The Associated Press
Updated: January 21, 2020 10:28 AM
Created: January 21, 2020 10:25 AM
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s Democrat-led Legislature is looking for new ways to bolster a lagging public education system and open up new economic opportunities by legalizing recreational marijuana and providing tuition-free college education, as a 30-day legislative session begins Tuesday.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, is pushing for new investments in public education that include $74 million in new annual general fund spending on early childhood programs.
She’s also calling for the state to underwrite tuition-free college education for residents. A state scholarship fund from lottery proceeds already covers 60% of in-state tuition, and at least $35 million is needed to cover the remainder plus fees.
“Parents faced with the cost of sending students, many will say no,” said Senate Majority leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, a supporter of the measure. “It also encourages our best and brightest to stay in New Mexico.”
Other Democrats on Monday wavered on support for a subsidy that is not based on financial need.
“I’m concerned that this is going to benefit people who can afford college, or whose family can afford college,” said Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants.
Record-setting oil production is producing an economic windfall for state government, with state economists forecasting an $800 million budget surplus over current annual spending obligations of $7 billion.
The governor is proposing an 8% increase in annual general fund spending to nearly $7.7 billion that would provide salary increases to public school and state employees, help shore up a state pension fund and increase Medicaid spending to support increased enrollment and bolster mental health care services. A lead budget-writing committee in the Legislature supports a slightly more austere plan.
With a 30-day session, the governor has discretion over what policy items are heard. She has called for legalization of recreational marijuana, the creation of trust fund to underwrite early childhood education spending and a law to allow police or family members to petition a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms.
A bill last year to authorize recreational marijuana at state owned stores narrowly won House approval before stalling in the Senate. Wirth, the Senate majority leader, says that retooled legislation has “bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition.”
“I’m going to be working to find a version that can get to the floor” for a vote, he said.
Democratic election victories in 2018 set the state on a progressive political path that has included a surge in government spending on education and infrastructure and ambitious mandates for utilities to provide a greater share of electricity from renewable sources such as solar panels and wind turbines.
But arrangements by lawmakers to shut down a major coal-fired power plant are in legal limbo as elected utility regulators considering intervening over the objections of lawmakers. Lawmakers this year are proposing tax credits toward electric vehicle purchases and block grants that would fund energy efficiency improvements for low-income households.
“We’re going to be looking at community solar legislation this session to make it easier for small communities and small neighborhoods to access solar energy for their homes,” Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf told members of a business association in his home city of Santa Fe.
House Republicans plan to highlight concerns concerns that government spending is growing too rapidly. They are proposing a constitutional amendment to restrict tax increases and limit annual general fund spending increases to about 4% with mandated tax rebates when big state budget surpluses arise. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers to advance to a statewide ballot.
“We believe the taxpayers would solidly support this,” said Republican house minority whip Rod Montoya.
All lawmakers are up for election this year.
The Legislature appears unlikely to revisit efforts to overturn a dormant ban on most abortion procedures.
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