By Sherry Robinson
It’s the last week of the busiest legislative session anyone can remember. To keep up with a record number of bills, the House has met at nights for weeks, and over the weekend the Senate added night meetings. Sleep-deprived legislators are all hustling to get their bills passed before the session ends at noon Saturday.
Over the weekend, dozens of bills passed both chambers.
The dental therapist program, years in the making, could finally become a reality for rural New Mexicans. On Sunday night, the Senate signed off on HB 308, which now goes to the governor.
HB 308 creates a new practitioner, the dental therapist, who would be licensed to perform certain procedures, working under a dentist’s supervision in under-served areas. Therapists must first be licensed dental hygienists. Tribes can create their own programs.
Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, called it a compromise bill. “Many groups worked together to create the bill,” he said. It targets tribal, rural and underserved areas.
The measure passed 30 to 12, with Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, voting no.
A second healthcare bill passed the Senate unanimously.
SB 337 would protect consumers from surprise medical bills from providers that are outside the consumer’s network. A 2016 survey found that 20 percent of privately insured New Mexicans, 36 percent of surgery patients, and 55 percent who visited the emergency room received surprise bills.
SB 337 prohibits surprise billing, takes consumers out of these payment disputes, and creates rules for the way insurance companies should reimburse providers for surprise medical bills.
A similar bill has already passed the House.
If there was any question that Sen. Clemente Sanchez had the right numbers in his minimum wage bill, it was answered by attempts to amend the bill. Democrats tried to increase the wages, and Republicans attempted to reduce the wages and delay the effective date.
Sanchez, D-Grants, successfully fended off seven amendments. He said he was bombarded with calls and emails and that he spoke to restaurant owners and other business people.
SB 437 would increase the minimum wage from $7.50 to $9.25 in October, $10 in 2020, $10.50 in 2021, and $11 in 2022. It creates a separate minimum wage of $8.50 for high school students. And there is no index.
“Our minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2007,” Sanchez said. “I tried to do something a little more reasonable.” Two years ago, both chambers passed another of his minimum wage bills, but former Gov. Susana Martinez pocket vetoed it.
Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, was opposed. “The minimum wage is something hardly anybody pays any more, but when you put a floor in, everybody wants a raise,” he said. “There are few people in business in small communities any more. A new minimum is just one more thing, and some can’t survive.”
Muñoz said, “I agree with the minimum wage. It’s right. It’s fair.” Most businesses are already paying around $10 an hour, and Arizona is at $11. In Santa Fe and Albuquerque, where the minimum wage is already higher, “employees will expect a trickle up effect,” he said. Too much of a rise will bring on automation.
The bill passed 27 to 15.
Law enforcement and healthcare
Three bills are on their way to the governor:
· HB 267 creates a data-sharing network among law enforcement and behavioral health agencies to improve public safety. The system would track individuals throughout the system, explained Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque. The bill passed the Senate unanimously on Saturday.
· HB 149, by Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, requires tribes to be notified when a Native American child is involved in a delinquency proceeding. The bill mandates notice to tribes at the time of referral and collaboration throughout the process.
· HB 137, by Rep. Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland, strengthens tribal and county health councils in their work of preparing and updating health plans and advising councils and tribes.
Allison, a freshman legislator, not only celebrated his birthday on Sunday, he passed his first bill. It’s customary in the House to sing a song, and Allison sang a Navajo song he used to sing to his daughter and granddaughter.
Finally, Sen. John Pinto, D-Gallup, and former Navajo Nation President Peter McDonald met Friday with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who said she supported SB 365, Pinto’s bill to create a Code Talkers museum, and planned to use a portion of her budget for the project. Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said that at least 22 senators from both parties would also use some of their capital outlay money to begin work.
Marijuana legalization passes House
By Sherry Robinson
After three hours of debate and as midnight approached, the House narrowly approved a compromise bill to legalize marijuana.
“We have the opportunity to legalize cannabis through the legislative process and really give it the comprehensive and nuanced process it deserves,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, on Thursday night. He noted that a poll last summer found that 63 percent of New Mexicans – and a majority in all geographic areas – support legalization.
Martinez and his co-sponsors joined three Senate Republicans to bring their two bills together in a new version.
“We believe this version is the right model,” he said.
The new HB 356 would:
Martinez said sales of legalized marijuana could reach $420 million in the first year and generate $38 million in revenues for the state. He proposes that most of the revenue go to the state’s general fund and that small percentages go to a community reinvestment fund, a health and safety fund for public education, a cannabis research fund, the local DWI grant fund, and a road safety fund.
The state would issue seven types of licenses for cannabis couriers, laboratories, manufacturers, micro businesses, producers and retailers. To prevent outsiders from reaping the benefits, licensees would have to show two years’ residency in the state, Martinez said.
Martinez’s co-sponsor and fellow attorney, Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said: “This is inevitable. State stores are the most responsible way to roll it out.”
Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, said the sponsors were creating a problem and then creating a solution. Sending money to a road safety fund “tells me that you think traffic safety problems will increase.”
Martinez responded that he provided for funding to law enforcement in the bill after visiting with two members of the State Police.
Several Republican members raised questions about road safety.
Maestas said that during his 20 years as a prosecutor, 80 percent of domestic violence incidents stemmed from alcohol and the rest from narcotics.
“Cannabis should never have been a Schedule 1 drug,” he said. Its use should never have been a crime.” Wild stories and the movie “Reefer Madness” led to the federal government outlawing marijuana in 1937, and drug laws of the 1970s kept it on the books.
“People have been taking it off the books state by state,” he said. “We have an opportunity to do it responsibly, with reasonable timelines and have money to deal with alleged social costs. These are all the same arguments we heard in 2007 when we voted to legalize medical marijuana. It’s brought a lot of relief to cancer patients and veterans with PTSD.”
He concluded, “Society is ready.”
The vote was 36 to 34. Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, voted in favor. Voting against were Reps. Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland; Wonda Johnson and Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, and Harry Garcia, D-Grants.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday signed SB 8 into law.
It expands required background checks on firearm purchases to include private gun sales and closes loopholes for online or gun show sales.
“Background checks reduce the rate of women killed by an intimate partner,” she said in a statement. “Background checks reduce suicide rates. Background checks reduce the rate of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. Background checks, very simply, keep firearms and individuals with demonstrated dangerous histories separate.”
Also on Friday, dozens of Santa Fe high school students staged a “die-in” to support gun safety legislation.
Several House Republicans have said they intend to repeal the law through a voter referendum that’s seldom been used in the state. And 25 counties, including McKinley and Cibola counties, have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” in protest.
Referendum supporters would have to obtain more than 70,000 voter signatures from at least 25 counties.
Violence against children
The Senate on Friday passed a memorial by Sen. John Pinto, D-Gallup.
The memorial said that sexual violence against children is “all too common in the Navajo Nation.” The Naabik'íyáti' Sexual Assault Prevention Subcommittee, created by the Navajo Nation Council, found that Navajo police receive an average of six reports of rape per week. In addition, 22 percent of Navajo children receiving health services were seen for sexual abuse or assault, and an estimated one in four Navajo children have experienced some form of sexual abuse.
And yet “many of these crimes go uninvestigated, and when they are investigated, they are often referred to federal courts for prosecution, where conviction rates are extremely low,” said the memorial. “These crimes and the lack of accountability for them contribute to a public health and safety epidemic in the Navajo Nation.”
The memorial asks the federal government and the Navajo Nation to take steps to protect children who are victims of violent crime and hold the perpetrators accountable.
A bill to preserve health insurance coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions passed the House on Thursday.
Currently, 332,000 New Mexicans under 65 live with pre-existing conditions, such as asthma, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. If pre-existing condition protections are eliminated from the Affordable Care Act, HB 436 would require insurers to provide a plan to anyone seeking one, regardless of preexisting conditions. The bill also describes essential health benefits that plans must cover, including emergency services and mental health care.
“Over a quarter of our population has a pre-existing condition, and this legislation is critical to ensuring that New Mexicans can access affordable health care plans,” said Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque.
The bill passed 40 to 24 on a party-line vote.
Medical marijuana reforms
By Sherry Robinson
New Mexico’s medical cannabis program would expand substantially under a bill that passed the Senate on Thursday.
SB 406 is the result of the Medical Cannabis Affordability and Accessibility Task Force convened by the Drug Policy Alliance last year.
“Several issues were apparent,” said Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque.
At the top of the list is the availability of medical cannabis. Some people live in communities without dispensaries. The federal government doesn’t permit people to grow their own on tribal land. Manufacturers have been unable to get enough cannabis to meet demand. And some patients complained about the state Department of Health’s arbitrary limits or the loss of jobs if they possessed program cards.
Ortiz y Pino said the Department of Health was involved in amending the bill.
SB 406 adds protections for employers to ensure that the medical cannabis law doesn’t interfere with any drug-free workplace, and it forbids employees to use medical cannabis while working.
According to a legislative analysis, SB 406 would make it easier for patients with medical conditions to qualify for the program, and they would have to recertify less frequently. It increases the number of qualifying conditions, and allows the Department of Health to further increase the list. Using medical marijuana would not disqualify someone from receiving an organ transplant, and isn’t a criterion for child abuse or neglect. Finally, it allows the use of medical marijuana in schools.
The state has issued 70,000 cards, and the number is growing, Ortiz y Pino said.
The Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act hasn’t been updated since it was passed in 2007. Former Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a bill like SB 406 in 2017.
The bill passed 33 to 2.
DWI with child in car
A bill creating a new misdemeanor offense for driving drunk or drugged with a minor in the car passed the Senate on Thursday.
“If you get pulled over for DWI and have a child in the car, it will be an additional misdemeanor,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey Soto, D-Albuquerque, of his bill, SB 517.
“I support the bill,” said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup. “It seems like there are always children involved in our area.”
Ivey Soto said the bill improves record keeping. “If you’re a repeat offender, (the Children Youth and Families Department) and the judge can see that,” he said.
“Are we being too harsh? Are we not being harsh enough? This bill straddles that line,” he said. “It adds a penalty that will stick.”
The bill passed 40 to 2.
If it’s possible to talk a bill to death, Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, certainly tried. Despite his four-hour filibuster Wednesday night, the Energy Transition Act, passed.
SB 489 would require New Mexico’s investor-owned utilities to use 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045 and phase out most natural gas plants. It mandates up to $30 million for plant decommissioning and mine reclamation. A $20 million fund would provide for severance pay and job training. And Public Service Company of New Mexico, which will close its coal plant in 2022, could recover its stranded costs.
In committee and on the Senate floor, Sharer tried to buy time for the power plant and mine that’s critical to his county’s economy by amending the bill to allow the San Juan Generating Station to remain open while a potential new owner builds a system that will attempt to reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent. The amendment promised a feasibility study by June 1 and construction by January 2023.
In committee and on the floor, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, argued that the amendment isn’t necessary because the city of Farmington can seek a variance from the Air Quality Improvement Board. He’s also doubtful that the proposed technology will work as promised. He thought the amendment would weaken his bill. The amendment failed.
After hurdling Sharer’s filibuster, multiple amendments and parliamentary maneuvers, and the round-up of senators previously excused for the annual charity basketball game against the House, SB 489 passed 32 to 9, with Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, voting against.
A related bill passed a House committee Tuesday.
HB 498, by Rep. Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland, would require PNM to replace its capacity from the closed plant with up to 450 megawatts of power within a year from the same school district.
“I worked in the coal mines, and I spent my entire career in the coal industry,” Allison said. “Energy transition is a fact, and national and global economic forces are driving it. It’s simply not realistic to think the coal plants and coal mines will be around forever, so we are fighting to ensure that workers aren’t left behind as we go through this energy transition.”
A bill requiring the state Department of Transportation to build fences along state highways has passed the Senate and two House committees.
SB 121 “would require livestock owners to exercise due diligence to keep their livestock off the highway,” said Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, on Thursday during a meeting of the House Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements Committee.
The department would also have to place signs along unfenced highways adjacent to property with livestock. If vehicles hit wandering livestock on the highway, stock owners would be liable for injury or damage if they were found guilty of negligence.
Transportation Secretary Mike Sandoval said that currently the department fixes fences if they’re within its jurisdiction and if it has funding. He was concerned about what happens “if we don’t have the budget.”
“That’s our only concern,” he said. “Whenever we can we will, but the language could hurt us in court.”
The department’s cost to fence a highway would be $16,638 per mile, according to legislative analysis.
Big education bills pass
By Sherry Robinson
Two bills intended to be a response to the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit were heard simultaneously Tuesday on the House and Senate floors.
After hours of debate, the Senate passed SB 1, and the House passed HB 5.
The two bills would increase funding for at-risk students and rural schools, pay for the additional days needed to transform K-3 Plus to K-5 Plus, and raise teacher salaries.
SB 1 was a response to Yazzie-Martinez vs. New Mexico and has $337 million and oversight meant to address the court ruling, said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.
“The court said we had good programs, but we weren’t providing enough funding,” she said.
The bill will pay for 91,000 students to participate in K-5 Plus. Its predecessor, K-3 Plus “has been “one of the better programs in narrowing the achievement gap,” Stewart said. It more than doubles the at-risk index and requires districts to write a narrative of how they’re using their at-risk funding.
And SB 1 includes “significant salary increases,” Stewart said. SB 1 would raise the three levels to $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000. HB 5 would raise them to $46,000, $56,000 and $66,000.
“This bill is an experiment,” Stewart said. “It lets us have enough money to do the programs we know work but tell us how it’s working.
One controversial piece of the bill is returning the small school size adjustment to its original purpose of helping rural schools. Charter schools across the state have been using the adjustment, but it will be phased out over five years.
A second controversial piece is capping the age of students at 22.
Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said, “There is no real good reason… to not allow older students to finish their education after age 22. This is a step backward. Many of these students, with a high-school diploma, would be able to get jobs.” He pointed out that newly confirmed Public Education Secretary Karen Trujillo is opposed to age caps.
The Senate amended the bill to phase in changes to small-school funding and give schools with adult students a year to adjust, along with some funding.
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, attempted unsuccessfully to add his impact-aid bill to SB 1 through an amendment and predicted the issue of how the state treats impact aid isn’t going away. He said getting projects through the state Public School Capital Outlay Council “has turned into ‘come kiss my ring and you can get your school.’ Every student should be equal, but in the impact-aid districts, we’re still behind.”
Stewart responded, “We’ve heard their concerns.” Increases in at-risk funding, along with capital outlay money for teacherages would make a difference, she said.
SB1 passed the Senate unanimously.
Meanwhile, over in the House, members debated the same controversial provisions, with the same results.
HB 5, said House Floor Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, “is the largest investment the state has ever made in public education. It’s a once in a lifetime game changer. Let us give the governor that moon shot.”
HB 5 passed the House 53 to 14.
A bill to treat Sacred Wind Communications like other rural telecommunications companies in the state passed another committee with strong support from the Navajo Nation and Eastern Agency chapters.
On Tuesday, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee passed HB 385, by Rep. Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup. It would make Sacred Wind eligible to receive funding from the state Universal Service Fund (USF), which provides financial support to rural phone companies whose customers would not be able to pay for service in their remote areas. Sacred Wind is currently the only rural phone company in the state that doesn’t receive support from the fund.
“What we’re asking for is parity,” said Badal. “If the fund is reformed, we want to be part of that.”
The Navajo Nation executive office and council expressed support through their lobbyist, Jay Santillanes. A majority of Eastern Agency chapters support the bill, said Johnny Johnson.
Sen. Michael Padilla, who chairs an interim committee on telecommunications, said the committee met last year in Yah ta hey and toured the area.
“They’ve done a remarkable job of building infrastructure in the area,” he said. “They’ve done what they said they would do.” He added that the money Sacred Wind spends on regulatory costs could be spent on broadband.
The only opposition was Public Regulation Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar who said the bill “undermines the authority of the PRC to do due diligence.”
Padilla said it doesn’t affect PRC authority.
“This is a vast region of New Mexico,” Padilla said. “It’s an expensive proposition. Who else has come forward to make this happen? Why else would 22 of 31 chapters endorse this legislation?”
The committee also approved SB 649 to appropriate $150,000 to support Native American filmmakers and projects.
Navajo filmmaker Ramona Emerson (“Mayors of Shiprock”) said there is no support in New Mexico for Native filmmakers. “This bill could be a fire starter,” she said.
By Sherry Robinson
Indian Country: Impact Aid
She didn’t pull a rabbit out of her hat, but it was a close legislative equivalent.
On Monday night, Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, got her impact aid fix passed by the House with just one vote against it.
“This is awesome,” Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, told Lundstrom on the House floor. “We finally have a solution to something we could never solve.”
For years, the state’s equalization funding formula has impoverished schools that receive federal impact aid, which compensates school districts with a high percentage of federal lands for the property taxes they don't receive. The state takes credit for 75 percent of impact aid and deducts that amount from funding it provides to local schools, but the state takes only a small credit for property taxes.
The area’s legislative delegation, with their combined four bills, tried first to fix the funding formula but ran into walls of resistance. Lundstrom and a subcommittee of her House Appropriations and Finance Committee came up with an alternative.
SB 672 earmarks 10 percent of severance tax bonding capacity for capital outlay projects for impact aid schools. The earmark sunsets in 15 years. It also creates a distribution for impact aid schools to do maintenance. And, contingent on action in the Senate Finance Committee, it appropriates $10 million from the general fund to provide educational technology to impact aid schools.
“It’s a very simple bill,” Lundstrom said. She said it’s a way to support impact aid schools without affecting the funding formula.
Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, called it a “very good compromise.” San Juan County legislators lined up in support because the bill will help Central Consolidated School District, which faces lost property tax support when the San Juan Generating Station closes in 2022.
Lundstrom explained that the bill doesn’t just throw money at the schools. They will still have to go through the Public Schools Capital Outlay Council and have their public facilities master plan in order. She said Gallup-McKinley County Schools could save its severance tax bond funding of $13.1 million from year to year until it has enough to pay for a project.
Minority Floor Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, observed correctly, “Had you not done this, and the impact aid was pulled out of the funding formula, it would have been a loss to all districts.”
The original bills would have removed impact aid money from the funding formula. Lundstrom and Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, both threatened to tell the schools to not apply for impact aid.
“This will help tremendously,” Lundstrom said. “It’s a new funding stream for districts that are unable to raise money through property taxes.”
Rep. Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland, said, “It takes a lot of determination and due diligence to put a package like this together. The beneficiaries are our children and grandchildren.”
The bill passed 66 to 1. It now goes to the Senate.
Energy Transition Act
With coal miners in the audience for a second hearing, a Senate committee approved the Landmark Energy Transition Act on Monday evening.
Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, tried to amend the bill to allow the San Juan Generating Station to remain open while a potential new owner builds a system to reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent. The amendment promised a feasibility study by June 1 and construction by January 2023.
The amendment isn’t necessary, said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, because the city of Farmington can seek a variance from the Air Quality Improvement Board. The amendment failed.
The city asked on Saturday for more time to negotiate with a new plant owner to extend the life of the plant, scheduled for closure in 2022. Candelaria said no buyers have been identified for the electricity, and the technology has only been used twice on much smaller applications.
SB 489 would require New Mexico’s investor-owned utilities to 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045 and phase out most natural gas plants. It mandates up to $30 million for plant decommissioning and mine reclamation. A $20 million fund would provide for severance pay and job training. And Public Service Company of New Mexico could recover its stranded costs.
Energy Transition Act
By Sherry Robinson
Farmington, trying desperately to save one of its power plants, has pinned its hopes on an unknown New York hedge fund. Those negotiations ran headlong into a massive bill to map the state’s energy future in a post-coal economy.
On Saturday, before the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee, Farmington legislators and city officials pleaded for more time, as members weighed SB 489, one of the most watched bills this legislative session.
The city of Farmington is negotiating with Acme Equities, which might take over the San Juan Generating Station, retrofit it with technology to slash carbon emissions by 90 percent, and sell the byproduct carbons. However, the technology has never been applied to an operation of San Juan’s size, and Acme has no track record with power plants.
SB 489, the Energy Transition Act, is all about setting New Mexico on a path toward renewable energy. It would require New Mexico’s investor-owned utilities to use 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045 and phase out most natural gas plants.
The bill tries to give communities with coal-fired power plants a softer landing by mandating that abandonment costs would have to include up to $30 million for plant decommissioning and mine reclamation. A $20 million fund would provide severance pay and job training. To help utilities, it creates a way to finance the retirement of coal plants called securitization that would let the utility recover its costs. Replacement power sources would have to be built in the school district. Finally, the bill limits air emissions, assuring that the San Juan won’t operate as a coal-fired plant after 2023.
Public Service Company of New Mexico, the majority owner, plans to shut down the plant and mine in 2022. Currently the operations employ about 450 people and indirectly employ another 1,100.
The bill would also apply to the Four Corners Power Plant, scheduled to close in 2031, but it doesn’t apply to the Escalante Generating Station and its mines, near Prewitt.
Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, asked, “Why are we in such a rush to close the plant?”
His amendment would allow the San Juan to operate as is until 2030.
Farmington City Manager Rob Mayes said city officials appreciate the bill and need it.
“We’re asking for offers to see if we can create a win-win, an opportunity to extend the life of the plant through carbon sequestration,” he said. “We just need time to bring a plan forward. We’ve only been at this for two months with this group.”
The bill’s sponsors argue that the technology is largely untried.
Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants and the committee’s chairman, expressed sympathy for Farmington.
“It’s very, very difficult to replace an industry,” he said. The bill and its goals for renewable energy would “help a little bit, but you need a replacement industry.” Grants, he said, has still not recovered from the closure of its mines and neither has Raton. “My predecessor, (Sen.) Joe Fidel, worked on bringing corrections in. Otherwise, it would have been worse.”
Sanchez also said he didn’t think the bill’s sponsors had consulted with the tribes. “Those transmission lines go through Laguna. How can they participate?”
After more than three hours of discussion, Sanchez said the committee would take up the bill again on Monday.
By Sherry Robinson
The Democrats’ big tax measure passed late Friday in the House is now before the Senate.
“It won't pass in its present form,” said Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants. “It'll look very different after it leaves the Senate.”
Although committee debates of HB 6 were heated at times, the three-hour House debate was cordial.
Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, said the goal was to take the wild swings out of the budget process, to broaden the tax base, and to support education reforms.
HB 6 would increase taxes for higher earners. Families earning $300,000 or more would pay 6.5 percent, up from the current 4.9 percent. It would double the working family tax credit and provide a $4,000 deduction for dependents. The excise tax on motor vehicles would increase from 3 percent to 4.2 percent. And some of the capital gains deduction would go away.
Hospitals, for-profit or nonprofit, would all pay taxes, but the Legislature will put more money into Medicaid, and because they get a 4-to-1 match from the federal government, it’s a plus for hospitals.
Taxing online retail sales would level the playing field with local stores; retailers have complained for years that giving online sales a pass was unfair to them.
Taxes would increase on cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and tobacco products.
Big companies operating in multiple states would pay corporate taxes calculated by combined reporting.
The changes would raise $356 million in FY20.
House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said, “As we’ve exposed our differences in beliefs about what will take New Mexico to the next level,” he said he couldn’t remember a time when anti-business sentiment was so prevalent. “I know that’s not your intent,” he told Martinez. “What we really need is to provide jobs and opportunities. You won’t get it by taxing people at a higher level.”
Republicans argued that the tax increases were unthinkable in a year with the biggest surplus in state history.
Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, called the measure reasonable. “We can’t sacrifice constitutional government on the altar of a no-tax-increase pledge.” He said Republicans had repeatedly said no to the state’s needs in the name of less government.
“When you drive petroleum trucks on two-lane highways with a death every other week, that’s less government,” he said.
He added, “We’re not taxing corporations. We’re only taxing cars and cigarettes, and those taxes have been historically low.”
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said that tax cuts in 2003, along with a host of gross receipts tax breaks, have eroded the state’s tax base and put it on a course of relentless budget cutting. “We have an opportunity to set things right.”
“The attack on New Mexico business is a figment of the other party’s imagination,” Egolf said. “How are those businesses going to succeed if they can’t hire educated, trained workers? If they lack roads and broadband?
“For eight years K-12 education has seen cuts after cuts and stagnation, and we have the educational outcomes to show for it. We have crumbling schools. Our teachers deserve more. Our hospitals are strained. Our roads are in tatters. Broadband is unavailable.”
The bill passed 40 to 25 on a party-line vote, with two Democrats joining Republicans.
Impact Aid for schools
By Sherry Robinson
State government has its sacred cows. One of them is the equalization formula that determines funding for schools. Created in 1974, the complex formula was supposed to put the state's schools, rich and poor, on an equal footing. Mention changing it, and a thousand defenders bar the way.
At least, that's the way it seems to superintendents of the Gallup-McKinley and Zuni school districts and the legislators that that have picked up their lances and mounted their horses to do battle over impact aid.
When the legislative session opened, area lawmakers joined to introduce four bills to remove impact aid from the funding formula. Federal impact aid compensates school districts with a high percentage of federal lands for the property taxes they don't receive. The funding formula allows the state to take credit for 75 percent of impact aid and deducts that amount from funding it provides to local schools, but the state takes only a small credit for property taxes.
In hearings so far this session, legislative committee members recognized the unfairness of the formula, but some are reluctant to tinker with the funding formula, while others were more concerned with the impact on their own school districts.
"House Ed was never going to let that happen," said Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, because "it's controlled by Albuquerque Public Schools."
The APS lobbyist was adamantly opposed to the early bills, and five House Education committee members are APS employees.
So Lundstrom is taking another run at the problem from a different direction. On Thursday, her House Appropriations and Finance Committee approved HB 672, which doesn't touch the funding formula and aims instead at capital outlay.
Jvanna Hanks, assistant superintendent of business services for Gallup McKinley County School, points out that lawmakers have changed the formula 80 times but not to relieve the impact aid schools. This year is different. For the first time, tribes and impact aid schools have united to make their case with the Legislature. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has testified repeatedly.
The bill directs three revenue streams at impact aid schools. It dips into the state's severance tax bonding capacity, which would otherwise be divided up for statewide public projects like buildings, by earmarking 10 percent for capital outlay projects for impact aid schools.
"It sunsets in 15 years," Lundstrom said. "It gives the districts 15 years to catch up."
A second stream would come from a distribution based on local tax rates and number of students. It's intended for schools receiving impact aid, except for Albuquerque and Los Alamos, to do maintenance, but they can also use it for roof repair or replacement, lease payments with option to purchase, or other capital projects. Additional money is available from supplemental severance tax bonding capacity.
The third stream is $10 million from the general fund to provide educational technology to impact aid schools.
The down side, according to a preliminary legislative analysis, is that it reduces severance tax bond capacity for other projects. And the Legislative Finance Committee analysts don't like earmarks because they take away the Legislature's ability to set priorities.
Gallup-McKinley Superintendent Mike Hyatt said LFC analysts have been an obstacle to reaching equity. They, as much as the education committees, resist changing the formula.
In FY20 bonding capacity would drop from $287.8 million to $252.7 million. But Gallup-McKinley could expect $13. 1 million; Central Consolidated, $10.2; Zuni, $3.2 million; and Grants-Cibola, $1.5 million.
Legislators are considering adding $20 million to SB 280, the regular capital outlay bill, for impact aid schools to fund teacherages.
If HB 672 survives, the estimated funding from all three sources would be $16.7 million for Gallup-McKinley; $11.4 million for Central Consolidated, $4.3 million for Zuni, and $2.6 million for Grants-Cibola.
Should legislators not be inclined to balance the scales for impact aid schools, there are several options. Both Lundstrom and Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, have said they would ask the districts to not apply for impact aid.
Another option is the courts. Zuni vs. New Mexico has never been settled, and Hyatt thinks Gallup-McKinley has an excellent chance of success if it follows the same path.
Zuni vs. New Mexico produced the current public school capital outlay process, along with the so-called "adequacy standards" that tie administrators' hands to this day every time they try to build. Projects that pass through the Public Schools Capital Outlay Council are held to adequacy standards, meaning barely sufficient, while wealthier schools can build beyond adequacy.
That, parents, is why your kids return from games and field trips to other schools astonished at the facilities other kids enjoy.
The legislative analysis suggests making passage of HB 672 a condition of ending the Zuni lawsuit.
In an unrelated development, Lundstrom's second public-private partnership passed unanimously on the House floor on Friday. HB 534 would allow local governments to enter public-private partnerships, or P3s, with the private sector to build roads and broadband. The bill was amended to exclude toll roads.
By Sherry Robinson
Two bills inspired by the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit passed the House unanimously on Thursday.
HB 111 would provide funding for rural school districts and rural education cooperatives to train teachers in skills they need to teach in bilingual and multicultural classrooms.
“It makes sense to support rural education cooperatives to train teachers,” said the sponsor of both bills, Rep. Tomás Salazar, D-Las Vegas.
HB 120 allows the state to receive grants to help pay for degrees or endorsements in bilingual or multicultural education.
Salazar said HB 120 has been in the works since 2015 to address a gap in teacher preparation and a decline in the numbers of bilingual teachers.
“This bill talks to the issue of the pipeline,” Salazar said.
Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, said, “This is a very much needed piece of legislation.” A former bilingual teacher herself, she said she’s seen certification drop, along with the interest of fellow teachers. “It’s critical we support this. When you learn in two languages, you’re better as a scholar. Your universe broadens.”
More than 75 percent of New Mexico public school students are culturally and linguistically diverse, and some 8,000 teachers with English learners in their classrooms feel they’re inadequately prepared, said legislators during debate.
The two bills represent half of the bill package supported by Transform Education New Mexico, a coalition education, tribal and community organizations formed to support the findings of the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit. The coalition includes superintendents of the Gallup-McKinley County Schools and other plaintiff districts.
The coalition also supports HB 159 and HB 171.
HB 159 is on the House calendar. It would add two new divisions for Hispanic and bilingual-multicultural education in the Public Education Department similar to the Indian Education Division and create a state advisory council for bilingual-multicultural education. Together they would oversee the educational goals of their respective acts.
HB 171 would increase minimum salaries for teachers to $45,000 for Level 1, $55,000 for Level 2, and $65,000 for Level 3 and extend the standard teacher contract from 9.5 months to 10 months. The bill would also extend the school year by 10 non-instructional days for professional development, in-service training, and other non-instructional events. It’s before the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
In other education matters, the House on Monday passed a bill to redo the state’s evaluation system for teachers and principals.
HB 212 would prepare the way for less punitive evaluations than those implemented under former Gov. Susana Martinez, said bill sponsors. Evaluations would be based on instructional quality, student feedback, growth in student learning, and professional responsibility. Student test scores would drop to 15 percent from 35 percent.
The bill passed on a 52-14 vote.
By Sherry Robinson
Democrats on Monday unveiled their revamp of the tax system and voted it out of committee on Wednesday, saying that it’s a reasonable way to stabilize state revenues.
Republicans objected to tax increases but supported some aspects of the bill.
More than two hours of debate on this divisive question before the House Taxation and Revenue Committee was civil for the most part.
HB 6 would raise $323 million by:
· Making the personal income tax more progressive, meaning tax rates increase for people with higher incomes. Families earning $300,000 or more would pay 6.5 percent, up from the current 4.9 percent.
· Doubling the working family tax credit for taxpayers eligible for the federal earned-income credit.
· Providing a tax deduction for people with more than one dependent.
· Taxing nonprofit and government hospitals. In return, the Legislature will put more money into Medicaid because the state gets a 4-to-1 match from the federal government.
· Taxing online retail sales.
· Increasing the excise tax on motor vehicles from 3 percent to 4.2 percent
· Repealing parts of the capital gains deduction in personal income taxes.
· Increasing the cigarette tax from 8.3 cents per cigarette to 10 cents and tobacco products from 25 percent on the wholesale price to 45 percent.
· Shifting the calculation of corporate income taxes to combined reporting.
Committee Chairman Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, said the bill raises revenues, makes tax rates progressive, and relieves the state’s dependence on oil and gas revenues.
“This is a breathtaking tax proposal,” said Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington. “We’re about to increase our income tax 25 percent. That’s a huge increase.”
Trujillo’s response was blunt: “We didn’t accomplish anything when your party was in charge. You left us a mess. We have to put money into education based on a court decision. Our roads are a mess. You let ‘em deteriorate.”
He added that it’s ridiculous that one person earning $30,000 and another earning $200,000 both pay taxes at the rate of 4.9 percent.
Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said, “I think we can agree that our previous chief executive didn’t walk on water – nobody will say I was a fan – but we weren’t in control of both chambers.”
Harper, the author of past tax reform bills, liked the internet tax, combined reporting, and taxation of Los Alamos National Laboratory. “If these were the contents of this bill, I’d be running and shouting,” he said. But the revenue generating part of the bill “will hit every single family.”
Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, said: “There’s a reason 15 Democrats were elected to the House. People were asking for change. (Former Gov.) Susana Martinez bragged about having a lower corporate tax rate, but we couldn’t pay jurors for our trials.”
Other Democrats pointed out the thousands of cases that district attorneys couldn’t prosecute for lack of staff and funding, along with understaffing throughout state government.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said it’s common to look at neighboring states and compare tax rates, but there’s no evidence that the tax systems of Arizona or Utah are responsible for their success.
“We have an educational moonshot,” Egolf said, referring to proposed spending. “The Republican alternative would spend half as much. This is a recipe for a consent decree from the judge.”
In the last 16 years, personal income taxes have been cut in half and corporate income taxes have been cut even farther. “We’re nudging it back,” he said.
Lawmakers also had to fix problems created by the Trump tax bill at a cost of $50 million.
HB 6 “doesn’t harm the incomes of working families except for a few dollars’ increase to register a car,” he said. “We’re asking somebody who makes $90,000 to chip in another $500.”
The bill passed 8 to 5 and now heads to the House floor.
Native American issues
By Sherry Robinson
The good news is that two bills have now passed the House or Senate to make students at tribal colleges eligible for lottery scholarships. The bad news is the scholarship fund is insufficient, and lawmakers can’t agree how to fix it.
On Tuesday, SB 407, by Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, passed the Senate. Students at Navajo Tech, Dine College and the Institute of American Indian Arts would be eligible.
“It’s an issue of fairness,” Shendo said.
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said, “It’s about time that kids who have colleges on their own lands can get a lottery scholarship.”
Majority Floor Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said he agreed with them, but the fund is only providing 65 percent of tuition.
“We have to fund this program,” he said. “We need to deal with this issue one way or the other.”
New Mexico Lottery revenues have been flat for 15 years, according to a legislative analysis, as tuition costs have risen and more students have applied. The program originally covered all tuition.
The House version of the same bill, HB 363, passed that chamber on Friday. Its sponsors are Reps. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup, Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland, Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, and Harry Garcia, D-Grants.
“This legislation will allow students to attend college in their home communities,” Alcon said.
In related developments, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee passed three bills on Tuesday.
Sen. John Pinto’s memorial, SM 32, supports U. S. Rep. Deb Haaland’s call for a national investigation of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Tina Sparks, of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, said, “I hear stories at IAIA of cases not investigated, of cases not pursued. They’re broken hearted. There is no resolution.”
Because New Mexico has the highest instance of violence against Native women in its cities, Sparks said, “it’s important that movement comes from the state of New Mexico.”
New Mexico has 78 women and girls reported missing or murdered since 1956.
A related bill, HB 278, would create a task force to study resources for reporting and identifying the missing women and fund it at $100,000. It’s before the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
HB 149, by Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, would require tribes to be notified when a Native American child is involved in a delinquency proceeding. The bill mandates notice to tribes at the time of referral and collaboration throughout the process.
Louis said the Children Youth and Families Department has a pilot project with the Navajo Nation and Isleta Pueblo.
Second Judicial District Children’s Court Judge William Parnall said New Mexico is one of the few states that has a tribal notification law, “but it requires notification a little too late.”
“If the tribe knows the child, it may have services or procedures we don’t know about,” he said.
HB 137 would strengthen the structure and effectiveness of county and tribal health councils and give them a voice in healthcare policy. Its sponsors are Reps. Anthony Allison and Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque.
Currently, 33 counties and six tribal communities have health councils.
Thomson said she was aware that the appropriations piece of the bill was tabled in the Senate Finance Committee, but money remains for the councils to operate.
Reforming criminal justice
By Sherry Robinson
On Sunday, the House passed two major bills to both transform and reform the state’s criminal justice system.
The goal is to send fewer people to jail, lighten the burden on courts and corrections, and let prosecutors focus on violent criminals.
HB 342 would:
· Create behavioral health interventions for incarcerated adults and juveniles to help them transition back into the community.
· Provide funding to help counties with behavioral health services for prisoners.
· Expand immunity for reporting an overdose.
· Allow offenders to participate in pre-prosecution diversion if they have no convictions for violent crime. They wouldn’t have to pay for the program as they do now.
· Place a person on parole only for a felony conviction when the sentence is more than a year.
A second bill, HB 564, addresses probation and parole. It would require the Corrections Department to do risk assessments before sending people back to prison; treat technical violations of probation or parole differently to reduce the number of people sent back to prison; require that sanctions for non-technical violations are in line with the seriousness of the violation; and create “compassionate release” and medical and geriatric parole.
HB 342 passed unanimously. HB 564 passed 51 to 16; the opponents were all Republicans. The bills now move on to the Senate.
In other action Sunday, the House passed HB 234, by Rep. Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup, to add public service officers to the list of professionals authorized to transport intoxicated or incapacitated people to a detox facility and have them committed for treatment. Currently, the list specifies only doctors and police officers.
Public service officers are civilians that perform certain duties as part of the police department.
A Senate committee on Saturday avoided choosing one minimum wage bill over another. The Senate Public Affairs Committee passed both bills and suggesting that the two sponsors work together.
Restaurants, business groups and tipped workers continued their assault on HB 31, but they do like SB 437, by Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants.
HB 31 would raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $10 an hour in July, $11 in 2020, and $12 in 2021. In July 2022 increases would be tied to federal inflation rates. It would phase out the sub-minimum of $2.13 an hour for tipped employees and eliminate the tip credit for restaurants.
Sanchez’s SB 437 would raise the minimum to $9.25 on Oct. 1 and $10 on April 1, 2020. High school students would receive $8.50 an hour. Tipped workers would see their minimum rise from $2.13 an hour to $3 an hour in 2020, but the tip credit remains.
Phasing out the tip credit would boost labor costs by as much as 400 percent, according to the Association of Commerce and Industry.
On Saturday Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, removed the phase-out of the tipped wage from his HB 31.
The bill goes next to the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee, which Sanchez chairs.
Also on Saturday, the Senate Conservation Committee approved SB 489, the Energy Transition Act, to shift the state to 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045. The bill would also provide economic relief for communities with coal-fired power plants.
Public Service Company of New Mexico, which plans to shut down the San Juan Generating Station near Farmington in 2022, supports the bill.
Marijuana legalizations pros and cons
By Sherry Robinson
Richard Ranger could be Exhibit A in the case for legalizing recreational use of marijuana.
“I believe the vast majority of my generation is using marijuana,” the Gallup man told a legislative committee on Saturday. “It keeps them away from alcohol.”
Then he added, “I can’t get financial aid because I was caught with a small amount of marijuana, and it’s prevented me from finishing school.”
Sponsors of HB 356, one of the marijuana bills, argue that existing drug laws have not only failed but created inequities and taken a heavy toll on communities of color.
“Prohibition hasn’t worked,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. “The war on drugs is a failure. It has its roots in junk science, classism and racism.”
Martinez said he grew up along the border in Juarez and in southeastern Albuquerque. “I’ve seen the violence the war on drugs created,” he said. “We want to legalize recreational use so we can turn this war on its head and fight the bad guys trafficking substances into the country. Cannabis is the biggest cash crop for the drug cartels.”
The 140-page HB 356, the product of four years’ work, would:
“We want to ensure the inequities of the war on drugs can be fixed in the best possible way,” Martinez said.
He said the bill does not legalize drugged driving or eliminate zero-tolerance policies in the workplace.
“It’s still illegal to operate a vehicle under the influence,” Martinez said. “It does not allow you to show up to work under the influence. If the employer has a drug policy, you still have to abide by it. It doesn’t allow people under 21 to use marijuana.” The penalties for selling to minors are the same as those for liquor.
Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said New Mexico would be the second state to legalize marijuana legislatively. Other states have done it by referendum and had problems because they weren’t prepared with laws and regulations.
“This allows us to get out in front of the issues,” Maestas said. “We can have the best law in the country.”
Comments from the public were largely in favor of the bill.
Chief Public Defender Ben Baur said the bill would cut caseloads for his office, which has been severely stretched in recent years. “I don’t think we’ll see a rash of driving under the influence,” he said. “Marijuana should be legalized, studied and regulated.”
Brett Phelps, with the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said, “I have clients who still go to jail for these ridiculous, outdated, racist laws.”
New Mexico SAFE, a coalition of organizations supporting effective alternatives to jail, gave the bill an A grade, said Paul Haidle, of the ACLU. “It makes communities safer,” he said, and would generate $30 million in tax revenue.
A contingent of local residents, members of Strong Families New Mexico, said marijuana had improved the behavior of former drinkers and helped people manage chronic pain. However, the one medical cannabis provider in Gallup has such limited hours that people are still driving to Cortez and Durango to get cannabis.
Although two people argued that the bill would open a can of worms and encourage people to waste their lives, the strongest criticism centered on the potential conflicts with workplace policies.
The Association of Commerce and Industry has said the bill didn’t include enough provisions for worker safety and could even hamper an employer’s efforts to maintain a safe, drug-free workplace. The group’s CEO, Rob Black, said he wanted to see stronger language.
Committee member Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said, “You need to be clear that the bill would allow employers to enforce a zero tolerance policy.”
Sponsors responded with stronger language.
Jolene Foreman, of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled if there is a zero tolerance policy, an employee can be terminated. HB 356 is similar to Colorado’s law.
Committee members also asked about the tax and the ability of law enforcement to discern drugged driving.
Martinez explained that national tax experts recommended total taxation of around 20 percent, which is low enough to take marijuana from the underground but high enough to provide revenues.
Taxes on alcohol are much higher, Maestas said, because the social costs – violence and bad decisions – are higher.
Maestas said officers are adept at detecting drugged driving even though there is no counterpart to the Breathalyzer. “Case law is they’re guilty if they’re impaired to the slightest degree,” he said. “Everything the officer sees is admissible in court.”
The bill passed 6 to 3 on a party-line vote with Republicans opposed and now goes to the House floor.
Also on Saturday, the Senate Public Affairs Committee approved SB 577 to legalize marijuana but sell it only from state-owned stores. The bill has three Republican sponsors.
Last week, SB 323 to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana passed the Senate Public Affairs Committee.
By Sherry Robinson
Some families got an ugly surprise last year at tax time. Their federal taxes decreased, but their state taxes increased. That’s because, unlike 48 other states, New Mexico didn’t make adjustments for the federal tax cut passed in 2016 that had the effect of bumping up state personal income taxes by $55 million.
Legislators are trying to make it right this year with at least five different fixes. They also took steps toward tax reform. And two food tax bills are in the hopper.
Family tax fixes
HB 23, the “working families tax credit,” would double the tax credit from 10 percent of the federal earned-income tax credit to 20 percent. It’s passed one committee.
HB 18 would provide a child income tax credit that’s higher for low income levels and lower at high incomes.
Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, would create a $4,000 deduction for each dependent in his SB 300, provided the federal government continues to repeal the personal exemption.
Two big bills – one controversial and the other bipartisan – promise some form of tax reform and also repair the child tax credit.
HB 6 drew brickbats when sponsors rolled it out early in the legislative session. Initially, they proposed to increase income taxes for individuals making $23,500 or more, raise the gasoline tax by 10 cents a gallon, begin taxing online sales, eliminate 30 tax breaks, and reduce the gross receipts tax rate by a half percent.
That measure would increase revenues by $33 million a year by fiscal 2022. Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, argued that the state need stable new revenue streams to support increased education funding.
But municipalities objected that the bill would eliminate the “hold harmless” payments they receive from the state to help offset their losses when the state stopped taxing food in 2004. The bill also ran into opposition from business and Republicans.
HB 6 has been tabled in the Taxation and Revenue Committee for reworking. The new version is expected to hit higher income families, raise gasoline taxes to repair roads, and tax online sales.
Tax reform veteran Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, is back with a bipartisan bill. It’s not tax reform, he said, “but it sets us up for real tax reform later.” His co-sponsor is Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, who is vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
HB 579 does seven things:
· It taxes online sales. “This is a fairness issue,” Harper said. Retailers have long complained that online sellers have an unfair advantage because they don’t pay gross receipts taxes.
· It provides a child tax credit “to undo what the feds did” in the 2016 tax reduction.
· It makes the state’s compensating tax the same rate as the gross receipts tax rate. Currently, it’s a perverse incentive to buy outside the state.
· It uses a single sales factor to calculate taxes of businesses operating in multiple states. The current structure penalizes businesses for expanding in New Mexico.
· It structures a tax on nonprofits that captures Los Alamos National Laboratory but not other nonprofits.
· It repeals the investment tax credit and replaces it with a manufacturing equipment deduction.
· It eliminates a dozen tax exemptions that have expired or are unused.
Pat Block, of the New Mexico Retail Association, said his organization supports the bill and appreciates its fairness.
Bill Fulginiti, of the New Mexico Municipal League, said his group has tried to get internet taxation for years.
“There’s a lot we like in the bill,” said Bill Jordan, of Voices for Children. “Our concern is it doesn’t raise revenues. We’re expanding the budget. We need to raise revenue.”
HB 579 is also corralled in the House Taxation and Revenue Committee.
The measure has broad bipartisan support, Harper said, and makes structural changes that everyone agreed to. “We have a new governor,” he said. “She’s talking to us and working with us.”
Opponents of a food tax haven’t yet driven a stake in its heart. After lawmakers removed the food tax in 2004, they promised to hold city and county governments harmless by making payments, but local governments have struggled ever since.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has two bills that would tax food. SB 584 would add a local tax on the sale of food but allow local governments to opt out. It also eliminates hold harmless payments. SB 585 repeals the gross receipts tax deduction on the sale of food along with hold harmless payments but creates a gross receipts tax credit on the sale of food.
“We in Gallup live on I-40,” said Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup. “We need to get the semis to stay in one lane like other states do.”
On Friday the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee, passed Munoz’s SB 359 to require tractor-trailers to drive in the right lane and imposes a speed limit of 65 miles per hour.
“If you drive I-40, every truck is in the left-hand lane regardless of speed, and they clog up the road,” Munoz said. “They just whip out in front of you. They don’t care where you are.”
Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, and the committee’s chairman recalled that in December, he was on his way to an interim committee meeting, when a truck pulled out.
“I came this close to being killed,” he said. “It bothers me to this day. There’s a problem with our truckers. I drive I-40 all the time. A lot of them are not paying attention. This is a safety issue.”
In other actions, the House Health and Human Services Committee passed HB 535, by Gallup Reps. Patty Lundstrom and Wonda Johnson, which would appropriate $200,000 to provide homeless services in Gallup and McKinley County. The House passed HB 363 to make students at tribal colleges eligible for lottery scholarships and HB 308 creating a dental therapists’ program.
Shaking up the Game Commission
By Sherry Robinson
A bill that passed the House after long, emotional debate would shake up the state’s Game Commission.
Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, said he wants the commission to be less political and more stable.
“Our current commission has been highly political and highly unprofessional,” he said Wednesday night on the House floor.
Currently the governor appoints seven members – five from four geographical quadrants plus Bernalillo County and two representing agriculture and conservation. The commission sets policy for the Department of Game and Fish.
Under HB 263, the governor would appoint three members from each congressional district; only two could be members of the same political party. The Legislative Council would appoint four positions: one rancher or farmer, one conservationist, one hunter or fisherman, and one scientist with a master’s degree in relevant disciplines.
Last fall, 22 conservation, sportsmen’s and animal protection groups wrote to the two gubernatorial candidates to outline necessary qualifications for game commissioners. They must represent all New Mexicans, manage nongame wildlife along with game species, and improve transparency and responsiveness.
The groups complained that the commission “has become an increasingly partisan body that no longer reflects the will of the majority of New Mexicans and lacks the expertise to make decisions based on the best available science.”
Several rural legislators argued that farmers and ranchers would lose representation on the commission.
“Each one of us represents hunters, fishermen and trappers,” said Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell. “These appointments limit how our voices will be heard. We are going to have one rancher or farmer representing all of us in agriculture ho do take care of the state’s wildlife.”
Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, said the bill would reduce the geographic diversity and add members with little interest in game.
McQueen responded, “I don’t see this being stacked with radical environmentalists, and it’s no different than current law.” Without the bill, the state would have seven new commissioners. He wants to stop changes with each new administration.
HB 263 passed on a 45-20, party-line vote, with Republicans opposed.
A related bill, SB 417, stalled in committee.
SB 417, said Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, would modernize the state Game and Fish Department and mandate that it manage all wildlife “as a resource for the benefit, use and enjoyment of all New Mexicans, including future generations.”
The agency would become the Wildlife Department.
Opponents include the New Mexico Cattlegrowers, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides, and the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Bureau.
Supporters, including the Southwest Environmental Center and Conservation Voters New Mexico, argued that wildlife belongs to everyone and should be protected.
Speaking of wildlife, SB 158, makes another stab at dealing with wild horses that aren’t on federal or tribal land.
The bill, by Sen. Pat Wood, R-Broadview, would allow the New Mexico Livestock Board to catch an unclaimed horse without a brand or evidence of ownership on public land for the animal’s welfare and public safety and relocate it or adopt it out. The horse could also be euthanized because of serious illness or injury. The board has been hamstrung by lawsuits and wants a clear definition of “estray” (livestock running loose) and wild.
Sen. George Muñoz said: “People need to realize that wild horses are pretty to look at, but if we don’t do something we’re going to get overrun. This cures a lot of problems in our county.”
The bill passed the Senate 37 to 1.
By Sherry Robinson
Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, explained Wednesday, “We’re trying to get ahead of the game so we don’t find ourselves in the situation of San Juan County.”
HB 524 asks the Legislature for $250,000 for planning and development of the Prewitt Industrial Park. It’s the next step in the process of trying to preserve jobs at the existing cluster of power plant, coal mines, and cardboard manufacturing while attracting new industry.
Sponsors are Garcia and Democratic Reps. Patty Lundstrom and Wonda Johnson, of Gallup; Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan; and Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland.
In the last two years, the New Mexico Finance Authority has funded planning grants for four studies, and the Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments now has a site master plan for the industrial park on County Road 19, just off I-40, said Deputy Director Evan Williams.
The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee passed the bill.
In other actions, dental therapists and rural dental care passed a second hurdle Wednesday.
HB 308 would create a new kind of dental practitioner, the dental therapist, who would be licensed to perform certain procedures, working under a dentist’s supervision in under-served areas. Practitioners must first be licensed dental hygienists before becoming dental therapists.
An amendment exempts the state’s tribes so that they can create their own programs.
Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said he was concerned that “people may be hurt by a person who doesn’t have the training a dentist does.”
Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, said they tried to address that problem with additional training and compared the dental therapist to a physician’s assistant.
The bill passed the House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee.
Also passing the committee was HB 363, which makes students at tribal colleges eligible for lottery scholarships.
Lawrence Mirabal, chief financial officer at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, said tribal colleges are the only higher education institutions excluded from lottery scholarships.
Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, estimates that about 100 students would be eligible.
Committee Chair Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, said it would allow more students to attend school close to home.
On Tuesday night, the House passed three bills of local interest:
· HB 235, by Johnson, changes wording in a law to allow Licensed Substance Abuse Associates (LSAAs) to be approved to practice in the state. A state board has denied the licenses because of a disagreement over the wording.
· HB 149, by Louis, would require tribes to be notified when a Native American child is involved in a delinquency proceeding.
· HB 81, by Alcon, would prohibit an insurer from imposing a co-payment on physical therapy that exceeds the rate for primary care.
The Senate on Monday passed SB 251, by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, which allows foster children to get tuition and fee waivers from the state’s colleges and universities even if they’re living with relatives or in state custody. Munoz said the state’s public institutions agreed to the waivers. The bill fixes a law passed previously that excluded students living with relatives.
Wind power and eminent domain
By Sherry Robinson
Curbing the use of eminent domain by wind generators is the object of a bill by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup. It’s something both parties can agree on.
The Legislature originally gave the right of condemnation to certain companies, including utilities, said Bill King, of Stanley (son of former Gov. Bruce King). One wind company has found that by contracting with a utility, it can avoid negotiating with land owners and instead use the power of eminent domain.
“They need to negotiate with land owners,” King said.
SB 376 requires parties to agree on rights of way greater than 100 feet.
Muñoz explained that as wind companies build transmission lines from eastern New Mexico through the state to serve California, most are buying rights of way, but at least one has skirted negotiations by using eminent domain. It reduces the cost of transmission lines, but the savings go to company shareholders.
“If we send power to California, we should make some money off it,” said Muñoz during a meeting Tuesday of the Senate Conservation Committee. He sees it as a potential revenue stream to help relieve the state’s dependence on oil and gas.
Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association, said her organization supports the bill because it protects private property rights.
However, Rhonda Mitchell, of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, said its member cooperatives are often negotiating right of way for larger transmission lines. She said New Mexico needs to expand the transmission grid.
Muñoz added an amendment to exempt electric cooperatives.
Matthew Jaramillo, lobbyist for PNM Resources, said the bill would “hinder renewable energy development in New Mexico… We have to have a transmission corridor from eastern New Mexico.”
Senate Floor Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said he fully supports renewable energy, “but giving the power of eminent domain to private companies feels like something we should decide not to do.”
Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, said his daughter negotiates right of way for the SunZia line and so far hadn’t used eminent domain to acquire land.
“I have a problem with eminent domain,” he said. “I believe there’s a negotiated price out there.”
Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, sees a need for the bill to ensure that land owners are consulted and allowed to propose a different placement for the line.
“This puts people on notice about how we expand energy in the state,” she said. “Land owners are getting pushed aside and told, this is the way it’s going to be.”
Committee Chairman Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, didn’t like leaving the decision up to the Public Regulation Commission because “they’re closer to the utilities,” a statement regulators would dispute. He preferred to have the decisions made in court.
Muñoz argued that ranchers don’t have time or money to fight everything in court.
“Rural New Mexico matters,” he said. “These ranchers have no say. It’s not right.”
The bill passed on a 6-1 vote with Cervantes voting against.
The committee passed a second bill by Muñoz to keep the state Oil Conservation Division from using its reclamation fund to pay salaries. The oil and gas industry pays a tax into the fund to plug abandoned wells and do restoration work.
“We need to wake up,” Muñoz said. “Look at Gallup and United Nuclear. We spent billions on cleanup. New Mexico doesn’t use reclamation money for its intended use. We have almost 300 abandoned wells.”
SB 361 says the primary purpose of the fund “is to pay for contract services for plugging, remediation and associated restoration work.” It limits use of the fund for salaries.
Representatives of the oil and gas industry support the bill.
According to a legislative analysis, OCD did rely heavily on the fund up until last year, when it used just 3 percent of the fund for salaries. This year’s budget is for 2.7 percent.
The bill passed on a 7-1 vote with Cervantes voting against.
On Monday, the House Appropriations and Finance Committee passed HB 2, the budget bill, on a partisan vote of 12-6. Chairwoman Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said the committee had been working on it for weeks before the legislative session began.
This year’s budget is a whopping $7 billion, up 10.8 percent over the last fiscal year. Of that, $3.25 billion is for public schools. This is $449 million more than the last fiscal year, an increase of 16 percent.
Higher education would be in line for $848 million, up $45 million, and includes $1.5 million for dual credit programs. A one-time expenditure of $25 million would reinstate the college affordability fund.
The Children Youth and Families Department would receive $309 million, up $29 million. This includes $20 million more for early childcare, along with increases to children’s protective services, home visiting and domestic violence prevention.
The Human Services Department would receive $979 million for Medicaid and Medicaid Behavioral Health, an increase of $45 million. This is primarily to make up for reduced federal support for the adult expansion population, increases in managed care rates and increased admittances for inpatient behavioral health.
An increase of $20 million to $312 million will relieve some of the people on waiting lists for developmentally disabled programs.
The committee agreed to spend $150 million to pay down tax credits promised to the film industry. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wanted to pay off the backlog.
The bill increases reserves to $1.6 billion, or 22.4 percent of recurring appropriations.
“I am very proud of what this committee has been able to do,” said Lundstrom. “At the end of the day this bill funds our core governmental functions. House Bill 2, the budget, is the single most important bill that our legislature passes.”
The bill must now pass the House before moving on to the Senate.
Sandra Begay reprises UNM regent role
By Sherry Robinson
Sandra Begay, one of two returning UNM regents, said she hasn’t been pleased with the “turmoil the university has gone through.”
“I think there has to be more cohesion in this group to support the university administration, staff and students,” she said during a Senate Rules Committee hearing on Friday. “I think my role is to bring more collaboration, more diversity to the board, to give the people a voice and not have just a few dominate.”
Begay was one of five people whose regent nominations were approved by the Senate on Friday.
Begay, who is the sister of Navajo Nation attorney Charlene Begay Platero, grew up in Gallup and on the reservation. She said her father, Edward T. Begay, was a Navajo Nation council member, speaker and vice president. “My listening skills come from him,” she said.
As one of 13,000 engineers who is female and native, she asks, “How do you grow more people like myself?” She’s proud to have four nieces in engineering.
Begay spent 27 years at Sandia National Laboratories as a project engineer and recently became director of environmental health for the city of Albuquerque.
“I have a lot of passion for students,” Begay said. “When I was a regent, I was at every graduation. I loved shaking the hands of new graduates.”
She said regents must work with the UNM president, and if a president doesn’t work out to at least be kind “so they don’t leave a lot of dust and smoke behind.” She tries to be diplomatic, “but don’t underestimate me. I know how to put my fists up and get things going.”
Begay made it clear she doesn’t see the job as micro-managing the president. “I have a full-time job,” she said. Her focus would be policy.
She described UNM-Gallup as her alma mater and said she’s still involved with the local branch.
Begay and her fellow regents – Kim Sanchez Rael, Rob Schwartz, Doug Brown, and Melissa Henry – got advice and marching orders from legislators.
Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said: “You don’t work for the governor, you work for the people of New Mexico. You are constitutional officers (and can’t be fired.) Don’t buckle under political pressure.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham won praise from the Rules Committee from removing herself from directly nominating regents and instead appointing a committee to choose nominees.
The new regents join sitting regents Rob Doughty and Marron Lee, who were appointed by former Gov. Susana Martinez.
Rael and Schwartz will serve six-year terms; Begay and Brown, four-year terms; and Henry, a two-year term.
Bingo and raffles
It’s a simple bill to allow nonprofits and individuals trying to raise money for good causes to hold a raffle without breaking the law. But nothing before the Legislature is simple.
With their big majorities, Democrats, especially House Democrats, are moving at a fast clip to accomplish as much as they can during the 60-day session.
The Republicans are in no hurry. Lacking numbers to affect votes, they’re drawing out proceedings with lengthy questions and comments, and committee chairs are working harder to keep their sheep from straying.
HB 252, by Reps. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, and Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, exempts nonprofits from the New Mexico Bingo and Raffle Act but limits them to one bingo or raffle event per quarter or four a year.
On Saturday, the no-nonsense chair of the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee, Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, allowed Roswell Republican Candy Ezzell to tighten up the definition of nonprofits after Ezzell said she liked the bill and wasn’t trying to slow it down. But when Albuquerque Republican Gregg Schmedes wanted to ponder the likelihood of groups making campaign contributions with the money, Thomson cut him off.
Miffed, Schmedes voted against the bill, but it passed.
Protecting student borrowers
The “Student Loan Bill of Rights” is moving through the Legislature.
Intended to protect student borrowers from exploitation, HB 172 would try to prevent student loan servicers from defrauding or misleading borrowers by requiring them to register with the state and obtain a license. It would also create the office of Student Loan Ombudsman to investigate complaints and provide information.
According to a new analysis, more than one in five New Mexico consumers are now delinquent on their student loan debt. The report was released last week by the Student Borrower Protection Center, American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
The report also said New Mexico has the nation’s second highest default rate at 16.2 percent, New Mexicans owe more than $6.8 billion in student debt, and nearly a quarter of all borrowers living in rural New Mexico are severely delinquent.
Student loan servicing companies are largely unregulated and unlicensed by the federal government, leaving regulation and enforcement up to states.
Last week, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee voted 6 to 4, with Republicans voting against.
Midpoint in a very busy session
By Sherry Robinson
SANTA FE -- This year's legislative session hit the mid-point on Valentine's Day, and for Democratic lawmakers the session has been sweet.
"It's been incredibly busy. It's everything I hoped for," said Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, on Friday. "It's been dynamic and fulfilling to work with a new governor who wants to work with me. I'm happy about that. Grants-McKinley and the whole northwest corner has an opportunity to get things done."
Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, said: "We're moving fast on our side. Extremely fast."
Lawmakers have introduced 1,370 bills. This doesn't include memorials, which don't have the force of law.
On Friday, Lundstrom and her House Appropriations and Finance Committee got the updated revenue forecast they were hoping for; projections are unchanged since the last forecast.
On Monday, they will roll out a $7 billion budget, which has upwards of $400 million more for education. It also has $250 million for roads, more money for Medicaid and corrections, and a compensation package that will increase state salaries by about 4 percent.
After the budget bill will be the education bills, HB 5 and SB 1, she said. They carry most of reforms proposed by the Legislature to remedy failings described in the Yazzie-Martinez court ruling, as well as the funding.
Lundstrom is a co-sponsor of HB 5, which would increase minimum salaries for teachers and principals, create a new funding formula, and replace the small-school size adjustment with a different adjustment. The bill also increases funding for at-risk students and rural schools and expands K-3 Plus programs to K-5 Plus.
However, Preston Sanchez, an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said the new money for education isn't enough. Lundstrom and her co-sponsors of HB 5 would argue that it's plenty.
"We have a lot of money for at-risk students," she said. Funding for Gallup-McKinley Schools, through the state funding formula, would increase by 25 percent.
Although her time is limited, Lundstrom is also carrying a package of economic development bills. The first, HB 286, passed in the House Labor, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on Thursday.
HB 286 would allow local governments to enter public-private partnerships, or P3s, with the private sector to finance, build, and operate government-owned assets like roads and broadband.
"The P3 is a major economic development tool," Lundstrom said in an interview. "Transportation infrastructure drives economic development in Gallup."
Alcon echoed Lundstrom's satisfaction with the session. "Things have been good," he said. Communications are flowing between the Legislature and the governor. "The leadership does meet a lot with the governor. That's something that hardly happened before."
Alcon's HB 75 and HB 82 passed committees and are now before House Appropriations. One asks for $2 million to repair homes occupied by low-income people; the other asks for $2 million to fix homes occupied by veterans.
HB 123, by Alcon and Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, has passed two committees and is now before Appropriations. It seeks $2 million for the New Mexico Economic Development Partnership, which promotes the state and helps with locating of new businesses. The Legislature and the administration both suggested $1 million for the partnership.
Alcon said he's tried for 11 years to make students at tribal colleges eligible for state lottery scholarships. HB 363, which he sponsors with Democrats Wonda Johnson, Anthony Allison, Derrick J. Lente, and Harry Garcia, passed the House Education Committee.
"They can go to a tribal school and walk out with a bachelor's degree," he said. "The difference between an associate's and a bachelor's degree to a young person is $10,000 to $15,000 a year."
Some of the Democrats' initiatives have caused area lawmakers heartburn.
Alcon was a co-sponsor of a bill to decriminalize abortion, a measure misunderstood and misconstrued by some of its opponents. HB 51, doesn't change healthcare practices, said Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, who was one of five co-sponsors. It only removes an outdated law from the books. The bill passed the House last week.
Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, said: "This is not an abortion bill – this is a decriminalization bill, and we must come together to repeal this old law.”
Several of the gun bills prompted rural Democrats to cross over and vote with Republicans against the bills. Alcon said he hopes that by passing HB 8 to require background checks on gun sales "we will dry up the market for stolen guns."
Uranium Workers Day
Friday was Uranium Workers Day in the Legislature.
"Many Navajos worked in the mines and got sick. Some have passed on. We remember them today," said Sen. John Pinto, D-Gallup.
Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, said that he was a miner for Kerr-McGee from 1977 until he was laid off in 1984. Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said she worked at a uranium mill during the summer and winter vacations as a college students.
Pinto, Alcon, Lundstrom, and other area legislators introduced memorials "in recognition of the contributions of uranium workers and in recognition of the ongoing health and environmental impacts as a result of historical uranium industrial operations."
The Grants Mineral Belt, from 1948 to 1978, produced more uranium than any district in the world and employed 7,000 people at its peak, the memorial said, but hundreds of unreclaimed sites remain in McKinley, Cibola and Sandoval counties, said the memorial.
Lundstrom reminded the House that uranium contributed heavily to state revenues through the severance and other taxes, and the site clean-up should continue.
Restaurants, servers object to minimum wage bill
By Sherry Robinson
New Mexico House members passed a long-sought increase in the state minimum wage, but the bill still faces strong objections from restaurants and tip earners.
HB 31 would raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $10 an hour in July, $11 in 2020, and $12 in 2021. In July 2022 increases would be tied to federal inflation rates. It would phase out the sub-minimum of $2.13 an hour for tipped employees. It would rise until it reaches parity with the minimum wage in 2022.
Colorado’s minimum is $11.10 an hour, Arizona’s is $11, and both increase through 2020. Eighteen states have higher minimum wages. But Texas still pays $7.25 an hour, the national minimum wage.
New Mexico last adjusted its minimum wage in 2007.
Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, has introduced another minimum wage bill. His HB 437 would also raise the minimum wage, provide a different wage for students, and maintain the lower minimum for tipped workers.
Thursday night, during floor debate, Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, amended his bill to reinstate the tip credit but phase it out in three years.
“This is an honest attempt to take into consideration concerns raised during the hearing process,” he said.
Republicans said the amendment didn’t go far enough. They were still hearing from restaurant owners and servers who objected to a provision that would end the tip credit.
Restaurant servers typically trade shifts or pick up shifts, but the bill would limit the number of shifts they can take, said Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas. “We’re tying the hands of people who make their money at the table.”
Rep. Jack Chatfield, R-Mosquero, said, “I doubt that wait staff want to give up their tips.”
After the House Speaker cut off debate at three hours, HB 31 passed 44 to 26, largely along party lines. It now goes to the Senate, which will debate both bills.
SB 437 would raise the minimum to $9.25 on Oct. 1 and $10 on April 1, 2020. High school students would receive $8.50 an hour. Tipped workers would see their minimum rise from $2.13 an hour to $3 an hour in 2020, but the tip credit remains.
This is virtually the same bill that Sanchez carried in 2017. It passed both houses and was vetoed by former Gov. Susana Martinez, who said it would “have a disproportionate impact on our rural small businesses, without any corresponding protection for business owners.” In her veto message she also complained about legislative tax proposals, which had nothing to do with Sanchez and his bill.
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said he supports raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour. A second House bill that proposes a $15 minimum “would kill rural New Mexico.”
The Association of Commerce and Industry said that in phasing out the tip credit, HB 31 would “increase the cost of employees by 400 percent for restaurants.” The group also said the increases in minimum wages were too much, too fast. It opposes HB 31 and HB 46, which would raise the minimum to $15 an hour.
ACI described Sanchez’s SB 437 as “much more sensible,” adding that “ACI and most of the business community are supporting it.”
It would raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour this year and require the legislature to revisit the minimum wage for future increases. It also maintains the tip credit.
More gun debate
After lengthy debate with the doors locked, the Senate on Thursday narrowly approved SB 8, which would require background checks for all gun sales. It was the first anniversary of the school shootings in Florida.
Republicans argued that the requirement would make criminals of good citizens and that criminals could still obtain guns.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called it a “common-sense gun violence reduction measure.”
The bill mirrors HB 8, which passed the House last week.
As it was in the House, the debate took place under a “call of the Senate,” which required locking the doors to assure that no senator could leave. After the vote, senators congratulated each other on a civilized debate.
The vote was 22 to 20, with Democratic Sens. George Muñoz and Clemente Sanchez voting with Republicans.
On Wednesday night, the House passed HB 83, a “red flag” law that would allow courts to order removal of guns from individuals found to be a threat. Thirteen states have adopted the legislation.
The vote was 39 to 30, with Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, voting with Republicans.
As usual, the lottery scholarship program is getting a lot of attention.
SB 283 would remove the mandate that the New Mexico Lottery transfer 30 percent of gross sales but require it to turn over at least $40 million to the Legislative Lottery Scholarship program in fiscal 2020, $40.5 million in fiscal 2021, and $41 million in fiscal 2022 and thereafter. It would add forfeited lottery prizes beginning in 2023.
The bill limits operating costs to 17 percent of revenues in fiscal 2020 and drops to 15 percent after two years.
The bill has passed two committees, most recently the powerful Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday. It next goes to the Senate floor.
HB 146 would make financial need a qualification to receive a lottery scholarship. It’s passed the House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee. It will be heard next in the House Education Committee.
Taking education $$ from the poor, giving to the rich
By Sherry Robinson
Show me the money.
This was the message from the House Education Committee to the five legislators carrying bills that would allow local schools to use all of their federal impact aid money. In tabling HB 325 and holding HB 326, committee members made it clear they feared the impact on the state’s funding formula and on 74 other school districts.
It was the second hearing on impact aid to spark a sharp exchange between a local legislator and a committee member.
HB 325 would remove impact aid from the state equalization funding formula. HB 26 would phase out impact aid in the formula. Sponsors are Democratic Reps. Eliseo Alcon of Milan, Wonda Johnson and Patty Lundstrom of Gallup, Harry Garcia of Grants, and Anthony Allison of Fruitland.
Federal impact aid compensates school districts with a high percentage of federal lands for the property taxes they don’t receive. However, under New Mexico’s equalization funding formula, the state takes credit for 75 percent of impact aid funding and deducts that amount from funding it provides to local schools.
“This is my 11th year in the Legislature and my 9th year of coming before House Education with the same bill,” said Alcon. “House Ed has always been a dead end. Every time I come to a dead end, everybody tells me, we know there’s a problem, but nothing ever happens. I hope we can get some kind of movement on this.”
Martin Romine, director of finance at Zuni Public Schools, told the story about the coach who tells his team if they win, they’ll eat steak and if they lose they’ll eat beans.
“We’ve been eating beans and paying for steak, and we’re ready to sit at the same table,” he said. “Let us keep the money we raise so we can have the same facilities as other districts.”
Jack Hyatt, superintendent of the Gallup McKinley Schools, said: “Why are the most impoverished parts of the state providing most of the support? Why are the facilities so different? The funding formula may be equal on outputs, but it’s not equal on inputs.”
“It saddens me to see kids sitting in the hallway to have a class,” said school board member Kevin Mitchell. “It’s time our children receive the money they generate.”
Kathy Chavez, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, said: “I visited a school at Crownpoint where they cut a classroom in half to find space for special ed and put down a rug from the trash. I found that appalling.”
Other districts are in the same boat.
Central Consolidated School District has 1.8 million acres of reservation and 34,000 acres taxable property, said Randy Manning, a former board member.
“When Albuquerque or Santa Fe passes a bond issue, property tax revenues go to bond service, and the state can’t touch it,” he said. “In our district, none goes to debt service because the state takes the money. There’s a huge problem. When PNM closes, our property tax will go up 60 percent.”
Robert Apodaca, a lobbyist for the Jicarilla Apache Tribe, recalled the conflict last year when PED threatened to close Dulce Elementary School.
“We lost 13 teachers. They said we need to recruit highly qualified teachers,” he said. “In a rural school district, we have teacherages that aren’t what many people want to live in, but we have no ability to upgrade them.”
Opponents of the bill worried about the bills’ impact on the state funding formula, which has equalized funding to the state’s school districts since 1974. They also said other districts would take a hit.
Art Melendres, for Albuquerque Public Schools, said APS has 6,700 Native American students but wants the funding formula preserved. Otherwise, he said, “it will tempt other districts to think of themselves first.”
Kirk Carpenter, superintendent of Aztec Municipal Schools said, “We’re not opposed, but the way this is written, 74 districts would lose.”
Majority Floor Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, said she didn’t trust the sponsors’ promises to hold the districts harmless because a tax bill in 2013 broke that promise to cities and counties. “You haven’t shown me how we’re going to have this funding replaced.” She also questioned throwing questions of impact aid into the larger debate about education funding.
“It would be a mistake to think the equalization guarantee is equal. The floor leader knows that,” Lundstrom countered. “To make the accusation we’re making some kind of end run, I’m offended by that. I say that to one of my best friends up here. I hope this is not one of these things where we’re picking on folks for bringing an issue forward.”
In a legislative analysis, PED proposed three ways to resolve the problem: Increase Indian education funding, help with cultural programs, and reexamine the sparsity factor.
Gallup-McKinley used to be the only district receiving sparsity funding, but PED took it away, saying the schools’ reorganization disqualified it. “It was taken away from us five years ago,” Lundstrom said. “I tried to get it back, but it didn’t fly.”
PED also suggested increasing “the scope of property tax credits.” Said Lundstrom, “Where do they think we’re going to get property taxes?”
Several committee members observed that the problems are primarily with capital outlay (project money rather than operations money) and suggested working with the Public School Capital Outlay Council. That funding allows schools to build to standards the council defines as adequate, but it’s a far cry from projects in rich districts.
“It’s a feeling to me that it’s good enough for you guys,” said Lundstrom. “That’s wrong. It’s wrong. We’re predominantly a minority community. Good enough doesn’t do it.”
Pressed on where the money would come from to protect other districts, Lundstrom told the committee that the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, which she chairs, would look for a way to backfill impact aid in the funding formula. She said the $60 million is a small fraction of a $6 billion budget.
“My gut feeling is it will have to come out of reserves, but there’s no assurance for long term,” she said.
Rep. Tomás Salazar, D-Las Vegas said, “If there’s no backfill, this bill will have trouble moving forward.”
“The inequality exists,” said Rep. Natalie Figueroa, D-Albuquerque, who is a teacher. “It’s incumbent on us to do something about it. For nine years they’ve been trying to do this.”
HB 325 was temporarily tabled, and the committee agreed to hold HB 326.
A tax break for coal companies
By Sherry Robinson
On Tuesday, the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, gave a thumbs down to a bipartisan bill that would have reduced coal taxes by 25 to 75 percent in the next three years.
HB 347 was aimed at the Peabody Coal Mine in Prewitt and the San Juan Mine in Farmington. Its sponsors were Farmington Republican Reps. James Strickler and Paul Bandy, and Democratic Reps. Eliseo Alcon of Milan, Harry Garcia of Grants, and Anthony Allison of Fruitland.
With the contraction of the coal industry, said Evan Williams of the Northwest Council of Governments, “we’ve been looking for ways to not fall off the cliff.”
Strickler said the bill would give the industry a little more time.
Ben Shelton, of Conservation Voters New Mexico, said the decline of coal was economically inevitabile. “If we thought this would help, our message would be different,” he said. “This will just transfer the pain elsewhere.”
Jim Mackenzie, of 350 New Mexico said: “It’s tax relief, not economic development. I worked at the Escalante power plant. Grants has had boom and bust cycles. It’s part of life with a boom and bust industry.”
Scott Scanlan, a lobbyist for Farmington and San Juan County, said the bill would offer “some relief to an industry we know is going away.”
Rhonda Mitchell, of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association argued that baseline energy sources are still needed. “Taking the tax off coal would make the (Escalante power) plant more competitive.”
Tri-State is the second highest taxpayer in McKinley County.
Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, who spent 32 years as a coal miner, argued for more time and criticized some of the comments made, which produced a rebuke from committee chairman Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe. Montoya changed his comments from “harsh and uncaring” to “passionate.”
The big question came from Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces. “Do we know that this will extend the timeline?” Small concluded it wouldn’t, and Strickler said there was “wiggle room.”
Rep. Abbas Akhil, D-Albuquerque said there was no guarantee the power plants would last forever. “This technology is phasing out,” he said. “This is more of an economic development issue for the community.”
Akhil, a former PNM employee, said he wouldn’t support a tax break.
McQueen said PNM made it clear it would close San Juan Generating Station. “We need to do something for San Juan County, but I don’t think this does anything,” he said.
The bill was tabled on a 7-4 vote.
Several committee members referred to SB 489, which is intended to give San Juan County a softer landing after PNM closes its San Juan Generating Station. The Energy Transition Act would allow PNM to recover investments by selling bonds that would be retired through a charge to customers. It would also provide funding to help and retrain workers who lose their jobs in the closure. Utilities would have a 2030 deadline for providing half their power from renewable sources.
Organizations opposing the coal tax reduction support SB 489, and Montoya was opposed. PNM hasn’t stated a position on the bill.
In other energy-related news, Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, introduced a bill for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to reinstate a solar tax credit.
SB 518 would create a new solar market development income tax credit for 10 percent of solar installation costs in a home, business or agricultural operation for the next 10 years. An earlier solar tax credit expired in 2016 despite a bipartisan effort to save it. It’s credited with a 2,000 percent increase in residential solar installations between 2009 and 2014.
Rez utility wants to be treated like other rural providers
By Sherry Robinson
Sacred Wind Communications provides phone and broadband services to more of the Navajo Nation than any other company. It wants to be treated like other rural telecommunications companies in New Mexico.
Reps. Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup, and Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland, said they’ve heard for years from constituents who want connectivity on the reservation.
Their HB 385 would make Sacred Wind eligible to receive funding from the state Universal Service Fund (USF), which provides financial support to rural phone companies whose customers would not be able to pay for service in their remote areas. Sacred Wind is currently the only rural phone company in the state that doesn’t receive support from the fund.
“There’s only one company discriminated against in the state, and that’s us,” said Sacred Wind CEO John Badal. “The most underserved area in New Mexico is the area Sacred Winds serves.”
During a hearing before the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee on Friday, Badal said his company serves one of the most challenging areas in the state because of terrain and a low-income population but provides the highest speed broadband anywhere in northwestern New Mexico.
“We provide equal opportunity, dignity and a voice,” he said.
When the Rural Telecommunications Act was written, regulators didn’t consider the possibility of new providers.
“We are required to go through a different process and report every five years,” Badal said, and regulatory costs are far higher than in other states. “The first time took 20 months and cost $680,000, three times our net income the year before. We finally got an order.”
Mark Fleisher, lobbyist for Sacred Wind, said 14 companies automatically get money from the fund, but Sacred Wind has to apply for funds. “It’s onerous and expensive,” he said.
Allison said his area very rural and has limited communications.
“In an age with the governor promoting education, it’s disheartening to see young people come in to Burger King and McDonald’s to do their homework” because they don’t have internet service at home.
The only opposition to the bill came from Public Regulation Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar, who said the area served is within a sovereign nation. “The new president wants to prioritize broadband,” she said, but “transparency in the allocation to the phone company is not there.”
However, former Commissioner Lynda Lovejoy argued in 2012, “Other rural companies receive USF support – why not Sacred Wind?”
The bill passed unanimously.
The committee also passed HB 384, by Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, to help small businesses.
The Historically Underutilized Business (HUB) Opportunity Act, would require state agencies to use these businesses, which are at least 51 percent owned by a woman or minority, earn less than $5 million a year, and have fewer than 50 employees.
“We must build up our small business infrastructure here in New Mexico. When minority and women-owned businesses succeed, we all succeed,” Maestas said in a statement.
Similar legislation, passed in the 1990s in Texas, resulted in a $2 billion program that benefits small businesses, the state coffers, and state agencies throughout Texas, said Steve Schroeder, president of Real Time Solutions.
The House Education Committee on Saturday passed HB 5, which carries most of reforms proposed by the Legislature to remedy failings described in the Yazzie-Martinez court ruling, as well as the funding.
Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, is a co-sponsor of the measure, which would increase minimum salaries for teachers and principals, create a new funding formula, and replace the small-school size adjustment with a different adjustment. The bill also increases funding for at-risk students and rural schools and expands K-3 Plus programs to K-5 Plus.
During a lengthy hearing, representatives of charter schools and others testified against the bill’s provisions to eliminate the small-school size adjustment, and others objected to an age ceiling of 22.
Supporters of Middle College High School in Gallup were the first to speak at the hearing. Charlene Begay Platero and her son Joshua Platero said they feared the impact of a loss of funding on the school.
Lundstrom has previously explained that the small-school size adjustment was intended for schools from small districts, not charter schools.
The House passed a bill to require background checks on gun sales Friday night, following procedural mayhem that included twice locking the doors to keep members from leaving.
HB 8 would expand the state’s requirements for background checks. It has exemptions for law enforcement officers and for people who inherit a gun or receive one as a gift.
Supporters said people wanting to sell and buy a gun would meet at a licensed dealer who would do the background check.
Opponents said people in rural areas might have long drives to find a licensed dealer.
The bill passed on a 41-25 vote. Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, was one of four Democrats who voted with Republicans on the measure.
The House also passed HB 87, which Democrats called “a common sense gun measure to keep guns out of the hands of abusers.” It would prohibit individuals subject to protective orders from owning guns. It passed 37 to 28, with Garcia and Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, voting against.
Eastern Navajo Fair funding
The Senate Indian and Cultural Affairs Committee passed a bill to provide funding for the Eastern Navajo Fair and Rodeo.
SB 440, by Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, would appropriate $100,000 to support the Crownpoint fair. “It’s a huge event,” he said.
Johnnie Johnson, president of the Eastern Agency Council, said the money would be used to rebuild utility and water lines and other infrastructure at the fairgrounds.
And on Wednesday, the House Education Committee approved HB 359 to establish a Native American Social Work Studies Institute at New Mexico Highlands University.
“This legislation is about ensuring our Native American communities can trust social work professionals,” said Rep. Tomás Salazar, D-Las Vegas.
Poorest schools support the rest of NM schools
By Sherry Robinson
Discussion of two school impact aid bills got heated at times, but in the end one bill emerged from the Senate Education Committee on Friday morning. This is the committee where impact aid bills have gone to die in years past.
It helps that the Yazzie-Martinez court ruling, like being smacked with a two-by-four, got everyone’s attention. It helps that lawmakers have new money to spend this year. And it helps that people who sit on education committees have been educated on this complex subject.
“This is about what’s right and what’s fair,” said Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup. He and Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, are sponsors of SB 170 and 172.
Federal impact aid compensates school districts with a high percentage of federal lands for the property taxes they don’t receive. However, under New Mexico’s equalization funding formula, the state takes credit for 75 percent of impact aid funding and deducts that amount from funding it provides to local schools.
SB 170 would take impact aid out of state funding calculations in stages; SB 172 would remove it all immediately.
Earlier in the week, before hearing the bills, committee members got a briefing on impact aid from Joseph Simon, an analyst with the Legislative Education Study Committee. The major takeaways were:
· Each school has to apply to the federal government every year, but the government doesn’t fully fund impact aid and instead pro-rates funding. The applications are time consuming, requiring a form for each child and verifications of address (not easy for people with no street address) and tribal membership. It takes months.
· Some schools decide that for the 25 percent funding they get to keep, it’s not worth the trouble. If nobody applied for impact aid, all of the state’s schools would suffer.
· Other states allow schools to keep all of their impact aid. New Mexico uses an equalization formula, rather than property taxes, to calculate school funding and includes impact aid in the formula.
· Distributions are roughly equal among school districts. However, some districts can raise property taxes to pay for projects free of the state’s reach because the funding formula concerns itself only with operating money, not capital projects. Impact aid is operating money.
· Districts with a lot of reservation land or military bases don’t have that option. In the local district, 80 percent of land is nontaxable, and the district is always bonded at 99 percent of capacity, said Jvanna Hanks, Gallup-McKinley’s assistant superintendent of business services.
· The state doesn’t take credit for the federal money Los Alamos schools get, nor does it take credit for a grant to Las Cruces schools from the spaceport tax.
“We bring these bills partly out of fairness,” said Sanchez. “Los Alamos gets to keep 100 percent of their grant and their (state funding).”
Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said: “Los Alamos has bothered me for 24 years, but it’s a different grant from a different agency.”
“We can’t bond,” Sanchez said. “Look at our schools. Other districts have very nice facilities. It’s not a perception, it’s a reality.”
Stewart said people were worried the bills would unbalance the formula. “I’m tired of the perception that it’s not fair,” she said.
Munoz argued, heatedly: “Our kids drive 30 miles to play on a baseball field. When they go to Aztec or Albuquerque, they wonder why. Nobody has ever run a bill to take Los Alamos’s money away. I will tell my district to not apply for impact aid. How do you want to buy us out?”
Stewart maintained: “We’re suffering from underfunding of all schools. The Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit and increased revenue are an opportunity to right the ship. It’s our job to be fair to everyone. There is a perception that taking credit for impact aid is unfair to Native American children. I don’t agree.”
She said Gallup-McKinley schools will get a 24 percent increase in the budget bill. She wants to see how schools use their new money before changing the funding formula. Stewart also acknowledged problems in funding capital outlay at Native American schools.
The hearing room was packed with tribal leaders, all there in support of the bill.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said he’s noticed that Arizona schools get all their impact aid and put money into nice facilities as well as cultural and language programs.
“There have been some losers” under New Mexico’s system, he said. “That’s why the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit came to be. SB 170 and 172 would show a good faith effort to comply with the court ruling.”
Priscilla Manuelito, member of Gallup McKinley board of education, said “Gallup McKinley Schools are in dire need. The money the state takes from the district, we need those funds for our students.”
Stan Rounds, of the New Mexico Coalition of Education Leaders, said lawmakers should “assure that all ships rise and no districts lose.” Superintendents from Taos and Artesia both pleaded for “backfill,” new funding to replace impact aid dollars in the formula.
Lillian Torres, of Taos Municipal Schools, said: “If we don’t get backfill, we’re going to lose. I want to help Native American children, but we’ll get less (state funding). Every district is broke.”
Munoz promised committee members and superintendents that he would find money for backfill and address it in the Senate Finance Committee, of which he’s a member.
The committee passed SB 170.
Munoz said afterward that there’s money for backfill in a number of places. He said the budget has $50 million for another lawsuit, which would be better spent on schools.
They’re called P3s, or public-private partnerships, and they may be a way to get public projects built when money’s in short supply and add oversight where there is none.
Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, took her P3 bill for a test drive before the House Labor, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on Thursday.
HB 286 would allow local governments to enter long-term agreements with the private sector to finance, build, and operate government-owned assets like roads. A P3 board, staffed by the New Mexico Finance Authority, would approve agreements and ensure they meet public interests. The NMFA could participate in financing the P3 agreements through a P3 Project Fund.
The bill was endorsed by the Legislative Finance Committee, which meets in the interim between sessions.
“We have needs that are immediate and no way to pay for them,” Lundstrom said. One is a foot bridge over the railroad tracks or a tunnel underneath at Second Street.
“About once a month it seems like somebody gets run over by a train. We need a walkover or a tunnel, but there’s no money,” she said. “Carlsbad needs rail crossings and roads. We could have private-sector partners working with us.”
Lundstrom said that transportation is usually a five-year planning process, with road funds tied to federal funding.
“Local governments often don’t have the expertise to understand what’s a good project,” Lundstrom said, “but they use taxpayer money.” The NMFA has the expertise to do good due diligence, and the P3 board would be administratively attached to the NMFA.
“We have projects right now that can use this arrangement,” she said.
The bill got the enthusiastic endorsement of business representatives, but environmental groups were opposed.
Juan Acosta, lobbyist for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, said: “We were the first P3 160 years ago. It’s a concept that’s been around a long time, but the bill tries to give it more structure, more vetting. It’s an important economic development tool.”
Paul Cassidy, an investment banker who works with small communities, said, “It adds another tool to the toolbox.”
Dan Silva, of the Associated Contractors of New Mexico, said: “Infrastructure is already being done by the private sector. We’re trying to attract investment dollars, preferably from out of state.”
Eleanor Bravo, of Food and Water Watch, said her organization opposes P3s for water projects and added that P3s have had disastrous results in other states.
Conservation Voters New Mexico and the Environmental Law Center said there are transparency issues with P3s.
Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan and the committee chair, asked, “How do we know we’re getting the best contractor, the best materials for a project?”
Lundstrom responded that they have to follow the law. “There’s a lot of substandard roadwork being done now by local governments. There’s no oversight.”
She said the bill is a work in progress and she’s continuing to work on it.
By Sherry Robinson
Indigenous Peoples Day is closer to reality after passing the House Thursday evening.
HB 100, by Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, met a long-winded challenge by House Republicans, but even then only 12 members of the House voted against the bill.
The bill to rename Columbus Day mirrors similar laws passed in other states. Lente said he sees it as a way to honor the state’s Native American communities, tribes and pueblos.
Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said, “I’m concerned that we’re making a statement that could undermine folks who traveled to this country years ago.”
“Celebrating Columbus Day continues to marginalize Native Americans in this state,” Lente said.
Montoya countered: “We’re drawing another line in the sand. We’re building another wall.”
He introduced a floor substitute to leave Columbus Day on the books but add Indigenous Peoples Day on the fourth Friday in September.
“The more we point to divisions, the worse we are as a society,” Montoya said. “We’re sending a message that it’s reasonable to despise western civilization and our country.”
House members tabled Montoya’s substitute bill.
Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, said, “There’s a movement to repudiate large blocks of history. History is often violent.”
Lente responded that Columbus and his men murdered, raped and enslaved the people they found in this hemisphere. “I want to ensure the children in this state don’t have to celebrate this vicious history,” he said.
Rep. Joy Garratt, an Albuquerque teacher, said she wanted to “make each and every student proud of their heritage.”
The measure passed 50 to 12.
Rural dental health care
By Sherry Robinson
This might just be the year that a long-sought rural dental health bill survives a legislative session.
On Wednesday, the House Health and Human Services Committee passed the bipartisan HB 308, which would create a new kind of dental practitioner, the dental therapist, who would be licensed to perform certain procedures, working in under-served areas.
“This bill has been negotiated and negotiated and negotiated,” said Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces. “The concept of creating a dental therapy program in rural and frontier communities has been debated since 2015.”
Actually, the debate began in 2011 with a bill to bring dental care to rural communities by then Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Texico, who said two of the counties he represented had no dentists or hygienists.
“People live in pain for six months before they get help,” he said. He was unsuccessful that year and again in 2013.
In 2014 Sen. Benny Shendo Jr., D-Jemez Pueblo, joined Roch. Their bills would have created the dental therapist-hygienist who could provide certain services with supervision from a dentist.
Alaska had succeeded with a program in which Native villages chose a person who would leave for training and return to help their communities.
“It would work here,” Shendo said. He recalled that in 2009 tribes met to discuss creating mid-level dental providers. About ten years before that, the New Mexico Health Policy Commission recommended creating a mid-level dental provider.
New Mexico then ranked 39th for the number of dentists per 1,000 residents, and 34 percent of third graders had tooth decay, said Health Action New Mexico.
The Navajo Nation endorsed the bill and so did AARP. The New Mexico Dental Association was opposed. The bill was tabled.
In 2015 Roch and Shendo returned with another bill to create the dental therapist, who would be licensed and trained to perform 90 procedures but not everything a dentist does. Dentists were still opposed, and the bill died in committee. However, a Senate memorial created a task force to formulate dental therapist legislation.
The two again carried bills in 2016, this time with a compromise between dentists and hygienists secured by the task force. Still no luck.
In 2017 they introduced a new improved bill. It included provisions that dentists wanted for school cavity prevention and annual reporting, and the dentists agreed on the therapists’ scope of practice. The state Public Education and Higher Education departments supported the bill, along with the All Pueblo Council of Governors. It passed the House and died in a Senate committee.
Last year there was no dental bill, and Roch announced that he wasn’t running for office again. Shendo decided to let others try their luck.
This year, we have HB 308, by Gallegos and Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena. Practitioners must first be licensed dental hygienists before becoming dental therapists. They could practice in nonprofit community dental organizations, Indian Health Service facilities, federally qualified health centers, private homes, long-term care facilities, and training facilities.
They would practice under a dentist’s supervision but could work off-site and collaborate using tele-health technology. In this way, the dental therapists could care for people in rural or tribal communities or in schools and nursing homes.
“I represent rural New Mexico,” said Armstrong. “This is highly needed, especially in areas like mine. We don’t have dentists.”
Currently, New Mexico has 1,300 dental hygienists who could become dental therapists, but none of the state institutions offer an accredited training program. Two schools are interested in starting programs – Doña Ana Community College in Las Cruces and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque, said sponsors.
Supporters of the bill include the Navajo Nation, Nizhoni Smiles Dental Clinic, Health Action New Mexico, New Mexico Dental Association, New Mexico Dental Hygienists Association, New Mexico First, Delta Dental, AARP, Voices for Children, and SIPI.
“New Mexico is facing an oral health care crisis,” said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children. Nearly 900,000 New Mexicans live in areas without enough dentists, and most are in rural, tribal, and low-income communities. One in four elementary school students have untreated tooth decay. “They can’t learn when they’re in pain.”
The committee passed the measure unanimously. Said Chairwoman Deborah Armstrong, who was a task force member, “This has been a long time coming.”
Civil War memorial
State historians have wanted to honor New Mexico’s Civil War veterans, who are not acknowledged at the Glorieta Pass Battlefield. Two monuments honor the Texas Confederates and the First Colorado Volunteers. A third monument is for the New Mexico volunteers, but it doesn’t yet have a plaque.
Local historian Phillip Marquez wants recognition for his ancestor, Manuel Chaves, a Civil War hero well known to history buffs but not to the public.
Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, has introduced Senate Joint Memorial 5 to establish a Civil War memorial at Glorieta Pass
According to SJM 5, 6,300 Hispanic New Mexicans fought in Civil War battles in February 1862 at Valverde in southern New Mexico and in March 1862 at Glorieta Pass north of Santa Fe.
The leader of the New Mexico volunteers was Lt. Col. Manuel Chaves, who guided Union troops in a flanking action that destroyed the confederates’ supply train, forcing confederates to retreat. It halted the confederacy’s expansion west.
Chaves grew up at Seboyeta, near Mt. Taylor. His half brother, Roman Baca, was a co-founder of San Mateo, also near Mt. Taylor, where descendents still live.
In 1993 a commission on the nation’s Civil War battlefields classified the Glorieta battlefield, along with Gettysburg and Antietam, among 384 of 10,500 sites as a principal battle ground that had a decisive influence on the war.
A portion of the battlefield is now part of Pecos National Historic Park; the rest is in private ownership.
The memorial calls for a task force to plan the development of a memorial to New Mexico’s Hispanic Civil War veterans at site.
By Sherry Robinson
Public service and human services
What a difference a few words can make.
Rep. Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup, had two bills before a House committee on Saturday, each needing only wording changed in a law. And yet the absence of the crucial words has complicated the work of Gallup police officers and become a barrier to local students who want to work in the area of substance abuse.
HB 234 would amend the Detoxification Reform Act to add “public service officer” to the list of professionals authorized to transport people who are intoxicated or incapacitated to a detox facility and have them committed for treatment. Currently, the list specifies only doctors and police officers.
Public service officers are civilians that perform certain duties as part of the police department.
City Attorney Curtis Hayes explained to the House Health and Human Services Committee that the law included public service officers until 2005, when they were removed. Currently, a public service officer can transport individuals to detox but can’t have them committed.
“The police force is stretched thin,” Hayes said. “Each officer answers an average of 1,000 calls a year.” Because police may transport 20 to 40 people a day to detox, the change would free officers for other work. In addition, public service officers go out to arroyos and fields and get people out of harm’s way.
Rep. William Pratt, D-Albuquerque, said he practiced orthopedic surgery in Gallup from 1966 to 1968 and 1987 to 1997.
“In the ‘60s there was no coordinated system of caring for incapacitated individuals, and they frequently had injuries and frostbite,” Pratt said. During his second stint, the public service officers were well established. “Public service officers were a huge improvement.”
Acting Police Chief Franklin Boyd explained that public service officers are specially trained to address substance abuse issues, and they’re a component of the police department.
HB 235, also by Johnson, basically adds the words “human services” to the Counseling and Therapy Practice Act.
Since 2016, the New Mexico Counseling and Therapy Practice Board has denied licenses for Licensed Substance Abuse Associates (LSAAs) because their training was in “human services” rather than “human studies.”
“The crux is the interpretation of the law,” said Sylvia Andrew, a faculty member at UNM Gallup. UNM and practitioners have used the term “human services” for years, but the law specifies “human studies.”
“Nowhere in New Mexico can you get a degree in human studies,” Andrew said. “We’ve had numerous conversations with the board and the chairman, and they say the only remedy is to change the act.”
Hayes observed that by not allowing people to get an LSAA, the board was creating a roadblock for students wanting to practice in the substance abuse field and keeping them from moving up the ladder to become and Licensed Alcohol and Drug Addiction Counselors (LADACs).
“In Gallup there’s tremendous interest in becoming LSAAs,” an entry-level position, Andrew said. “We need these individuals in Gallup and throughout the state.”
Asked the reason for the problem, Andrew said that in 2016 new members joined the board who weren’t familiar with training programs in New Mexico.
The bill also clarifies that three years’ work experience in alcohol and drug abuse is required to provide supervision.
The committee passed both bills.
On Friday, a bill passed committee to slightly increase taxes on cigarettes, small cigars and liquid used in e-cigarettes.
Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, told the Senate Public Affairs Committee that he’s not trying to discourage smoking but simply trying to create a revenue stream to support education initiatives and other state needs.
His SB 166 would raise the tax on cigarettes from $1.66 a pack to $2 a pack, which he said is in line with surrounding states. It reduces taxes by half on cigarettes with a modified risk tobacco product order. The bill requires cigarettes to be sold in packs of 20 or 25 instead of smaller amounts. Little cigars would be taxed at the same rate as cigarettes. And it would tax e-liquids at 5 cents per milliliter.
“We’re always looking for some kind of revenue enhancement, and we haven’t adjusted this tax in a long time,” Sanchez said.
The bill could generate about $15.5 million a year, according to a legislative analysis.
Ruben Baca, executive director of the New Mexico Petroleum Marketers Association (primarily convenience stores), said he never supports tax increases, but he’s supporting this one because it’s less than the tax proposed by other bills.
Several groups, including the New Mexico Allied Council on Tobacco, the American Heart Association, and the American Cancer Society, objected that the tax isn’t high enough to discourage smoking or vaping.
The measure passed 4-3.
Impact aid and schools
By Sherry Robinson
Area legislators chose Native American Day at the Legislature to announce their full-court press on education impact aid.
"Every day a race is started in New Mexico, and every kid should start at the same line," said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup. That's not happening, but the passage of either SB 170 or SB 172 by Muñoz and Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, could remedy decades of unfairness in the way the state calculates impact aid.
HB 325 and 326 have the same goal. Sponsors are Democratic Reps. Eliseo Alcon, Wonda Johnson, Harry Garcia, Patty Lundstrom, and Anthony Allison. The bills would exclude impact aid from the definition of "federal revenue" in determining the state’s distribution of funding under the equalization formula.
Federal impact aid compensates school districts for the property taxes they don’t receive from federal lands, including reservations and military bases. But because New Mexico funds public education from an equalization formula instead of property taxes, the state takes credit for, and deducts, 75 percent of impact aid from state funding.
The funding formula, in theory, allows the state to distribute funding equitably among school districts and charter schools. In practice, there are problems.
"This is not fair to Native American, at-risk, and Hispanic children," said Sanchez. "What these bills will do is make it fair. We have ongoing lawsuits that were brought about because of inequity in our schools. We need the bills to pass. We need everyone to let our colleagues know. Stay involved. We have momentum going."
Muñoz and Sanchez addressed a crowd with 261 local students during a news conference.
Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, is a veteran of previous impact-aid bills. He said, "This is not the first time we've tried this. Nothing has ever happened. I now have two senators and six representatives on my side."
Tribal officials from the Navajo Nation, as well as Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna pueblos supported the measures.
Edward Paul Torres, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors called for impact aid to be revisited. "Certain children start off at a signficant disadvantage, and we don't close the gap," he said. "There is an inherent perpetuation of inequality."
Gallup-McKinley School Superintendent Jack Hyatt said in an interview that the state's equalization formula was never equal.
"There are several inequities in the formula when they take impact aid. Now is the time to fix it," he said. "In 1974 when they created the formula, they took impact aid money because the Native American communities didn't have the political clout to stop them. For the first time, they're fighting together to get the money back."
Hyatt said the district receives about $29 million in impact aid, and the state takes credit for about $20 million. That means Gallup-McKinley provides nearly 30 percent of the state's total impact aid dollars.
Alcon and Muñoz have tried before to fix impact aid calculations, but the bills usually die in committee. The two Senate bills are due to be heard in committee on Monday, but on Thursday, Muñoz used a gutsy tactic to blast his impact-aid bill out of committee by attempting to amend another education bill on the floor of the Senate.
Muñoz ended up withdrawing his amendment, but in 45 minutes of lively debate, he raised the unfairness of the state's calculations and drew some strong support.
Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, was trying to secure the passage of HB 250, which would require a needs assessment to determine the services public school districts must provide Native American students to help them succeed in school.
Muñoz wanted to graft his impact aid bill onto HB 250.
"We sit here and talk about lawsuits," Muñoz said. "They've all come out of McKinley County because we never have enough money."
Shendo said he appreciated what Muñoz was trying to do, "but this is the wrong place to do it."
Sen. Bill Sapien, D-Corrales, who has killed previous impact-aid bills as former chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the amendment appeared to be log rolling, which means adding an unrelated financial matter to a bill. Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, Senate parliamentarian, agreed that it was log rolling, and Sapien recommended a vote against the amendment.
Muñoz argued that schools receive impact aid because they spend months preparing the application to the federal government, but the state uses it to reduce the affected schools' portion of state funds.
"Only one county gets its money back and that's Los Alamos," he said.
Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said, "I respect what you're trying to do, and I want to help you, but I don't want to hurt this bill."
Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, pointed out that three school districts pay most of the impact aid -- Zuni, Gallup McKinley and Central Consolidated. "This is not log rolling. In San Juan County, we're about to prematurely close a power plant and mine. The school has $30 million in bonds. If you take our impact aid, you've destroyed Central Consolidated. Almost all the land in the county is Navajo Nation. A tiny piece is fee property, and that's where the power plant and mine are. There will be no money for schools. Everywhere else property tax collections can be used for school structure. Who's being hurt? Native American students. Who's being helped? Non-Native students."
Sanchez said: "It's time we talk about this. We're still hearing about this after two lawsuits. It's been unfair for many years. The bill itself (HB 250) is an unfunded mandate. With the amendment, it would be funded."
"In McKinley county, we can't tax enough to pay for our teacherages," said Muñoz. "Only 20 percent of our property is taxable."
Asked if his amendment passed how much money wouldn't go to the state equalization formula, Muñoz said about $50 million.
"I find this problematic," Ivey-Soto said. "It upends how we fund the schools in New Mexico."
Two impact aid bills are scheduled to be heard Monday before the Senate Education Committee. Its chairman, Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, asked that they go through the process. "This is a very confusing area even for those of us who've been in education for years," he said.
The amendment found support with two Republican senators from Otero County, home of Holloman Air Force Base. "Alamogordo should get $845,000 but it loses $633,000 of that," said Sen. William Burt. "It has a big impact on Otero County."
Sen. Ron Griggs added, "Every new commander wonders why the schools aren't getting the impact aid allotted to them. We have an opportunity here to address the issue directly." He asked Muñoz if there was any particular reason for the 75-25 split, and Muñoz said it could be changed.
"I would remind the body that the Zuni lawsuit was filed in 1998, and Yazzie-Martinez is here," Muñoz said. "Why do minorities and poor districts have to file lawsuits to get what they need? When do we figure out how not to be sued?"
Shendo said he strongly supported Muñoz's bill, but HB 250 was strictly a policy bill. It passed, unamended, unanimously.
Senate Indian Affairs 1-31
Bills to fund a Code Talker museum, plan an emergency telephone trunk line and fund work on historic pueblo structures passed the Senate Indian and Cultural Affairs Committee last Thursday.
With SB 365 Sen. John Pinto is trying again for a Navajo Code Talker Museum and Veterans Center and asking the state for $1 million.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez presented a letter from his office and the Navajo Nation Council in support.
“It's a long time coming for this type of facility on Navajo land,” he said. “It's important that our younger generation and the people see how our Code Talkers helped the United States government win the war.”
Nez said President Trump “did make a commitment to help our Code Talkers, and we're going to hold him to it.”
SB 366, also by Pinto, would appropriate $150,000 for a feasibility study to design and plan a telephone trunk line to provide emergency services in San Juan County, where phone service is unreliable. The study would look at the patchwork of emergency notification systems in the area, according to legislative analysis.
“The Navajo Nation doesn't have adequate telecommunications infrastructure, even for cell phones,” said Nez. “We have a large population of elderly people in remote locations. Our first responders do their best, but we need money infrastructure.”
Previous museum and trunk line bills have died in the Senate Finance Committee.
SB 379, by Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, would appropriate $250,000 to restore historic buildings in pueblo communities.
Shendo said that some historic pueblo buildings are falling apart.
“The buildings often have a common wall, so if one starts to deteriorate it will affect the others,” Shendo said.
NM needs more Native American social workers
By Sherry Robinson
New Mexico doesn’t have enough Native American social workers, said academics testifying last week before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
To that end, Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, has introduced SB 258 to establishing a Native American Social Work Studies Institute at New Mexico Highlands University. And Campos would like to name the institute for Sen. John Pinto, D-Gallup, who chairs the committee.
The bill would appropriate $150,000.
“We don’t have enough students coming from pueblos and tribes who can go back home and serve their people with special knowledge,” said Roxanne Gonzales, NMHU provost. Social work is one of the school’s largest programs, with 630 students. The institute would help develop a specialized curriculum for social work among Native Americans.
Evelyn Lance Blanchard, coordinator of the institute effort, said, “It’s the 40th anniversary of Indian Child Welfare Act, but CYFD (Children, Youth and Families Department) isn’t able to respond to the requirements of the act to notify tribes.”
The institute has been in the works for several years. Tribes and pueblos have called for a more specialized response to Native American issues. Last year’s budget had a line item for the institute, Campos said, but it was vetoed by the former governor.
The committee passed the measure, as well as SB 273 to create a standardized license plate to accommodate specially designed decals from tribes, pueblos and Code Talkers.
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, who is co-sponsor of the bill with Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, explained, “When the state orders plates, they have to order 500 at a time, so we went to the decal model. Tribes and pueblos have the authority to design decals.”
Yazzie lawsuit and education bills
By Sherry Robinson
SANTA FE -- Yes, parents and teachers, there will be more money for public schools, but it will have strings attached.
The proposed budget and new crop of education bills show legislators’ intentions to meet the mandates set by the Yazzie-Martinez vs. New Mexico decision. There is new focus on Native American, Hispanic, and at-risk students. And the restyled Public Education Department will be a partner and not an adversary.
Even before a state district judge ruled that New Mexico is failing its students, the Legislative Finance Committee was studying schools, funding and outcomes and reached the same conclusion. Charles Sallee, deputy director for program evaluation, summarized LFC findings during a hearing of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee on Thursday.
Schools have many of the same programs, and yet results are mixed, he said, and some high-poverty schools have been successful. That’s because schools have implemented programs in all sorts of ways, good and bad. Schools that properly implemented programs had the best results, and successful schools follow best practices.
The state’s education funding formula assures equal resources for all schools, Sallee said, and the districts have a lot of discretion in how they spend money. This gives them flexibility to meet local needs. But PED dispensed no-strings-attached money for programs with little evidence they worked and exercised no oversight to assure districts were spending wisely.
Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who chairs the committee, raised the issue of spending “above the line” and “below the line,” which has been a tug of war between the administration and the Legislature. Funding above the line is distributed by formula directly to school districts to spend as they see fit; money below the line was PED’s to award to school districts for certain programs.
PED preferred targeted initiatives, but the Yazzie ruling found this problematic because not all schools have access to the programs, and from the schools’ perspective, it’s not helpful to “do everything through grants from Santa Fe,” Sallee said.
Lundstrom responded, “We want to allow as much access as possible. We don’t necessarily have a lot of control of that. It’s the responsibility of the PED secretary.”
Rep. Tomás E. Salazar, D-Las Vegas, said, “We need to assure that money expended is being spent appropriately. We need to recognize our obligations under the Indian and Hispanic education acts.”
Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, who is sitting in as education secretary, said PED would be more service oriented and not “us vs. them.”
“There’s a lot to be said for collaboration and communication,” he said. “For too long we’ve been focused on reforming education, but it’s a new day in New Mexico. We should focus on transforming education.”
Lundstrom said, “I like this kind of exchange,” but she reminded her committee members that their work was the budget and not education policy. “We put the budget together, but at the end of the day it falls back to PED for oversight.”
Regarding lawsuit-mandated reforms, she said, “My district leads this charge.”
Beefing up education
The devilish details of education reform are in budgets proposed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the LFC.
The governor has asked for $3.29 billion, up about $490 million from FY 2019. The LFC recommends $3.22 billion, up $416.6 million. Either level would be the biggest hike in public education appropriations in the state’s history, according to the LFC.
The increases respond to court rulings and subsequent expert recommendations to beef up cultural and linguistic instruction, expand resources for at-risk students, pay teachers a competitive salary, provide extended learning opportunities, and strengthen PED oversight.
Key initiatives include:
Nearly $120 million for K-5 Plus to ;
$39 million (LFC) to $45 million (governor), up from $29 million for pre-K programs;
$106.8 million to raise school employee salaries. The LFC would increase teacher pay by 5.5 percent, principal pay by 7.5 percent, and other school personnel by 4 percent. The governor’s proposal is similar.
$325 million (governor) or $62.5 million (LFC) for after-school and summer-enrichment programs;
$2.5 million for English learners and bilingual multicultural education programs;
$5.8 million for schools in rural areas.
“There are reams of paper behind every one of these line items,” Lundstrom said during last week’s hearing.
The at-risk index spirals from $22.5 million currently to nearly $80 million proposed by the governor or $113 million proposed by the LFC.
“This is a substantial increase,” Lundstrom said. “Districts need time to ramp up. We can dump money in, but how well is it spent?”
One critical court conclusion was that the lack of culturally relevant materials for Native American students and the state’s failure to cooperate with tribes amounted to noncompliance with the Indian Education Act and the state Constitution. The LFC recommends $25 million for instructional materials. The governor would increase the Indian Education Fund to $6 million from $1.8 million; the LFC recommends $2.5 million.
PED wants to develop a Native American teacher residency program, place teachers in schools serving a substantial Native American student population, expand use of early warning systems, and conduct indigenous action research.
Bilingual and multicultural programming would see a $7 million increase under the governor’s proposal.
The LFC wants to make several changes in school funding. Small schools in large districts will no longer be able to claim size adjustments, for a savings of $14.8 million. Statewide charter schools will be capped at 25,000. And rural isolation credits will be replaced with rural population units.
These changes are all good for McKinley County, Lundstrom said in an interview.
Legislators have dropped a handful of bills into the hopper to move this education transformation.
Lundstrom and four other legislators introduced the LFC’s 48-page bill.
HB 5 would change the public school funding formula, require performance-based budgeting, create a rural-population rate, limit school-size adjustments, limit charter school membership, add extended learning time, create a reform fund, make K-5 Plus an ongoing program, and increase teacher and principal minimum salaries.
HB 5 is “incredibly important,” said Lundstrom. “When the governor and House Speaker Brian Egolf talk about a moonshot for education, I feel like I’m an astronaut.”
Sponsors, besides Lundstrom, are Albuquerque Democrats Sheryl Williams Stapleton, Christine Trujillo, and Andrés Romero, as well as Bobby Gonzales, D-Taos.
“HB 5 has three big pieces around things we feel meet the needs of students and comply with the lawsuit,” Lundstrom said. “First is high quality teachers and school leadership, which means compensation. The second is extending learning opportunities. The third is effective, efficient administration and accountability.”
Other legislators have introduced HB 159 to advance bilingual, multicultural, Hispanic, and Native education; HB 111 to provide culturally and linguistically responsive technical assistance and professional development for educators; HB 120 to prepare bilingual teachers and provide loans; and HB 145 to support after-school and summer programs with $2 million.
“I feel like the clouds have parted and the sun is shining again,” said Rep. Christine Trujillo, a former teacher, “but we have lots of work to do.”