The Associated Press
Updated: February 20, 2020 05:08 PM
Created: February 20, 2020 10:46 AM
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A 30-day legislative session in New Mexico has produced bills that bolster restrictions on firearms, underwrite college tuition, shore up a pension fund for government workers and expand state oversight of vaping and e-cigarette sales. But a bid to legalize recreational marijuana sales fell flat.
Final decisions on the proposals and a $7.6 billion annual budget that includes an increase of nearly 8 percent in state spending are now in the hands of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Major initiatives introduced at the Legislature:
Under a red-flag gun bill, state district courts will get the power to order the surrender of firearms from people deemed to pose a danger to themselves or others. Relatives, employers, and school administrators can alert authorities when they suspect gun owners are in crisis.
As she prepares to sign the bill, Lujan Grisham has reminded law enforcement about their new obligation to use the extreme risk firearms protection orders. Dozens of county sheriffs opposed the bill on constitutional grounds, while supporters said new tools are needed to prevent gun violence following a fresh round of mass shootings, including the August 2019 killings at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, which borders New Mexico.
Lawmakers endorsed enhanced penalties for gun possession by felons but failed to pass a counter-terrorism bill that would have given prosecutors new authority to investigate and sanction threats or acts of mass violence at public venues.
New Mexico’s bid to become the 12th U.S. state to legalize recreational use of marijuana abruptly faltered this year without a floor vote. The proposal would have authorized marijuana sales in all of the state’s cities, towns, and counties.
The Legislature heeded the governor’s call to close a loophole that would have allowed nonresidents to enroll as patients in the state’s medical-marijuana program.
The House never voted on a Senate-endorsed bill to make it easier for Native American communities to implement medical cannabis programs without running afoul of federal law.
The governor’s so-called “cradle-to-career” approach for education spending resonated with lawmakers, who set aside $320 million in an endowment that will pay out investment returns to finance early childhood education programs.
Lawmakers also provided $17 million for the governor’s plan to provide tuition-free access to public colleges for New Mexico residents. The governor’s office has said it would cost about $45 million annually to extend the program to 55,000 in-state students. Two-year college students will get preference for the subsidy.
Another endorsed bill eliminated co-payments on public school meals for children living on the cusp of poverty who already qualified for reduced-price school meals and will cost taxpayers of up to $650,000 annually.
Vaping shops and other tobacco retail outlets in New Mexico will be licensed and regulated by the state to better enforce restrictions on sales to children and young adults. Lujan Grisham supports the bill amid a surge in vaping among youths. The federal government last year banned tobacco sales, including e-cigarettes, to people under 21.
Other legislation caps prices paid by diabetes patients for insulin prescriptions at $25 for a one-month supply.
The Legislature opened the way for New Mexico to pursue imports of prescription drugs from Canada on a wholesale basis in search of cost savings. President Donald Trump has said he wants to allow states to import many brand-name drugs from Canada, with federal oversight.
SALARIES AND SPENDING
Legislators increased general fund spending by $536 million, or nearly 8%, to $7.6 billion for the coming fiscal year that starts July 1 and ends in June 2021. It includes 4% raises for most public school employees and state workers.
Record setting oil production is behind the windfall in state government income. Republicans and Democrats alike warn that the spending may be unsustainable because gyrating oil prices have previously caused boom and bust cycles for New Mexico’s state revenue.
The Legislature approved public pension reforms aimed at easing $6.6 billion in unfunded liabilities for the retirement fund that benefits state and local government employees.
Pension contributions will increase for government workers and taxpayers. Annual cost-of-living increases will be tied to pension fund investment returns for the trust overseen by the Public Employees Retirement Association.
The changes are expected to improve city and state credit ratings, making it cheaper for them to borrow money for infrastructure projects.
A plan to spend $100 million to repair deteriorating dams failed to win approval. New Mexico is the state with the highest percentage of high-hazard dams that in either poor or unsatisfactory condition, an analysis by The Associated Press found.
Solar tax incentives were reinstated after expiring in 2016, providing an incentive of up to $6,000 for households and small businesses to install solar energy panels.
Other approved bills are aimed at spurring new investments and consumer spending on neighborhood-level electrical grid improvements and would defer some local taxes on industrial-scale utility lines that can open up new terrain to solar and wind development.
(Copyright 2020 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)