SANTA FE – Efforts are underway to legalize and tax recreational marijuana sales, fund tuition-free college and shore up pensions for state and local government workers as the New Mexico Legislature convenes. Here are some things to watch during the 30-day session that begins Tuesday at noon.
Democrats control majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, with a commanding 46-24 advantage over Republicans in the state House. In the Senate, Democrats outnumber Republicans 26-16. The entire Legislature is up for election this year, ahead of redistricting decisions in 2021.
There are two newly appointed Democratic members in both the House and Senate: Reps. Daniel Barrone of Taos and Marian Matthews of Albuquerque, and Sens. Shannon Pinto of Tohatchi and Bobby Gonzales of Ranchos de Taos.
Women will hold a record 32 seats in the 70-member House, including 24 Democrats. Nine senators are women, including two Republicans.
New Mexico has the nation’s only unsalaried Legislature. Lawmakers receive a daily stipend of $162 for lodging, meals and minor expenses . Travel is reimbursed separately by the mile, offsetting one round-trip to Santa Fe per session.
Under the state Constitution, the session lasts just 30 days in even years to resolve budget, revenue and taxation measures. The governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, can add additional initiatives to the agenda by sending a special message to legislators. Recently vetoed legislation can be revived without a message.
The governor’s agenda already includes proposals to create a state trust fund to underwrite early childhood education programs, criminalize U.S.-based terrorist threats and conduct, expand the state’s health insurance exchange and provide tax breaks for electric vehicle purchases and small-scale solar energy systems.
The Legislature also can place proposed constitutional amendments on the fall statewide ballot. Likely proposals include a so-called taxpayer bill of rights from Republican legislators that would restrict annual state spending and tax increases and provide for tax rebates in surplus years.
Political battle lines are drawn on a proposal for red-flag gun legislation that most local sheriffs oppose and the governor supports. The Democrat-sponsored bill would allow police or family members to petition a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms. Similar legislation stalled last year.
The governor and leading legislators in the Democratic majority are pushing legislation that would legalize, tax and provide health inspections for recreational marijuana.
A first draft of the initiative includes automatic expungement of past convictions for marijuana possession along with subsidies and tax-breaks for medical marijuana. Approval is far from assured amid opposition from most Republicans and some conservative-leaning Democrats.
Several public safety proposals respond to concerns about crime in Albuquerque and the August 2019 mass shooting in nearby El Paso, Texas, that killed 22 people at a Walmart store. One measure would establish criminal penalties for local terrorist threats or conduct.
Salary increases are slated for state and public school employees at the same time that the governor pushes to shore up a pension plan for state and local government workers where unfunded liabilities exceed $6 billion.
Lawmakers continue to grappling with a state district court order that calls for greater investments in public schools. State government income has soared to new heights with an oil production boom in the state’s southeastern corner.
The governor is recommending an 8% increase in general fund spending to $7.7 billion, while a lead budget-writing committee suggests a 6.5% hike with smaller increases for child care subsidies. Both proposals set aside about $320 million a trust fund to provide investment income for early schooling and child well-being programs.
The budget proposals include $35 million to fully offset college tuition and some fees for as many as 55,000 New Mexico residents.