How lawmakers spend public money found “not germane” in a budget session

New Mexico’s every-other-year legislative sessions are, by definition, short. Just over four weeks. There’s a lot of legislation to cram in, including the state budget, and this year the governor is pushing for no less than legalization of recreational cannabis and free college tuition. 

But somehow, in a session in which only items pertaining to public money are allowed unless the governor indicates otherwise, shedding light on how some lawmakers spend that money has been found  “not germane.” And so far, the governor hasn’t included greater government transparency among the shortlist of issues she added for debate this year, or “on the call.” Her predecessor, Gov. Susana Martinez, championed some transparency initiatives. And in both the 2016 and 2018 short sessions, legislation to disclose publicly the capital outlay funding decisions of individual lawmakers was greenlighted for debate. 

This year, there are two sets of lawmakers pushing to lift the veil of secrecy about how lawmakers spend money for infrastructure projects.

Slideshow: Lujan Grisham gives State of the State address

The Capitol Building opened its doors to hundreds of people Tuesday as the New Mexico 2020 Legislative Session kicked off with the State of the State speech from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Two newly appointed Representatives were confirmed, Lujan Grisham briefed a joint meeting of the House and Senate on the issues at the top of her agenda for the 30-day session, and lawmakers began four weeks of discussion and debate to, in part, set the state budget for the next fiscal year. Below are images from the House and Senate Floors on opening day. 

A member of the National Guard carries the New Mexico State Flag during the presentation of the colors as the 2020 Legislative Session kicks off in Santa Fe on Tuesday. (Celia Raney, NMID)Newly appointed representative Daniel R. Barrone, D-El Prado, is escorted to the front of the House Floor to take his oath of office. (Celia Raney, NMID)Sen. Jacob R. Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, takes a selfie on the House floor of the New Mexico Roundhouse on Tuesday. (Celia Raney, NMID)Newly appointed representatives Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, and Daniel R. Barrone, D-El Prado, take their oath of office in Santa Fe on Tuesday as the 2020 legislative session kicks off. (Celia Raney, NMID)House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapelton, D-Albuquerque, asks speaker of the House Brian Egolf to invite Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to the House floor to give her State of the State address in Santa Fe on Tuesday. (Celia Raney, NMID)Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is escorted onto the House floor to give her State of the State address by Deputy Frank Montoya at the State Capitol Building in Santa Fe on Tuesday. (Celia Raney, NMID)Sen. Antoinette Sedillio Lopez walks onto the House floor at the Roundhouse for the State of the State address wearing a sash that reads “votes for women.” (Celia Raney, NMID)Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham addresses senators and representatives on the House floor during the State of the State Address, kicking off the 30=day legislative session in Santa Fe on Tuesday. (Celia Raney, NMID)Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham carries her granddaughter Avery out of the House Floor after delivering her State of the State address to lawmakers and a full public gallery Tuesday. (Celia Raney, NMID)Rep. Linda M. Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, talks with other legislators and opening day guests after the State of the State address Tuesday. (Celia Raney, NMID)Rep. Antonio Maestas,  D-Albuquerque talks with guests on the House floor after the State of the State address in Santa Fe on Tuesday. (Celia Raney, NMID)Regis Pecos, senior policy adviser for Rep. Williams Stapleton, talks with Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller after the State of the State address on the opening day of the 30-day legislative session in Santa Fe on Tuesday. (Celia Raney, NMID)Sen. Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, right, and Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, left, speak to reporters after the governor’s speech. (Trip Jennings, NMID)

Public education issues will dominate session, with focus on at-risk students

A short exchange at Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s town hall last month captured the magnitude of the mission New Mexico is on as it seeks to remake public education. A mother, a recent transplant to Albuquerque from Gallup, told Lujan Grisham that school officials said her 8-year-old autistic daughter couldn’t learn Navajo. 

“Because it would confuse her,” the woman said, confessing the information hurt and angered her. 

“This has been going on for years and years and centuries with our culture,” the speaker said into a microphone so she could be heard by the crowd and those listening online. “I want her to learn who she is, where she came from and her identity and growing up and being proud of who she is.”The woman’s complaint could have been lifted from a 2018 court ruling that these days is forcing New Mexico to invest big in educating students who’ve historically gotten less. Noting federal and state governments’ forced assimilation of indigenous children over centuries, the late state Judge Sarah Singleton said the practice led to a “disconnect from and distrust of state institutions, such as public schools, where Native American values are not respected.”

Lujan Grisham acknowledged to the woman the state’s imperfect lurches toward improvement as New Mexico tries to overturn decades of policy and funding decisions to better educate at-risk students, most of whom are from communities of color.The state is struggling “to get the cultural and linguistic requirements of every student met” despite increasing funding for Native American students, the governor said. “The fact that we are not doing it for you means that we have to provide more support for your school, to you and to your daughter,” Lujan Grisham said before encouraging the speaker to meet with her Education secretary, Ryan Stewart, who sat a few feet from his boss on stage.  The moment showcased one New Mexico family’s obstacles and served as a reminder that stories such as these likely aren’t rare in a state where a majority of the state’s public school students qualify for at least one risk factor.  Lujan Grisham and state lawmakers return to Santa Fe this month with that reality in mind after pumping a half a billion additional dollars last year into the public education system, which takes up nearly half of the state budget. 

Claudia Sanchez, a fourth grade dual language teacher at at Mesquite Elementary, explains how to round numbers in Spanish this fall.

Funding the Future: An early education trust fund

The term “trust fund babies” may evoke millennial hipsters in trendy urban neighborhoods living off wealth stockpiled by their more entrepreneurial parents or grandparents. It’s a lifestyle most working class New Mexico families perhaps wouldn’t recognize or even aspire to. But Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, sometimes has trouble explaining her proposal to create a revenue source to support the new state Early Childhood Education and Care Department. So she’s marketing the idea as a trust fund for the state’s 123,630 children under age 5. The analogy is a good one. 

The rich grandparents would be the state of New Mexico.

Locking up Resources

Lawmakers will be inundated with funding requests during the 2020 legislative session from across the state, as New Mexico sits poised to enjoy a second year of cash surpluses. It’s a good problem to have. Judges, prosecutors, police and public defenders will be among those in line for budget increases, as they seek to plug holes in the criminal justice system that have festered over the past decade. There will be a few criminal justice system reforms on the agenda as well. 

The cash infusions are sought to fix, at least in part, problems that have long bedeviled the state, including the nation’s lowest paid judges, stubbornly high crime rates and inadequate defense for people of modest means swept up in the criminal justice system in one of America’s poorest states. DA’s offices will be asking for more money to handle increased caseloads stemming from crime rates around the state that never seem to dip much.

Budget Boom: 21st century ‘gold rush’ fuels long wish list for schools, infrastructure

We pick up where our story left off last year. As in 2019, we find New Mexico’s fortunes glittering in a 21st-century version of a gold rush in the oil-rich southeast as state lawmakers prepare for the 2020 30-day session. 

Policy makers will have about $800 million more in revenue than this year’s state budget to work with when crafting the state’s spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. In an election year like 2020, it’s easier to partition a surplus than to cut programs and services, as state leaders discovered a few years ago in 2016 after a freefall in tax revenue forced painful choices. “We’re lucky to have the kind of revenues that are coming into the state,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told an audience last month at an Albuquerque town hall.  

There’s always a “but,” however, and Lujan Grisham didn’t disappoint. After acknowledging New Mexico’s gilded economic forecast, she recited a backlog of needs..“Our roads aren’t safe.

‘Major milestone’: Governor’s budget targets hepatitis C epidemic in prisons

Nearly half of the people in New Mexico’s state prisons are infected with hepatitis C, and for years, the Corrections Department has only purchased enough medicine to treat a fraction of them. But that may be about to change. The executive budget proposal Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham released Jan. 6 recommends $30 million in new funding for the Corrections Department for treatment of hepatitis C, with the expectation of curing most inmates by the end of 2024. This parallels an expansion of treatment taking place in other prison systems across the country, and would eliminate a focal point of New Mexico’s epidemic.It appears the money will pass muster with state lawmakers.

Teacher pay and other education priorities for legislative session

Sylvia Ulloa

There’s one thing most New Mexico policy makers and advocates seem to agree on as we barrel toward the 2020 legislative session on Jan. 21: Despite boosting pay for teachers and other public school employees in 2019, they’re not finished yet. Where the difference comes is in how much of an increase is needed and sustainable. Another easy observation? Education will be the key conversation at the Roundhouse, despite hot button additions like the “red flag” gun legislation Lujan Grisham proposed again Thursday in Las Cruces and the debate over legalizing recreational cannabis.