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Dollars and Strengths

Legislative preview: With the governor’s mansion and majorities in both chambers, Democrats eye policy shifts and spending priorities for record surplus

It’s been a common refrain in recent years: New Mexico officials are looking at a budget surplus—this time around, a record $3.6 billion in “new money” for a whopping nearly $12 billion in total projected revenues—as Santa Fe prepares to host a mandated, odd-numbered-year 60-day legislative session.

The state’s swollen bank account, predicted to see 11% more revenue than the previous year, comes courtesy of increased consumer spending and an explosion in fossil fuel production, the latter of which has prompted cautionary calls from some leaders of a land that in many ways is ground zero for the ravages of climate change.

But whatever the revenue source, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, and other members of her party who enjoy majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, are prepared to flex the checkbook’s muscles to address a host of long-lingering problems.

Pay even nominal attention over the next two months to the session that began yesterday and you’ll see big bucks pouring into New Mexico’s ailing education system—particularly as the state works to comply with a court order to provide adequate learning for Native students, English language learners and other at-risk kids. The governor is certain to sign off on nine figures worth of funds to hire more cops as the state faces soaring crime rates, driven largely by Albuquerque. Several aspects of the health care system will get financial boosts, as will programs to address homelessness and an affordable housing crisis that has hit especially hard in the capital city. And there’s no chance the session will adjourn sine die without tax reform and more rebates headed to the state’s residents.

Then, there will be the policy debates.

New Mexico has a complicated relationship with oil and gas. It keeps the state financially afloat in good years, but can flatten the economy during the downswings. Lujan Grisham is pushing for hydrogen again, so hyperbolic debates on that topic are sure to follow. The same goes for public safety. One of Lujan Grisham’s “public safety priorities,” according to a spokeswoman, is to again try to create a “rebuttable presumption” that would make it easier for prosecutors to have defendants locked up before trial. This could get tricky because key lawmakers, including House Floor Leader Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, have reservations about making defendants prove their innocence pending trial instead of the other way around. Abortion access will be another divisive issue, but much more along party lines. Yes, state lawmakers already did some heavy lifting to clarify abortion rights just before the dismantling of Roe v. Wade, and there’s more to come. (Read more about some of the big issues on page 12.)

Lujan Grisham offered a roadmap of what’s ahead on Tuesday when she addressed lawmakers during her State of the State speech—including her vision for the budget surplus.

“I am asking for $1 billion in economic relief—including rebates of $750 to each individual taxpayer or $1,500 to couples filing jointly—to help more New Mexicans afford the things they need right now,” she said before describing proposed tax cuts and reforms to the state tax code. “Everybody should be asked to pay their share, but nobody should face a burden that they cannot afford or limits their investments and potential.”

The governor’s speech marked the beginning of a return to normal after two years of COVID-19-driven Zoom screens and empty corridors that defined legislative sessions. Ahead of the first gavel, dozens of people lined hallways leading into both the House and Senate galleries, waiting to grab the best spots for the show.

But a different pall hung over the beginning of this year’s legislative proceedings: the arrest of a failed Republican state House candidate on suspicion of heading a conspiracy to fire shots at the homes of four Democratic lawmakers, Speaker of the House Javier Martínez among them. Martínez addressed the case Tuesday in remarks to reporters about what he hopes is a shift in political decorum this year: “It’s long overdue that we lower the temperature.”

With plenty to go around—for the time being—money will be a proposed solution for lots of problems this year. The state has about $3.6 billion in “new money,” or revenue beyond what was available last year. Some ideas already floating around include creating funds where that money will accrue interest, the tax rebates Lujan Grisham brought up and financing loan repayment programs.

Ambitious policy goals are right on par for Lujan Grisham’s first session since her re-election, and just as during her first four years in office, Republicans likely will be doing whatever they can to stall or even block Democrats’ legislative efforts.

No members of the Senate Republican leadership returned SFR’s request for an interview, and House Minority Leader Ryan Lane of Aztec steered clear of explaining his caucus’ strategy for either compromise or blocking bills, only saying there could be some agreement, somewhere.

“The Legislature, like much of life, is a relationship business, so that’s the thing we’ll focus on is issues where there’s common ground,” Lane says. “We’ll certainly try to work and get some good bills passed on that front. If there’s things we can’t agree upon, then of course we intend to represent the concerns across New Mexico in that.”

Republicans were disappointed last year, he adds, when a Lujan Grisham-backed crime package didn’t include signing off on keeping defendants locked up based on their charges alone. “Revolving door,” “career criminals” and “catch and release” will be common phrases when it comes to policy prescriptions from Republicans—and even some Democrats—for crime rates across the state.

Speaking of the spike in crime, people who watch the Legislature can expect debates, dirty tricks and recriminations around whether increased penalties and other iron-fisted proposals should rule the day, in some cases rolling back hard-won reforms to the criminal justice system in a state that for generations has snubbed civil rights. On the other side of the ledger, lawmakers will offer bills to clean up New Mexico’s draconian probation, parole and youth-sentencing schemes. Accountability measures for police officers who shoot more people each year than in any other state will be on the table, too.

The governor struck a decidedly conservative tone on the legal system in her speech.

“To the lawmakers in this room: This is a tough thing to ask for...This is me, on behalf of the people of New Mexico, challenging the brightest elected officials and staff in the country to do much, much more to ease the burden of crime being placed on far too many of us every single day in every single corner of our state,” she said, then reiterated her commitment to giving prosecutors more power in pretrial detention hearings.

New Mexicans are likely to see a handful of proposed financial boosts for the criminal justice system, too, including increased funding for prosecutors, public defenders and judges.

There will be plenty of room for Democrats to come together this year, but energy production, like some public safety proposals, will spark some disagreement within the ranks of the majority party. Specifically, Lujan Grisham and some other Democrats are pushing for a move to hydrogen production using methane—which could get New Mexico some of that sweet federal money.

Wirth, the Senate majority leader, tells SFR he’s torn on the issue because he’s got friends who work at Los Alamos National Laboratory who are “all in” on hydrogen, but he’s also for years represented constituents who have clean energy on the forefront of their minds.

“This is one of those issues that you never say never, but boy, I’ve got real reservations,” Wirth says.

On a slightly more unified front, Democrats are also expected to take action on access to safe reproductive health care through proposals that would write into law the protections of two executive orders the governor issued after the US Supreme Court’s dismantling of Roe v. Wade.

“Let’s codify abortion rights in state statute to make it the law of the land,” Lujan Grisham said to applause in the House chamber. “Your body, your autonomy and your health care choices are, in fact, your own.”

Bolstering the state’s economy is a priority most lawmakers can probably get behind, but it’s a matter of how that might bring differing opinions to the surface.

Wirth reminds SFR that while tax rebates may sound like a great idea—particularly to taxpayers—they are a one-time fix. He says his “immediate radar goes” up when he hears about such proposals.

“You don’t want to do a billion dollars in recurring tax cuts, because that’s what will come back and haunt us,” Wirth says.

Raises for public employees—namely teachers—is one way to improve the state’s public education problems and in theory give teachers more walking around money to spend, but there’s some disagreement on that front, too. The Legislative Finance Committee, for example, is pushing for a 5% pay increase for teachers in its budget proposal, whereas the governor wants a 4% increase.

Go through the two different budgets and you’ll find a list of differences on the budget, taxes and the economy; the end of the session should result in both sides getting a little of what they want, but not everything.

Read More > > Legislative Preview: The issues - A look at some of the high-profile areas lawmakers will tackle in the 56th New Mexico Legislature

Read More > > What Locals Want - Santa Fe-based lawmakers will likely be in the spotlight this session as they attempt to clamp down on firearms, refine cannabis rules and other priorities

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