the difference between the agency being able to investigate workplace complaints and deaths and leaving those incidents unchecked. 

Probing workplace violations through the state office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is imperative in New Mexico, where worker deaths are 77 percent higher than the national average, Kenney told the committee. 

The agency’s budget was cut by 42 percent in the last three years that former Gov. Susana Martinez was in office, Kenney said. It has regained about 22 percent of its spending but is still operating at a lower funding level than it requires, he said. 

The agency has a vacancy rate of 17.7 percent, which adds up to 63 jobs that should be filled, Kenney said. 

None of the committee members spoke against the requested increase. 

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, expressed strong support, saying the agency’s mission should be a priority in New Mexico. 

The committee is considering hefty increases in spending on economic development and tourism, he said. 

“And those are great things, but I would hope we’d all agree that environmental protection and protecting public health are at least equally important,” Steinborn said. 

Subpar environmental oversight can hurt economic development because companies don’t want to locate in places that are unhealthy and unsafe, he added. The proposed budget includes a $1.7 million for rapid responses to workplaces where one or more employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Poll finds Hispanic families still in need of relief

A recent survey of 480 Hispanics in the state found that close to half have $1,000 or less in savings and nearly a quarter have $100 or less. The survey from Latino Decisions, in partnership with several other nonprofit organizations, found that 49 percent of Hispanics surveyed have $1,000 or less set aside for emergencies and 24 percent have $100 or less in savings. In addition, 48 percent have had their hours or pay cut since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. A group of 45 elected officials, including some from the state’s three largest cities of Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces as well as other cities and counties around the state, signed a letter sent to New Mexico’s congressional leadership Tuesday asking that all residents, regardless of immigration status, be included in the next federal relief bill. Migrants and refugees who lack social security numbers were left out of the federal relief CARES Act in late March.

How much did state Senate candidates raise and where did they spend it?

Planned Parenthood, through its various PACs, is spending $390,000 on the New Mexico primary, and the bulk of that on three races. Sarah Taylor-Nanista, executive director of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains Action Fund, said the nonprofit organization is “laser focused” on the progressives running against the seven Democratic incumbents who voted against HB 51 last year. HB 51 would have repealed a 1969 abortion law that abortion rights supporters worry will become law again if Roe v. Wade is overturned. But of the seven, there are three races in particular where Planned Parenthood is spending the bulk of its money. Those are Neomi Martinez-Parra’s race against state Sen. John Arthur Smith for Senate District 35; Siah Correa Hemphill’s fight to unseat state Sen. Gabriel “Gabe” Ramos for Senate District 28; and Pam Cordova’s challenge against state Sen. Clemente Sanchez for Senate District 30.

Progressive Democratic challengers want new voices in the state legislature

District Senate 38 Democratic candidate Carrie Hamblen got a boost last week in her bid to defeat incumbent state senate candidate and President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen. That’s because the race narrowed to two candidates – Papen and Hamblen – last week when healthcare professional and entrepreneur Tracy Perry dropped out, citing health reasons. Hamblen, who was the morning radio host for National Public Radio local member station KRWG for 20 years, would have likely split the more left leaning Democratic voters in District 38 with Perry. But Hamblen said the race is now, “more of a challenge for Senator Papen.”

Perry’s name will remain on the ballot. Hamblen is one of seven progressive Democrats running for state senate seats in the upcoming June 2 primary against a group of more conservative-leaning Democrats.

Immigrants left out

Without relief aid from the federal and state government, immigrant families could suffer homelessness and hunger. Amber Wallin, NM Voices for Children’s deputy director, said that without any aid during the public health emergency and economic crisis, the crisis will worsen for immigrant families, leading to homelessness and hunger. That could also mean there will be children who live in immigrant or mixed-status homes who won’t be prepared to learn due to hunger in the coming school year. Some immigrant-owned businesses will be unable to restart, leading to more job losses, she said. “We had huge challenges already.

Only a few reproductive justice bills pass in the 2020 legislative session

Of the 12 reproductive justice bills prefiled or introduced in this year’s legislative session, only two made it to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk. HB 25 enables pregnant workers and new moms to seek “reasonable accommodations,” to perform their jobs while pregnant or if they’ve recently given birth. It passed both the House and the Senate. The other bill, HB 21, is one that protects victims of sexual harassment, retaliation or discrimination in the workplace. Bill backers say it enables greater parity when the victim is negotiating a settlement with the former employer.

Insurance handout is coming, say backers of health fund bill that stalled

New Mexico legislators are giving a handout to insurance companies, say backers of a bill designed to create a fund for the uninsured. 

The bill passed the House floor 41 to 25 earlier this week but failed to make it to the Senate Finance Committee agenda by Wednesday evening. It has to go through that committee before reaching the Senate floor. The legislative session ends at noon on Thursday. Adriann Barboa, spokesperson for a coalition of nonprofits serving the vulnerable called New Mexico Together for Health Care, called  HB 278 a “one-time opportunity” for New Mexicans to get nearly everyone in the state insured. The federal government made a change to give a tax rebate to insurance companies this year.

Senate panel trims 2021 budget

A cut here, a whack there — and a budget takes form. But not without some acrimony. The Senate Finance Committee released considerable changes to the state’s main budget bill Tuesday, trimming the House’s spending plan in high-visibility areas such as roads and teacher pay raises, and scaling down one of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s most prized pieces of legislation, the Opportunity Scholarship. The committee unanimously approved its amendments to House Bill 2, which calls for a $7.6 billion budget for the 2021 fiscal year, and moves the legislation to the Senate floor. That would represent a 7.6 percent increase over the current year and would target reserves at 25 percent.