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New Mexico lawmakers seek greater spending, voter access

Temporary election worker Joseph Banar, center, disinfects voting stations as a precaution against the coronavirus while a steady stream of voters participates in the first day of balloting in New Mexico, at the Santa Fe Convention Center on Oct. 6, 2020, in Santa Fe. During New Mexico’s legislative session that begins Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers plan a push to expand access to voting in New Mexico. (Morgan Lee/Associated Press)

SANTA FE – Critical decisions about government spending, voting access, public education and criminal justice await New Mexico legislators during a 30-day legislative session that starts at noon on Tuesday.

New Mexico state government has a multibillion-dollar general fund surplus thanks to pandemic relief funds from the U.S. government and a surge in oil production and natural gas prices. At the same time, the state is contending with shortages of teachers, police and nurses along with a spike in urban violence and concerns about the fragile status of American democracy and the environment.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Democrat-led Legislature are promising to increase spending, cut tax rates and improve public health and safety. Fall elections and a fresh surge in coronavirus infections loom over deliberations.

New spending

Proposals from the governor and legislative leaders would increase annual state general fund spending by about $1 billion to nearly $8.5 billion. That 14% spending boost is aimed at shoring up public school budgets and access to health care as the federal government winds down pandemic-related subsidies to Medicaid.

Public education spending would increase by more than $420 million amid new investments in child well-being. The budget would pay for more home counseling for couples as they become parents. Public schools would be required to extend classroom learning time.

Pay raises of at least 7% are proposed across public education and most of state government, with higher minimum salaries for teachers and hefty pay and retention increases for state police officers. Lawmakers want to reduce or eliminate the cost of a college certificate or degree in crucial professions such as teaching.

Republicans in the legislative minority want to extend public education spending to new choices and competition. They’re also emphasizing efforts to stem violent crime, rein in vaccine mandates and return public employees to in-person work.

Taxation

The governor and legislature are proposing a modest reduction in gross receipts tax on retail sales and business transactions, the single largest source of state government income. Current rates range from roughly 5% to 9% amid variable local tax options.

Republicans in the legislative minority are renewing efforts to end taxation by the state on Social Security benefits. Democrats may be warming to the idea under a bill that also increases taxes on tobacco.

Amid hardships of the pandemic, Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe says he hopes legislators will consider a new one-time tax rebate to essential workers and low-income families.

Voting rights

Democratic lawmakers plan a push to expand access to voting in New Mexico, just as Republican-led states implement greater restrictions. In Congress, Democrats’ major elections and voting rights legislation has stalled.

New Mexico’s Democratic secretary of state is seeking legislation to turn Election Day into a state holiday to encourage voting and create a permanent absentee voter list so qualified residents can automatically receive mail-in ballots before each election, among other election changes. Currently, New Mexico voters must request an absentee ballot application before each election in order to vote by mail or ballot drop-off.

The state Republican Party says the changes would invite fraud and confusion and put new pressures on county clerks.

Wirth, the Senate majority leader, says that “voting, and access to voting, is under attack.”

“I certainly support national efforts. But boy, until that happens, I think it’s critical at the state level that we make access to voting as easy as possible.”

Public safety

A long list of legislative proposals are taking aim at violence and urban crime, stoked by outrage over a record-breaking year for homicides in Albuquerque in 2021.

Budget recommendations from the governor include the creation of a $100 million fund to help recruit, hire and retain law enforcement officers and staff members across the state. A variety of enhanced sentences for gun-related crimes are under consideration.

A separate proposal would deny pretrial release to more people charged with murder or major gun- or sex-related crimes, revising the state’s no-money bail system.

Lujan Grisham said the burden would be placed on defendants, rather than prosecutors, to prove they would not be a danger to the community if granted pretrial release. Public defenders say pretrial release is not linked to increases in violent crime rates and that incarcerating more people before trial or conviction will ruin lives and harm communities.

Health, climate

In matters of environmental protection, Lujan Grisham has proposed a state “climate change bureau,” with a 15-member staff and $2.5 million initial budget, to implement pollution standards for cars and work toward a net-zero emissions state economy in coming decades. New Mexico is the No. 2 producer of oil in the U.S., behind Texas.

The Legislature will debate a low-carbon fuel standard that helps ratchet down pollution, and efforts to establish hydrogen production facilities using natural gas. The hydrogen proposal is opposed by environmental advocacy groups that say it would only worsen climate change.

In the health care field, leading lawmakers want to expand post-partem Medicaid coverage to guarantee enrollment for up to a year after births, up from 60-days.

In economic development matters, the governor is asking for money to found a training academy for the film industry and spend heavily on tourism advertising.