Education. Cannabis. Public safety. Last week, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham put forward some of the top priorities she wants lawmakers to address in the legislative session that kicked off at noon on Jan. 21. By law, the 30-day sessions occurring during even-numbered years are restricted to fiscal matters—budgets, appropriations and revenue bills—along with items called for by the governor.
Here is a look at some of the top issues lawmakers will address over the next month—keeping in mind the governor can add to her list and lawmakers have until Feb. 5 to file proposed bills.
In the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers, backed by Lujan Grisham, created the new cabinet-level Early Childhood Education and Care Department. "This new department is the vehicle," Lujan Grisham said in a release at the time, "to arguably the most important turnaround we must and will make as a state in the coming years." In November, the governor named Elizabeth Groginsky, a former assistant superintendent of early learning for the District of Columbia, as the department's first secretary.
For the 2020 session, "Education leads the charge," says Victor Reyes, the governor's legislative director. At the top of the list is establishing the Early Childhood Trust Fund, House Bill 83, to create sustainable revenue for early childhood education programs.
Katherine Freeman, president and CEO of United Way of Santa Fe County, says supporting the trust fund bill will be United Way's main focus during the upcoming session. The nonprofit's policy arm, the New Mexico Early Childhood Development Partnership, is working on a strategic plan that builds on a statewide needs assessment it conducted last year. Its findings included exigencies in recruiting, training and retaining professionals who work with young children, and highlighted "the depth of the workforce issues," Freeman says, and the "need to think about alternative models of credentialing and really an approach to workforce development that supports the long-term contribution of providers in the community."
Early childhood isn't the only high-stakes education proposal: Lujan Grisham's New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship would create tuition-free college for New Mexico residents; the proposal made big national news when she first announced it in September. The scholarship program would benefit an estimated 55,000 New Mexico students by covering tuition and fees at any of the state's 29 public institutions of higher education through a $35 million appropriation to the Higher Education Department.
Increasing teacher salaries also is in the pipeline. The governor's proposed budget includes a 4% increase for teachers. State House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, has called for a 10% increase. At a Jan. 15 legislative preview sponsored by the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, Egolf said during a recent visit to Carlsbad, he learned the salary for an entry-level teacher there is $41,000, while a job driving an 18-wheeler in the oil fields pays $100,000. "Both jobs are important," he said. Still: "We need to be putting more money into these districts so they can pay competitive salaries and we can get the best and brightest into the classroom."
A "tough lift" is how state Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, described to SFR the outlook for legalizing cannabis this year. Still, hope reigns eternal. The majority floor leader is not alone in anticipating the Cannabis Regulation Act will continue to face opposition—as it has in past years—from Republicans and conservative Democrats. House Bill 160 (and its Senate companion), sponsored by state Rep. Javier Martínez, is based on the Cannabis Legalization Working Group's recommendations, which were released last October.
In a press statement last week supporting the bill, the governor's office said legalization would generate approximately 11,000 new jobs in agriculture, manufacturing, regulation and retail, with sales reaching $620 million by the fifth year.
Emily Kaltenbach, New Mexico state director for the Drug Policy Alliance and senior director of DPA's Municipal Drug Strategies, tells SFR while the bill faces challenges, "we've been working on this for almost a decade, so every year, we chip forward, and this could be the year, if the stars align. And if not, we're going to continue to make progress." Kaltenbach also notes the growing public support. In December polling, 75% of New Mexicans supported legalization. "I've never in the time I've worked on this issue seen polling this high." Kaltenbach says. "So, the public is there, and I feel, again every year, more confident our elected officials will look at what their constituents believe and I hope their votes will align with their voters."
DPA also will be supporting House Bill 73, which would appropriate $150,000 for an Injectable Opioid Treatment Program study at the University of New Mexico to assess the feasibility of the treatment protocol. "If New Mexico actually does this, we'd be the first in the nation to do so," she says, describing it as "a tiny little bill that could have an incredibly huge impact for New Mexico."
One high-profile bill, SB 5, the Extreme Risk Firearm Protection Order Act, which is backed by the governor, creates provisions for law enforcement officers to confiscate weapons from people who are deemed a threat to themselves or others. "It's been a priority for the governor as a necessary step to make sure we're fighting against gun violence," Reyes says. "It's one of the pieces of legislation law enforcement say they want as a tool in their tool box."
"We're not a Pollyanna about the difficulty of getting it through," Reyes says, "but we are committed to making sure it passes."
Other public safety measures include creating penalties for those who make threats of mass violence; increasing penalties for drug trafficking; and HB43, from state Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, aka the Jeffrey Epstein bill, which would expand sex offender registry requirements.
As SFR reported earlier this month, think tank Think New Mexico has put forward several proposals to address what it characterizes as a retirement "crisis," in which more than 60% of New Mexicans have nothing saved for retirement, and 80% have less than $10,000. To this end, look for bills repealing the state's tax on Social Security, and ones creating a voluntary automatic deduction plan for private sector employees whose employers don't offer the benefit. Lawmakers also will consider ways to shore up the Public Employees Retirement Association pension system, which currently has $6.8 billion in unfunded liability through the PERA Solvency bill (SB72). Think New Mexico also is pushing to create professional requirements for the PERA board.
"There's no question the PERA board needs to get reformed," Sen. Wirth tells SFR. "I think there's overall agreement on that part of it." As for PERA solvency, "that's going be a real discussion and, certainly being from Santa Fe, and representing lots and lots of retired state employees, I'm very attuned to the challenges there, but I'm also super sensitive to the risk that exists if we don't fully fund the PERA and try and get the percentage of under-funded liability moved down."
2020 Legislature Dates:
- Lawmakers can file bills until Feb. 5
- The 54th Legislature ends at noon on Feb. 20
- Legislation not acted upon by the governor is pocket vetoed on March 11
- Any legislation that is not a general appropriation, or does not have a specified date, becomes effective on May 20.
Citizens can find bills through an online tracker, searching by bill number, sponsor or keyword here: https://www.nmlegis.gov/Legislation/Bill_Finder
You can watch committee and floor sessions online through https://www.nmlegis.gov/
If you'd like to track legislation during the session, MyRoundhouse (https://www.nmlegis.gov/MyRoundhouse/) is your best bet.
To find your representative, search by your address here: https://www.nmlegis.gov/Members/Find_My_Legislator
Special events, including speeches, marches and exhibits take place throughout the month. You can find the calendar here: https://www.nmlegis.gov/Publications/Social_Calendar
At a pre-legislative Jan. 15 talk with Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce members, the local delegation repeatedly invited constituents to come visit them during the session, with House Speaker Egolf noting, "You have the most accessible Legislature in the United States. You can walk onto the floor of the Senate or the House every day until the gavel comes down to meet with your members…please take advantage of that." With that in mind, here are members of the local delegation and their emails.
Santa Fe area lawmakers
Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, District 47: firstname.lastname@example.org
State Rep. Matthew McQueen, District 50: email@example.com
State Rep. Andrea Romero, District 46: firstname.lastname@example.org
State Rep. Jim Trujillo, District 45: email@example.com
State Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, District 24: firstname.lastname@example.org
State Sen. Liz Stefanics, District 39: email@example.com
Majority Floor leader State Sen. Peter Wirth, District 25: firstname.lastname@example.org
This story is part of the "Your New Mexico Government" Project (#YourNMgov), a collaboration between New Mexico PBS, KUNM Radio, and the Santa Fe Reporter. This endeavor is funded by the New Mexico Local Journalism Fund with public media support provided by the Thornburg Foundation.