​​​Legislature 2020

2-21

​Session Summary

By Sherry Robinson
Correspondent
            Legislators on Thursday ended a sometimes contentious 30-day session after passing 88 bills of the 900-plus introduced. Here’s a summary of legislation with local impact.
Economic development
            This was a big year for local economic development.
Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, got her Escalante Generating Station redevelopment bill passed. It will create an economic district around the plant, which is scheduled to close at the end of the year. The district can make contracts, borrow money, sell property, and issue revenue bonds and pay them off with its own gross receipts tax. Sales and bonds would be exempt from state taxes.
However, the $15 million Lundstrom budgeted to support this activity didn’t survive Senate cuts.
And Muñoz’s bill creating the Rural Jobs Infrastructure LEDA program also passed. It gives small communities more flexibility in how they use Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) funding. Small communities with populations under 15,000 can use the funding for retail.
The Association of Commerce and Industry, a supporter of the bill, told members: “Many companies won't consider locating somewhere without a shovel-ready site. The bill addresses this issue by allowing LEDA funds to be used for rural site infrastructure to create shovel-ready locations for businesses.”
And industrial revenue bonds can be used for certain electric transmission facilities.
            However, the P3 (public-private partnership) bill allowing governmental entities to enter agreements with private industry to develop transportation infrastructure died on the House calendar. Business groups supported the bill, along with the public employees’ union.
Healthcare
            Healthcare was one of the busiest arenas.
New Mexican will be able to save money on prescription drugs by accessing markets outside the United States. The state Department of Health will have an Office of Wholesale Drug Importation to import prescription drugs (but not opioids) from Canada, where drugs are far cheaper.
            BeWellNM, which serves New Mexicans who don’t have insurance and aren’t eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, can move toward becoming a fully state-based healthcare exchange. It’s now empowered to establish standardized plans, which help limit out-of-pocket costs for services like primary care and behavioral health; establish third-party payment programs for cities, counties and tribal governments to pay premiums and cost-sharing on behalf of qualified individuals; and better integrate with Medicaid.
Co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses for insulin at $25 per prescription for a 30-day supply. Costs for common types of insulin have nearly tripled in the last ten years. “Cost should not be a factor when the medicine New Mexicans need is literally life-or-death. It’s as simple as that,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said.
            Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, has carried a bill four times to allow tribes and pueblos run their own medical cannabis programs. This year’s effort would have authorized an agreement with the state. The bill made it to the House floor and died for lack of time.
            Pharmacists will be reimbursed by insurance companies at the same rate as other providers when they provide the same types of prescriptive and clinical services. Because so much of the state is medically underserved, this step can improve care by motivating pharmacists to share their knowledge.
            The budget includes the final $900,000 needed to complete the All-Payer Claims Database to help expand and improve the healthcare transparency website (nmhealthcarecompare.com) to help people find the best, most affordable healthcare. This was a priority for the nonpartisan Think New Mexico.
Legislators specified that only New Mexico residents may enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program.
Education
            One of the big disappointments was the failure of the impact aid bills, but local lawmakers note that they came closer this year and vow to continue the fight.
After years of debate about funding of early childhood education, legislators created the Early Childhood Education and Care Fund and funded it with $320 million from the state’s current surplus. But a Constitutional Amendment to use state permanent funds for the same purpose died.
A new teacher residency program is intended to improve the skills and retention rates of New Mexico teachers. It will provide grants for public post-secondary institutions and tribal colleges to establish teacher residency programs. Teacher residents will teach classes for a year under the guidance of an expert mentor.
Another new program aims to develop ‘soft skills’ for high school and middle school students. Employers often say their workers lack skills in communication, time management, teamwork, and leadership.
Law enforcement
            The Extreme Risk Firearm Protection Order Act, or red flag bill, allows law enforcement to temporarily suspend a person’s access to firearms if the person appears to pose an immediate threat to themselves or others. 
            The crime package of four bills rolled into one finished the process minus one important part. It increases criminal penalties for using a gun to commit a crime or being a felon in possession of a gun while committing a new crime. It allows the law enforcement protection fund to be used for training and recruitment related to community policing. But the Senate stripped a provision for law enforcement officers to get treatment for PTSD.
            It’s now a crime to knowingly dismantle stolen vehicles or to own or operate a chop shop.
Veterans, Military
            Military spouses, family members and veterans can quickly get licensed to work in 40 occupations, including teaching and nursing. Sponsors included Reps. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, and Harry Garcia, D-Grants.
Schools are authorized to give diplomas to veterans who were drafted for service in the Vietnam War. “This came out of Tohatchi,” said Muñoz, who sponsored the bill. “Bennie Yazzie's dad got drafted before he could get his high school diploma.”
Retirees
Sen. George Muñoz’s public employee pension reform bill survived multiple hearings and opposition of some retirees. It increases the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) from 2 percent to 2.5% for retirees over 75 and exempts retirees who are over 75, disabled, or have 25 years of service and pensions under $25,000. It swaps annual COLAS for profit-sharing and phase in higher contributions from workers and employers. Retirees will receive 2% of their pension in a lump sum for three years, paid for by $76 million from the state. The plan is a product of the governor’s Pension Solvency Task Force.
Retired teachers who go back to work are exempt from mandatory retirement fund contributions as long as they don’t make more than $15,000 a year. This reverses the unintended consequences of a law last year that saddled retired teachers working as substitutes with new regulations. The provision was making it harder for schools to find substitutes.
Employees whose employers don’t offer retirement savings accounts can choose a plan from a voluntary Retirement Plan Marketplace and have deductions made from their paychecks. More than 60% of New Mexicans either don’t have a retirement plan or don’t have a good plan. Half of older retirees rely solely on Social Security for more than half of their family income. This was a Think New Mexico initiative.
However, Think New Mexico bills to repeal or reduce the state’s tax on Social Security benefits didn’t survive.
            The Kiki Saavedra Senior Dignity Fund, an initiative of the governor, will support services for the elderly, veterans, and adults with disabilities. Saavedra was a long-serving Albuquerque legislators who died in 2019. The $5.4 million appropriation, cut down from the original $25 million, will pay for transportation, help with appointments and meal services, behavioral health and case management.
Business
            The tax-free holiday known as Small Business Saturday, held after Thanksgiving, would have expired this year, but it’s now extended to 2028.
The Investment Tax Credit for manufacturing was set to expire this year, but it was extended for 10 years. It also modifies calculations for qualified equipment and eliminates a gross receipts tax deduction for internet sales to someone outside the state. This was a top priority for the Association of Commerce and Industry, which says the new law will keep New Mexico competitive.
Lawmakers reinstated a solar tax credit that expired in 2016, when its supporters were unable to save it in the House. It offers a personal income tax credit for 10 percent of the cost of a residential, business or agricultural system.
            The state will regulate the manufacture, distribution and sale of tobacco products and e-cigarettes. It establishes a licensing system that “will allow us to better protect New Mexicans from counterfeit products or dangerous ingredients and to better understand who is selling tobacco products,” the governor said.
  Low-income issues
            Low-income homeowners who are 65 and older or disabled can have their home property tax valuations frozen.
Low-income people who buy or lease electric cars can receive a refundable tax credit.
            Large pet food manufacturers will pay a fee on products sold in New Mexico to support a pet spay and neuter program for low-income people and animal shelters. The program will ultimately save money for animal control and shelters, according to an analysis.

2-20

​Last day

By Sherry Robinson
Correspondent
            With hours left in the 30-day legislative session, lawmakers approved a budget and a capital outlay bill, but rhetoric heated up between the parties in both chambers.
            The last two bills to clear the House in its final minutes were by Sens. George Munoz and Benny Shendo. And the last bill to clear the Senate was by Munoz.
Legislators consumed the final half day Thursday with debates over not much. Republicans in the House stuck to their strategy of killing time to slow action to a crawl, and dozens of bills died on the House calendar.
The House managed to pass SB 117, by Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, which clarifies the statute on freezing property taxes for people 65 and older and the disabled. County treasurers and assessors supported the bill. Then the House passed SB 99, Munoz’s bill authorizing schools to award diplomas to people drafted to serve in the Vietnam war.
Both bills now go to the governor.
In the Senate, Farmington Republican Bill Sharer launched into a filibuster on an innocuous bill that Senate President Peter Wirth attempted to stop. After a procedural kerfuffle, Sharer rattled on. In the remaining minutes, Munoz got HB 184 passed before the Senate adjourned. The bill mirrors his own SB 202, which requires certified law enforcement officers who want to work as school resource officers to be specifically trained.
Budget
            The Senate Finance Committee moved some money around in the House budget bill, HB 2, but it’s still $7.6 billion. It passed the Senate 35 to 7 Wednesday on a nonpartisan vote.
            Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said his committee reduced highway spending, took $40 million from the Public-Private Partnership fund, and added money to the early childhood education trust fund. Where the House snubbed the governor’s request to fund her opportunity scholarship, the Senate found money for it. Teachers will get a smaller raise instead of 5%, but the Senate gave more to higher education.
            “We have funded the entire state budget in a responsible fashion,” Smith said.
            There were complaints in the Senate, as there were in the House, about transparency in the budget process. Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said lawmakers hear about needs during interim committee meetings around the state but that information doesn’t shape the budget.
            Responding to complaints about how much money was spent or not spent, Munoz, who is vice chair of Senate Finance, said the committee set out to understand recurring money. Oil and gas have blessed the state with revenues, but it’s one-time money. “We have to be cautious with one-time revenues,” he said.
            “You’re not going to get everything you want,” Munoz said. “What we tried to do is spend a little here and a little there.”
Public projects
            This year’s $528 million public works bill holds $18,083,500 for McKinley County and $10,874,527 for Cibola County.
HB 349 passed the House unanimously on Tuesday and on Wednesday was before the Senate Finance Committee. In years past, former Gov. Susana Martinez line-item vetoed a great many area projects, but last year Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made few changes, so local communities can be more certain of this funding.
Projects named in the bill are whittled down from long wish lists submitted by legislators who are allotted a certain amount of money each year.
Projects named in the bill are whittled down from long wish lists submitted by legislators who are allotted a certain amount of money each year.
In McKinley County, the largest projects are: $1.893 million for an adult detention center in Gallup; $1.55 million for a fair building in Zuni Pueblo; $1.5 million for a public safety building in Gallup; $850,000 for a multipurpose building at the Mariano Lake Chapter; $779,000 for the regional San Juan lateral water project at Mexican Springs; $750,000 for a women's health birthing center at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital; $700,000 for a regional supervisory control and data acquisition system to benefit the Baca, Thoreau, Mariano Lake and Smith Lake chapters; $660,000 for a water system to serve Vanderwagen in the Chichiltah Chapter; $600,000 for an eastern Navajo Agency administration complex in Crownpoint; $567,000 for a power line extension and house wiring project in the Tse'ii'ahi' Chapter; $550,000 for the regional Beacon Bisti N9 lateral water project for the White Rock Chapter; and $420,000 for buildings and infrastructure at industrial development sites. 
In Cibola County, the largest projects are: $2.5 million for a regional indoor multipurpose arena for Grants and Milan, $2.375 million for a fire station at Laguna Pueblo; $1.828 for a planned community for housing, parks and recreation facilities at Acoma Pueblo; $900,000 to replace the roof at Martinez Hall at NMSU- Grants; $650,000 for a county public safety building in Grants,
SB 207, with nearly $196 million in general obligation bonds, will fund 20 projects in McKinley County and three projects in Cibola County.
            In McKinley County, the largest projects were senior centers at Baahaali, Chichiltah, Crownpoint, Mariano Lake, Pueblo Pintado, Red Rock, Smith Lake, and Thoreau,
            And UNM-Gallup will receive $3 million for its Center for Career Technology and Navajo Tech will receive $1.25 million for its science and trades building.
Homies
For all the rancor, lawmakers do make friends.
Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, tweeted that the last hours feel like the last day of high school – bitter sweet. She said she was grateful to serve with Rep. Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup, her “sis & homie.” Rubio said that in May she and Johnson would be bicycling from chapter to chapter across the Navajo Nation to promote the state’s Outdoor Equity Fund.

 

2-19

​Spending, Escalante, capital outlay

By Sherry Robinson
Correspondent
            With a day left in the 30-day legislative session, lawmakers approved a budget, two economic development bills are on their way to the governor, and the capital outlay bill is almost finished.
            The Senate Finance Committee trimmed the House budget bill, HB 2, but not by much. It’s still $7.6 billion. It passed 35 to 7 on a nonpartisan vote.
            Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said his committee reduced highway spending, took $40 million from the Public-Private Partnership fund, and added money to the early childhood education trust fund. Where the House snubbed the governor’s request to fund her opportunity scholarship, the Senate found money for it. Teachers will get a 4% raise instead of 5%, but higher education will get more money.
            “We have funded the entire state budget in a responsible fashion,” Smith said.
            There were complaints in the Senate, as there were in the House, about transparency in the budget process. Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said lawmakers hear about needs during interim committee meetings around the state but that information doesn’t shape the budget.
            Responding to complaints about how much money was spent or not spent, Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup and vice chair of Senate Finance, said the committee set out to understand recurring money. Oil and gas have blessed the state with revenues, but it’s one-time money. “We have to be cautious with one-time revenues,” he said.
            “You’re not going to get everything you want,” Munoz said. “What we tried to do is spend a little here and a little there.”
Economic development
            The House concurred with a Senate amendment to HB 8, by Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup.
HB 8, the Escalante Generating Station redevelopment bill, would create an economic district around the Escalante Generating Facility, which is scheduled to close at the end of the year. The district could make contracts, borrow money, sell property, and issue revenue bonds and pay them off with its own gross receipts tax. Sales and bonds would be exempt from state taxes.
However, the $15 million Lundstrom budgeted to support this activity didn’t survive Senate cuts.
Both chambers approved SB 118, by Sen. George Munoz, which creates the Rural Jobs Infrastructure LEDA program and gives small communities more flexibility in how they use Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) funding. Small communities with populations under 15,000 can use the funding for retail.
The Association of Commerce and Industry, a supporter of the bill, told members: “Many companies won't consider locating somewhere without a shovel-ready site. The bill addresses this issue by allowing LEDA funds to be used for rural site infrastructure to create shovel-ready locations for businesses.”
Public projects
            This year’s $528 million public works bill holds $18,083,500 for McKinley County and $10,874,527 for Cibola County.
HB 349 passed the House unanimously on Tuesday and on Wednesday was before the Senate Finance Committee. In years past, former Gov. Susana Martinez line-item vetoed a great many area projects, but last year Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made few changes, so local communities can be more certain of this funding.
Projects named in the bill are whittled down from long wish lists submitted by legislators who are allotted a certain amount of money each year.
Projects named in the bill are whittled down from long wish lists submitted by legislators who are allotted a certain amount of money each year.
In McKinley County, the largest projects are: $1.893 million for an adult detention center in Gallup; $1.55 million for a fair building in Zuni Pueblo; $1.5 million for a public safety building in Gallup; $850,000 for a multipurpose building at the Mariano Lake Chapter; $779,000 for the regional San Juan lateral water project at Mexican Springs; $750,000 for a women's health birthing center at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital; $700,000 for a regional supervisory control and data acquisition system to benefit the Baca, Thoreau, Mariano Lake and Smith Lake chapters; $660,000 for a water system to serve Vanderwagen in the Chichiltah Chapter; $600,000 for an eastern Navajo Agency administration complex in Crownpoint; $567,000 for a power line extension and house wiring project in the Tse'ii'ahi' Chapter; $550,000 for the regional Beacon Bisti N9 lateral water project for the White Rock Chapter; and $420,000 for buildings and infrastructure at industrial development sites. 
In Cibola County, the largest projects are: $2.5 million for a regional indoor multipurpose arena for Grants and Milan, $2.375 million for a fire station at Laguna Pueblo; $1.828 for a planned community for housing, parks and recreation facilities at Acoma Pueblo; $900,000 to replace the roof at Martinez Hall at NMSU- Grants; $650,000 for a county public safety building in Grants,
SB 207, with nearly $196 million in general obligation bonds, will fund 20 projects in McKinley County and three projects in Cibola County.
            In McKinley County, the largest projects were senior centers at Baahaali, Chichiltah, Crownpoint, Mariano Lake, Pueblo Pintado, Red Rock, Smith Lake, and Thoreau,
            And UNM-Gallup will receive $3 million for its Center for Career Technology and Navajo Tech will receive $1.25 million for its science and trades building.

 
2-18

Impact aid fireworks

By Sherry Robinson
Correspondent
Sometimes justice raises its head.
Tuesday morning, in an extraordinary procedural move, House Speaker Brian Egolf rescued the impact aid bill he’s co-sponsoring by tacking it onto a bill carried by Sen. Bill Soules.
Soules, a Las Cruces Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee, has refused to hear any of the impact aid bills in committee.
Soules was apparently working on a compromise with Egolf and the Governor’s Office, but with the 30-day session ending Thursday, the clock was ticking. During the House Taxation and Revenue Committee meeting Tuesday, Egolf moved his amendment and attached the whole of HB 4 to Soules’ SB 31.
HB 4 passed two House committees and the House floor before stalling in the Senate Education Committee. The other sponsors are Reps. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup; Harry Garcia, D-Grants; Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan; and Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland.
SB 31 would stabilize the budget of the state Public School Facilities Authority by changing from a three-year to a five-year average of grant assistance. Because of revenue downturns in previous years, the Public Schools Capital Outlay Council reduced funds substantially, and the authority was operating under the lowest budget cap since 2003. The result was staffing reductions.
Egolf reasoned that SB 31 and HB 4 were both related to public schools and had similar language, so combining the bills isn’t log rolling. “We’re operating within well established case law,” he said. “This is a major priority of myself and the governor.” They’ve been working with tribes and pueblos.
An unhappy Soules said he considered it an unfriendly amendment that moved backward from the discussions he was having with the House Speaker. “This has nothing to do with the bill in front of us except to deal with public schools,” Soules said. “This jeopardizes whether this piece of legislation might get through.”
Jonathan Chamblin, director of the authority, said, “SB 31 is mission critical for the agency… The implications for the agency are dire. We’ve already absorbed a budget cut and staff reduction.”
The amendment and the amended bill passed. The bill goes to the House floor.
“We understand the critical nature of the bill,” Egolf said. “Our intention is not to delay help to the Public Schools Facilities Authority – it’s a way to bring the issue before the Senate.”

 2-18
Pension reform
            Sen. George Muñoz’s heavy lift, the public employee pension reform bill, passed the House on Monday night. With Senate approval of one change, it will be on its way to the governor.
SB 72, a product of the governor’s Pension Solvency Task Force, addresses the solvency of the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA), which has just 69% of the available money that it owes. PERA covers firefighters, police officers, local government workers, and state employees.
The bill spreads the pain. Employees, retirees and employers (state and local governments) will all contribute more to assure that the state can keep its commitments to retirees and not see another downgrade in the state’s bond rating.
SB 72 would increase the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) from 2 percent to 2.5 percent for retirees over 75 and exempt retirees who are over 75, disabled, or have 25 years of service and pensions under $25,000. It would swap annual COLAS for profit-sharing and phase in higher contributions from workers and employers. To take the sting out of a temporary reduction in COLA increases, retirees would receive 2% of their pension in a lump sum for three years, paid for by $76 million from the state.
            The bill passed 40 to 28, not along party lines. Among the local delegation voting against the bill were Reps. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, and Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland.
Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell, carried the bill on the House floor.
            Supporters included the New Mexico Municipal League, New Mexico Counties, AFSCME Council 18, Communication Workers of America; New Mexico Professional Firefighters Association, Fraternal Order of Police, and the National Association of Police Officers.
 
2-18

Budget Battles
            With little time remaining in the legislative session, the House and Senate finance committees haven’t reached consensus on the budget, which is the focus of the session.
The long-standing chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, has made noises and headlines about a “feeding frenzy” in the House’s budget and promised to cut $150 million.
That sounds like a lot, but it’s less than 2% of the $7.6 billion budget. And Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, won’t be a pushover.
            Political blogger Joe Monahan wrote this week that “Smith has ruled the fiscal roost pretty much unchallenged while the House has played dead with a series of finance chairs who cowered whenever Smith glowered.” Lundstrom, he predicts, will change all that. “Lundstrom isn’t to be taken lightly,” he wrote.
            Monahan wrote that Smith is taking issue with the $15 million for economic development in response to the closure of the Escalante Generating Station, something Lundstrom has fought hard for this year.
“Smith, 78, and his conservative allies may have to get used to the lady of the House,” Monahan wrote. “She is not known for backing down and has the wind at her back… Lundstrom is no drunken sailor when it comes to spending but neither is she a skinflint.”

 2-17

​Impact aid threatened

By Sherry Robinson
Correspondent
As word traveled that Sen. Bill Soules, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has refused to hear any of the impact aid bills, Sen. Gabriel Ramos introduced his own bill and heard it in his committee.
Ramos, D-Silver City, chairs the Senate Indian and Cultural Affairs Committee. During a hearing Monday before that committee, the room filled with tribal leaders, school board members, superintendents, and their representatives.
SB 292 directs the state to distribute 100% of the previous year’s impact aid credit for every school district and charter school from which it has taken $1 million or more in credit. Money would be used for operating expenses, instruction, support services, to meet capital project match requirements, capital projects, and maintenance. The bill appropriates an amount equal to impact aid credits.
“Native American schools should get their full impact aid and their full SEG,” Ramos said. SEG, or state equalization guarantee, refers to the schools’ normal funding without reduction for impact aid.
Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, who was helping Ramos present his bill, said: “My concern is not just getting money for the impact aid districts but for all the districts. We have a lot of bills out there now. We need to not just put a bandaid on this but fix it.”
And the only way to do that is for the districts to receive 100 percent of their impact aid with no credit taken by the state. “We can’t even get a hearing” on the Senate side, he said, although HB 4 moved through the House.
Federal impact aid compensates schools for the money they don’t get from property taxes, but the state for decades has taken credit for most of the impact aid and provided less money to schools serving reservation students. In this way, schools with Native students have lost $65 million a year. 
HB 4, by Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, and House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, would provide grants to impact aid schools, funded by an appropriation of nearly $19 million. The bill steps up the amounts schools receive from one-third to 100% over three years. Schools could use the funding for projects, loan repayment, and education, but they could spend no more than half the grant for projects and debt service.
Co-sponsors are Reps. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, and Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland.
In the Senate are two impact aid bills.
            Sens. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, and Sanchez are carrying SB 198, which is largely the same as Ramos’s SB 292. SB 135, by Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, replaces a half of the credit taken for impact aid when the state has taken $1 million or more. It would appropriate $29.8 million. Both bills are still sitting in the Senate Education Committee.
Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, observed that the existence of multiple impact aid bills indicate the need for consensus and collaboration. “I don’t think there’s real consensus even with the superintendents,” she said. “We need to come together and convince our colleagues this is the way to go.”
Gov. Brian Vallo, of Acoma Pueblo, spoke for many when he said, “It’s quite disheartening that we can’t reach consensus at this level.”

 2-17

School resource officers
            School resource officers would be funded for training and equipment under SB 202, by Sen. George Munoz. The bill passed the Senate Sunday on a 35-7 vote with Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, voting against the bill.
            SB 202 would require certified law enforcement officers who want to work as school resource officers to be specifically trained as SROs within a year of assignment. It would also allow school district police departments with full-time SROs to receive funding from the Law Enforcement Protection Fund and fund the State Police for overtime costs of special deployments to the schools.
            The training would include understanding the adolescent brain, de-escalation techniques, informal mentoring and counseling, truancy mitigation, and response to students with behavioral health problems.
            Munoz said the officers would not only provide security during a school shooting but could befriend and talk to students. And because of instances when school disciplinary actions have gone overboard, the SRO would be trained in a proper response.
            “We’re doing the right thing to put these officers in the schools,” he said.

2-16

Impact Aid, Escalante Redevelopment

By Sherry Robinson
Correspondent
            With three and a-half days left in the 30-day session, the Legislature is in high gear, meeting through the weekend and late at night. Tempers were short in the House on Sunday, as Republicans lobbed angry accusations at House Speaker Brian Egolf and progress on any bills jammed.
            Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said she hadn’t given up hope of getting some work done. Her economic development bills were moving, but she was worried about the impact aid bill, HB 4, which is currently before the Senate Education Committee.
“I’m concerned because the chairman (Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces) has said he won’t hear bills. He’s been asked,” she said. “The funding is already in the budget. This is the closest we’ve ever gotten.”
HB 4 would provide grants to impact aid schools, funded by an appropriation of nearly $19 million. Federal impact aid compensates schools for the money they don’t get from property taxes, but the state for decades has taken credit for most of the impact aid and provided less money to schools. 
HB 8, the Escalante Generating Station redevelopment bill, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Saturday and is now before the Senate Finance Committee.
            The bill would create an economic district around the Escalante Generating Facility, which is scheduled to close at the end of the year. The district could make contracts, borrow money, sell property, and issue revenue bonds and pay them off with its own gross receipts tax. Sales and bonds would be exempt from state taxes.
            “We’re trying to be responsive by creating a new authority to redevelop and reuse the site,” Lundstrom said during a committee hearing. “Unlike San Juan County, we only got a year’s notice.” She added that she grew up in the area.”My mother’s home is 15 minutes away.”
            Sen. Clemente Sanchez amended the bill to allow Cibola County to join the authority by Dec. 31, 2020.
Bill McCamley, Secretary of the state Workforce Solutions Department, said the proposed authority is a proven strategy. “We’re going to need as many tools in the tool belt as possible.”
Also before the Senate Finance Committee is SB 200, by Sen. George Muñoz and Sanchez, which would appropriate $10 million more for the Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) for economic development projects in Cibola and McKinley counties.
Sanchez said the money is in the budget bill, HB 2.


2-16

Public Private Partnerships
            Sometimes public and private can come together to solve a problem. Take roads, for example. Both sides might agree on the need for road improvements, but the public sector’s budget won’t stretch that far. What if the private sector offers to share the cost?
            That’s the purpose of the public-private partnership (P3). An enabling bill failed last year, but it’s back this year. This bill focuses narrowly on transportation.
            HB 264 would allow governmental entities to enter agreements with private industry to develop transportation infrastructure. The P3 would be governed by a board and staffed by the New Mexico Finance Authority, which could finance the project. The bill doesn’t have an appropriation, but HB 2, the budget bill, has $40 million for a PPP fund.
            More than 35 states have such laws.
            Sponsors are: Rep. Joseph Sanchez, D-Alcalde; Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants; Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup; Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque; and Sen. Bobby Gonzales, D-Taos.
            On Saturday, Rep. Joseph Sanchez explained to the House Judiciary Committee that the bill would promote quality transportation projects while providing protections to the state and public.
Business groups support the bill, along with the public employees’ union.
Rep. Mathew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, said: “I think I’ve seen a P3 bill every year. The first one was horrible. I’m still suspicious. I’ve read about P3s that take advantage of the public purse.”
Mark Valenzuela, of the Legislative Finance Committee staff, said the state can go out and do deals under existing law, but the protection is iffy. A P3 provides guardrails, such as statements of public interest and cost-benefit analyses. “Chairwoman Lundstrom was very strong on this,” he said.
Sanchez said that a major benefit of P3 laws is that projects can be built quickly, outside the state Department of Transportation’s usual process.
Rep. Damon Ely, D-Corrales, said, “I think there’s a good P3 bill out there, but I don’t think this is it.”
Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, countered: “I think we’ve got to start someplace. This is a better way to do business. It affords people options.”
The bill passed on a 7-4 vote.

2-16

Pension reform
            Two pension bills rolled farther down the track.
            SB 72 by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, passed the House Appropriations and Finance Committee Friday on an 11-4 vote after another noisy debate. A product of the governor’s Pension Solvency Task Force, SB 72 addresses the solvency of the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA), which has just 69% of the available money that it owes. PERA covers firefighters, police officers, local government workers, and state employees.
SB 72 would increase the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) slightly for retirees over 75; exempt retirees who are over 75, disabled, or have 25 years of service and pensions under $25,000; swap COLAS for profit-sharing;  and phase in higher contributions from workers and employers.
The bill is on the House calendar.
            And Munoz’s SB 62 passed the Senate on Saturday. It remedies the situation of police, fire fighters and corrections officers who are required to work overtime but don’t receive credit for those hours in pension calculations. Despite some concerns that an adjustment might increase costs for local governments, the bill passed 33 to 9.

 2-16

John Pinto Day
Friday was Sen. John Pinto Day in the Senate.
Senators alternately laughed and cried as they paid tribute and told stories about Pinto, a Code Talker and educator who served 43 years in the Senate. Following his death last year, the governor appointed his granddaughter, Shannon Pinto, to the position. She sponsored the memorial in his honor.
“He had so much care for what happened to the Navajo people,” said Sen. George Muñoz. “He was a man with a heart and a passion for what he did.”

2-13

Rural air service and jobs

By Sherry Robinson
Correspondent
            Flying unemployed power plant workers to southeastern New Mexico to work in the oil boom is part of a plan proposed Thursday in a new bill by Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, and Sen. Bobby Gonzales, D-Taos.
            HB 377 would create a rural air service enhancement program in the state Department of Aviation that could award grants to communities with no air service or for a new route in communities that have air service.
            Lundstrom told the House Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements Committee on Thursday that although the federal government subsidizes essential air service for rural communities, there is often a gap between federal funding and what a carrier needs to sustain a route. She said the proposal is modeled after a program in Wyoming.
Gallup and Las Cruces have no air service, she said. The lack is a “major detriment to economic recruiting.
While the service could make a difference to business, healthcare, and tourism, Lundstrom also described a plan to fly tradesmen from McKinley and San Juan counties to the Permian Basin for jobs.
Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, said that in her area several large companies had jets sitting on the tarmac used to bring in workers. She liked the idea of helping workers in northwestern New Mexico and benefiting her area at the same time.
The committee approved the bill on an 8-1 vote.

2-13

Pension reform
By Sherry Robinson

Correspondent
            Sen. Craig Brandt said of the public employee pension measure, “It’s a hard bill.”
            Supporters and opponents of the bill can all agree with the Rio Rancho Republican on that.
            SB 72 by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, passed the Senate Wednesday after a rigorous debate, and the 25-15 vote was not along party lines. Muñoz’s friend, Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, voted against the bill.
            The Senate vote followed a stormy hearing in the Senate Finance Committee, where Chairman John Arthur Smith had to exercise his gavel arm repeatedly during challenges by opponents.
SB 72, a product of the governor’s Pension Solvency Task Force, addresses the solvency of the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA), which has just 69% of the available money that it owes. PERA covers firefighters, police officers, local government workers, and state employees.
SB 72 would increase the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) from 2 percent to 2.5 percent for retirees over 75; exempt retirees who are over 75, disabled, or have 25 years of service and pensions under $25,000. It would swap annual COLAS for profit-sharing and phase in higher contributions from workers and employers. To take the pain out of a temporary reduction in COLA increases, retirees would receive 2% of their pension in a lump sum for three years, paid for by $76 million from the state.
Muñoz has repeatedly urged fellow lawmakers to act now before the situation becomes worse.
But Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, objected: This pulls the COLA away from retirees and replaces it with profit sharing. We all know returns will go down. I don’t think this is the right change. It hurts retirees. It attacks the symptoms, not the disease.”
             Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said, “It’s the right bill to do now, and the right bill for the future.”
            Muñoz warned that if the fund isn’t solvent, they would find themselves cutting benefits in the first economic downturn. “This fund has to be solvent,” he said.
After the vote, Gov. Michele Lujan Grisham said in a statement:  “We have made promises to New Mexico’s current and future retirees, and these changes will ensure those promises are kept… We must make changes now – the alternative is to saddle New Mexicans with unacceptable risk.”
            On Monday, the Senate Finance Committee took testimony, which was often emotional. When a PERA board member leveled wild accusations against the governor and PERA staff, Smith repeatedly gaveled her down and then cut her off.
“For three years we looked at investments and asked the board to make recommendations,” Muñoz said. “They either didn’t make recommendations or made them too late. So the task force made recommendations… If we in New Mexico don’t act responsibly, if the board doesn’t act responsibly, the Legislature has to act. We need to be ahead of market influence.”
Muñoz’s second bill, SB 60, which would increasing qualifications for board PERA board members and change the board’s composition, has passed one committee and is now before the Senate Finance Committee. Currently board members aren’t required to have a background in finance or investment management, even though they oversee a $15.8 billion fund for 90,000 public workers and retirees.


2-11

Education spending, tribal wishes

By Sherry Robinson
Correspondent
            Legislators are spending money again this year to balance the scale for Native American education, but how exactly those dollars are spent is becoming controversial.
            On Monday, the House passed the impact aid bill, but the House Appropriations and Finance Committee tabled two bills that represent the tribal response to the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit.
HB 4, by Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, and House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, would provide grants to impact aid schools, funded by an appropriation of nearly $19 million. In fiscal 2021 schools would receive one-third of the average annual amount received from 2015 through 2019. That would rise to two-thirds in 2022, and 100 percent in 2023. Schools could use the funding for projects, loan repayment, and education, but they could spend no more than half the grant for projects and debt service.
Federal impact aid compensates schools for the money they don’t get from property taxes, but the state for decades has taken credit for most of the impact aid and provided less money to schools serving reservation students. In this way, schools with Native students have lost $65 million a year. 
The vote was 54 to 2, with only House Education Committee Chairman Andres Romero, an Albuquerque teacher, and Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, D-Albuquerque, opposed.
            Not long after that vote, Rep. Derek Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, presented two of his bills to the appropriations committee, which Lundstrom chairs.
            HB 137 would make a $59.2 million, one-time appropriation for tribal libraries and internet services. HB 138 would appropriate $16.2 million, to be distributed in grants to each of the tribes and pueblos to develop culturally relevant programs, train staff, and offer more programs.
All 23 of the state’s tribes and pueblos met during the interim between legislative sessions to respond to the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, in which a judge ruled that the state was failing at-risk, poor, and minority children.    
            HB 137 zeroed in on tribal libraries, which one librarian compared to the third world.
“The price tag is huge because the need is so great,” said Conroy Chino, lobbyist for Acoma Pueblo. “There’s not a day when you don’t find students sitting outside the library trying to use the net.”
On HB 138, Chino said, “It’s an effort to fight one more label, and that’s ‘at risk.’”
Lente said he knew that the recently approved House budget didn’t include funding for either bill, but he still wanted to discuss his bills with the committee.
“We don’t want the government to solve all our problems,” he said. “We want to work, and we will work. We can provide all the great policy we want, but if it doesn’t pass the test of staff it’s not worthy of funding. I am frustrated at the system and how it has not worked for the most vulnerable in the state.”
Lundstrom responded that she and three other members of the appropriations committee represent Native constituents, and yet they didn’t know about the tribes’ interim meetings. “It’s incredibly important that we be at these meetings,” she said.
Asked about impact aid, Lente said: “I had an issue with impact aid. At its core it should be used for Native American kids, but there’s no accountability for how it would be spent. I don’t have any faith that any of this would receive money from impact aid.”
Lundstrom told Lente that library construction and improvements can be funded with GO bonds and offered to work with him.
Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, said, “I represent 10 chapters of the Navajo Nation and two pueblos. This is not going away.”


2-7

Impact Aid bills return

By Sherry Robinson
Correspondent
            Impact aid is before the Legislature again this year.
            Several bills are in the hopper, but the first to gain traction is HB 4, by Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup. Signing on to the bill are House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, Harry Garcia, D-Grants, Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, and Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland.
            Sens. George Muñoz and Clemente Sanchez, Democrats from Gallup and Grants, are carrying SB 198, which hasn’t been heard yet in committee.
“This is a response to many, many years of the local district trying to regain its impact aid,” said Lundstrom. Many of the complaints in the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, judged as a failure to serve at-risk students, stem from a lack of funding.
Federal impact aid compensates schools for the money they don’t get from property taxes, but the state for decades has taken credit for most of the impact aid and provided less money to schools serving reservation students. Area legislators have tried to fix the problem, but other districts, especially Albuquerque Public Schools, oppose any change to the state’s funding formula.
HB 4 creates a program to provide grants to impact aid schools, funded by an appropriation of nearly $19 million. In fiscal 2021 schools would receive one-third of the average annual amount received from 2015 through 2019. That would rise to two-thirds in 2022, and 100 percent in 2023. Schools could use the funding for projects, loan repayment, and education, but they could spend no more than half the grant for projects and debt service. Money left at year end would not revert to the general fund.
“This is an incredibly important piece of legislation for my part of the world,” Lundstrom said during a hearing Wednesday before the House Education Committee.
Egolf said the three-year phase-in gives districts time to absorb the funding into their budgets. And it doesn’t affect the funding formula.
Mike Hyatt, superintendent of Gallup McKinley County Schools, reminded the committee as he has before that fewer than 5% of students generate *** and that the impact aid calculation “takes from the state’s most impoverished students.”
Assistant Superintendent Jvanna Hanks explained that from 1974 to 1999, the state swept 95% of impact aid; since then the state has taken credit for 75%. Gallup McKinley schools alone have contributed more than $1 billion to the state, and yet only 20 percent of county property can be taxed. Now the county will lose 5% of assessed valuation with the closing of the Escalante power plant. “This is a dire, dire need for us,” she said.
Funding taken by the state, Hanks said, was capital project funding. “We used operating funds to pay for teacherages,” she said. “There’s no housing on the reservation. We have trouble attracting and retaining teachers. Our HVACs don’t work. We have buildings that are sinking. We don’t build to minimum specifications.”
Lawsuits filed in 1998 by Gallup McKinley and Zuni schools resulted in creation of the state Public Schools Capital Outlay Council, but it’s become part of the problem. Hyatt said: “PSCOC now requires us to use operating funds for capital projects. PSCOC is underfunding schools.”
Last year, one of Lundstrom’s bills made capital outlay funding available for projects at impact aid schools. Gallup-McKinley schools retired debt for teacherages. “It was a good compromise,” she said.
HB 4 will help with operations because the district won’t be forced to siphon off operating money for building. With the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, “it all gets back to time with children and delivery of programs and services.”
Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, said of her long career as a teacher: “I’ve seen a lot of disparities. We can’t deny there’s an undercurrent of racism that determines where the money flows.”
In response to questions, committee chairman Andres Romero, D-Albuquerque, learned that 34 districts would qualify for the $18.9 million, but $14.5 million would go to Gallup McKinley, Central Consolidated, and either Zuni or Grants. Bloomfield, Bernalillo, and Pojoaque schools would also get money.
Romero, who teaches at a low-income high school in Albuquerque, objected to earmarking. “We all agree there’s disparity,” he said. “The tribes are one component. I have students experiencing the same issues.” He wanted to see “a more holistic approach.”
Egolf responded that because of the unique issues of impact aid, HB 4 “addresses 45 years of unfairness.”
Citing the possibility of an economic downturn, Romero insisted, “I want to stay the course with a more holistic approach.”
“If our basic approach is working,” Lundstrom said, “why are we being sued? Somebody thinks we’re not doing it right. If we don’t start addressing the specifics of what’s in Yazzie-Martinez – and it has to be different – it could be much more expensive.”
“I don’t remember impact aid being a component in Yazzie-Martinez,” Romero said.
Said Lundstrom, “That’s exactly what it is.”
The bill passed 9 to 4 with Romero and the Republicans voting no.


2-6

House budget

By Sherry Robinson
Correspondent
            SANTA FE -- Rep. Patty Lundstrom must have eaten her Cheerios on Wednesday.
The Gallup Democrat started the day early, defending a bill before the House Education Committee, and then ran a hearing of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, which she chairs. Lundstrom ended the day steering the state’s budget bill through three hours of debate and a Republican challenge on the House floor.
            “She works harder than anybody in the Legislature,” said Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec.
            The $7.614 billion budget is up $529 million, or 7.5% from last year. It passed 46 to 24 on a party-line vote. It increases public school spending to $890.2 million, up 7.4%; higher education to $890.2 million, or 2.7%; corrections to $343 million, up 5.8%; and public safety to $134.9 million, up 6%.
            “Early childhood education is the big winner,” Lundstrom said, with a $300 million stable fund.
            Teachers will see a 5% raise, public school employees will receive 4%, and judges and other public employees will receive raises averaging 3%.
            The Department of Transportation is self-supporting, but the budget provides an additional $255 million for road funding.
            And budgeters left $2 billion, or 26.3% of recurring expenditures, in reserves.
            Lundstrom wants lawmakers and the public to know the budget isn’t just conjured up in a few weeks. It’s a year-round process. “We go to different communities and listen to their needs. We listen to the agencies. We take testimony,” she said.
            New Mexico is one of few states in which the governor also offers a budget, and there’s a lot of give and take, she said. “This is the heart and soul of state government. It’s the best we have to uplift our citizens.”
            Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, said increases for state police and corrections officers will help with recruitment and retention. He and Lundstrom noted the high vacancy for corrections officers, which has become a safety issue.
            The courts, he said, also suffer from high vacancy rates. “We’re not adequately dispensing justice,” he said. Lundstrom said the courts, as the third branch of government, deserve the respect of adequate funding.
            Rep. Candie Sweetser, D-Deming, discussed funding for the Human Services Department and the Children Youth and Families Department. HSD will receive $1.2 billion, or 6.7% more, and CYFD will receive $224 million, or 6.4% more.
            “We keep hearing CYFD needs to rebuild,” Sweetser said.
            Lundstrom said that funding is “badly needed because of the kind of work they do. Some of the increase is directed to protective services.
            The $187.4 million increase to public schools represents a pay increase, which Lundstrom called the best way to close the teacher vacancy gap. It also “addresses the iniquities raised by the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit.”
            The pay increase, she said, “is motivating and provides a sense of value. They’ll do a better job. Everyone benefits.”
            Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, pointed out that the state has 156,000 veterans. The proposed budget increased veteran service officers by five.
            Lundstrom explained to fellow lawmakers the $15 million intended for redevelopment at the Escalante Generating Station site after the plant closes at year end, when McKinley County will lose its biggest taxpayer and Cibola County will lose its biggest employer.
            Republicans, led by Rep. Jason Harper, of Rio Rancho, introduced an alternative budget as a floor amendment.
            “There are so many things in the budget to be proud of,” Harper said. “Where I have serious concerns is the total amount of spending. Last year, we increased the budget 12.9%. This budget is 7.4%. That’s a 20% increase in a short span of time. This should take seven years to occur.”
            Harper’s alternative would increase spending 4.3% and rebate $200 per person to taxpayers. Instead of a big jump in education spending, Republicans preferred a pilot program that would reward schools when at-risk students improved. He said that last year schools reverted $111 million because they got more money than they could spend. The Republicans would keep 32% in reserves. Teacher raises would still be 5%, but state employees would see 2% increases. Agency funding would be flat, and there would be no early childhood endowment fund.
            “I’m terrified that we’re overspending,” Harper said. “I’m very concerned we’ll have another revenue crash.”
            Lundstrom said, “I’m a little alarmed when I see public school support is 5%.”
Harper responded that they would maintain last year’s increase. “We’re not cutting anything – we’re just not expanding some things as much.”
Rep. Joseph Sanchez, D-Alcalde, said the proposal would provide $14 million less for corrections.
Harper said former Gov. Susana Martinez spent 10% more on corrections: “Why didn’t that solve the problem? Staff said it’s not always about the money.”
Sanchez responded, “Guards make $14 an hour and put their lives on the line.”
Regarding pension fixes for public employees, the Republican proposal of $76 million for PERA was close to the committee proposal of $81 million.
Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said his area has ridden the oil and gas economic roller coaster for years. He advised lawmakers to maintain some discipline. “The largesse we see is likely to turn, and when it turns, it turns quickly,” he said.
Harper’s amendment was tabled on a 46-24, party-line vote.
Lundstrom said her entire committee works on the budget, with help from legislative staff. The budget is based on carefully developed revenue estimates and projections. By that time, it was almost 7 p.m., and the chairwoman sounded slightly tired.


2-3

Escalante redevelopment

By Sherry Robinson
Correspondent
            SANTA FE -- Rep. Patty Lundstrom’s power plant redevelopment bill passed a second committee Monday but not before a pointed discussion of eminent domain and utility regulation.
HB 8 would create an economic district around the Escalante Generating Facility, which is scheduled to close at the end of the year. The district could make contracts, borrow money, sell property, and issue revenue bonds and pay them off with its own gross receipts tax. Sales and bonds would be exempt from state taxes.
            In a hearing before the House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee, Lundstrom first amended the bill to remove eminent domain from the district’s authority.
Rep. Greg Nibert, a Roswell Republican and attorney, observed that HB 8 is similar to the Roswell Airport Authority bill that passed last year.
“I understand the concerns the public has with eminent domain, but in this instance we’re creating a semi-government authority,” Nibert said. “We’re really tying the hands of the district if we don’t allow the power of eminent domain. I think it’s not wise public policy to exclude eminent domain. The entity that currently owns the plant has eminent domain. There may be occasions when eminent domain needs to be exercised.”
Lundstrom explained that her intention was to relieve anxieties in her area.
“When something like this happens in a community, there’s a lot of panic,” she said. Mention of eminent domain, which would give the district authority to condemn and take property, is worrisome. “This adds another layer of worry to these bills. Ranchers don’t need to worry about their property being taken away.”
The committee supported the amendment on a 4-3 vote.
“Eminent domain is real touchy, but I think you’re going to need it,” said Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, after the vote.
Lundstrom told the group that a local group has prepared for the closure for several years, and HB 8 is one result. As both a legislator and economic developer, she believes in the potential for redevelopment.
“It’s a good industrial site,” she said, with security, high-speed broadband, industrial buildings, rail service, and I-40 access. “But it doesn’t qualify for ETA money because it’s not investor owned.”
Last year, the Legislature passed the Energy Transition Act, which included up to $30 million for plant decommissioning and mine reclamation and $20 million for severance pay and job training.
Nibert next proposed stripping an amendment added in a previous committee. He said he liked the original HB 8, but it was amended to replace the words “fossil-fuel” with “coal-fired.” The original wording allowed the concept to be used in other communities. “Now it’s limited to one plant in McKinley County,” he said.
Lundstrom responded: “The way the bill was drafted, it captured 14 other counties and gas-fired plants. There was a lot of ambiguity. I wasn’t prepared to talk about those areas.” Bill sponsors want to focus on the Escalante. “We’re concerned about timing. We’ve got 11 months. I was trying to avoid opening up an issue the tax committee would be concerned about.”
“I don’t want to belabor the issue,” Nibert said, belaboring the issue about creating a structure other counties could use. “We’re not cramming this down anybody’s throat.”
Lundstrom told the committee that her bigger issue is the state Public Regulation Commission, where the ETA has stalled, prompting legislators to go to court.
“My confidence level is low in terms of getting anything done at the PRC in a timely manner,” Lundstrom said. “We want to avoid what’s going on in San Juan County. (The Escalante) is regulated by the feds, and we want to keep it that way. I’m concerned about being mired in PRC regulation.”
She added that focusing only on one plant would keep the bill out of the legislative taxation committee because it would be the county’s responsibility to set up the district.
            Lundstrom’s co-sponsors are Democrats Harry Garcia, Eliseo Alcon, Wonda Johnson, and Joseph Sanchez. Lundstrom and Johnson are from Gallup, Garcia is from Grants, Alcon is from Milan, and Sanchez is from Alcalde.
            The committee also passed HB 262 to create the Native Women’s Business Institute.
            The bill, by Reps. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, and Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup, asks for $200,000 for the institute to research the obstacles Native women face in starting businesses.


1-31

​Tribes on education

By Sherry Robinson
Correspondent
            We want to do it ourselves. This is the message from tribes and pueblos to legislative education reformers and budgeters.
          Every tribe and pueblo in the state came together to back HB 138, an education spending bill by Reps. Derek Lente, D-Sandia; Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup; and Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland.
            “What separates my legislation from others is the process to develop it,” Lente told the House Education Committee on Friday. “This was not brought by me but by all the tribes and pueblos. They all saw something that must take place.”
            The Education Committee passed the bill unanimously. Also on Friday, a second House committee passed a related bill. And a Senate committee approved a study of Whiskey Lake.
Culturally relevant programs
Bill sponsors and Native communities worked during the interim between legislative sessions to produce a bill that would put tribes in the driver’s seat of education changes mandated by the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit.
            A judge ruled in the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit last year that the state was failing at-risk, poor, and minority children. Despite a $450 million funding increase, plaintiffs in the case say the state is still falling short.
            “My fear is that the moonshot has missed Native and Hispanic kids,” Lente said, referring to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s cash infusion of last year.
            HB 138 would appropriate $16.2 million, to be distributed in grants to each of the 19 pueblos and the Jicarilla Apache Nation, Mescalero Apache Tribe, and Navajo Nation. With this money they could develop culturally relevant programs, train staff, offer after-school and summer programs, create information technology departments, and increase high-speed internet access.
            This year, the Public Education Department will dispense $1.9 million to tribes for education. For fiscal 2021, both the governor and the Legislative Finance Committee recommend $6 million to meet requirements of the Indian Education Act. The LFC also recommends $7.5 million for indigenous, multilingual, multicultural, and special education initiatives; $5 million for after-school and summer programs in schools with large Native American student populations and in small districts; $9 million to develop culturally and linguistically diverse instructional materials and curricula; and $11.4 million to remedy losses to impact aid.
            Many speakers at the hearing criticized one-size-fits-all solutions that don’t work for reservations and rural communities. “Why would we ship our youngest children to distant facilities to participate in programs we don’t understand?” Lente said. Whether students participate in K-5 Plus or after-school programs, existing options demand a one- or two-hour bus ride. When they return home, they have no internet access.
            “This is a huge problem,” he said.
            Lente said tribal education departments are too understaffed to do the kind of planning and implementation that’s needed. “A lot of times, it’s a one-person show,” he said.
            In a big hearing room, the bill had hearty support from tribes, education groups, teachers’ unions, and individuals.
Libraries and internet
            During the afternoon, the same crowd of supporters moved to the House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee to hear HB 137, by the same sponsors. HB 137, said veteran educator Rep. Tomás Salazar, D-Las Vegas, is “a big bill that goes to the dollars.”
            It would appropriate $59.2 million over three years for tribal libraries, internet access, and educational resource centers. This includes $3.2 million for high-speed internet on the Navajo Nation, $2.5 million for a curriculum materials development center and $1.5 million for an early childhood practicum at Navajo Technical University, $1.5 million for a curriculum materials development center at Zuni Pueblo, and $1.5 million for education resources centers for Navajo Nation’s Dzil Ditl’looi School of Empowerment, Action, and Perseverance Charter School.

            Currently, the only state-certified library on the Navajo Nation is at Torreon, and it’s housed in an old Head Start building, according to testimony. Tribal libraries will become gathering places, Lente predicted.

            Related bills by the same sponsors that haven’t been heard yet are HB 134 to fund higher education multicultural and multilingual initiatives, HB 136 to fund Native student college readiness, and House Bill 139 (with Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan) to fund education projects at Zuni Pueblo.
Whiskey Lake

            Whiskey Lake is a popular place for recreation and cultural use on the Navajo Nation, said a number of people testifying Thursday before the Senate Indian and Cultural Affairs Committee. In SB 176, Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, is asking for $150,000 to study the rehabilitation of Whiskey Lake and its dam.

            "It's a sentimental and cultural place for us," said Pinto. "My grandfather (the late Sen. John Pinto) used to talk about the lake."

Carissa Wood, Naschitti Chapter manager, said the area suffered a devastating wildfire in 2014 that destroyed a huge part of the mountain and affected the lake. A study would help with the regeneration of the area, she said.

The earthen dam is 25 feet high and can hold 187 acre-feet of water, according to a legislative analysis and testimony. Pinto said it’s one of the largest lakes on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.

The bill passed.

 


1-24

Roads

By Sherry Robinson
Independent correspondent

                    Department of Transportation Secretary Michael Sandoval is upbeat this year, for a change. Usually, transportation secretaries tick off a long list of needs and explain that road funds can’t begin to meet those needs.

                    “For the first time in a long time, our revenue-based budget will approach $1 billion,” Sandoval told the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.

                    This year, revenues from the four taxes that support the department are up by $63 million. The big difference is the 1% increase in the motor vehicle excise tax that legislators passed last year. It’s $52 million of the increase

                    On top of that, lawmakers last year gave the department $400 million in one-time money from the general funds. Of that, the department used $89 million for maintenance.

                    “Because of the condition of roads, this was the easiest money to spend,” he said. “We had roads falling apart before our eyes. We just haven’t been able to keep up with maintenance.”

                    And $50 million went to the local transportation fund. “We did focus a lot on rural areas,” Sandoval said. “There were over 60 projects, and a lot were shovel ready. Locals were happy about this fund.”

                    And contractors were happy. “When you invest in infrastructure and transportation, it helps the economy every time,” Sandoval said.

                    Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who chairs the committee, said the state needs to help small contractors rebuild and suggested letting bids that attract small contractors. “I’d like to see them buy their own heavy equipment and not just lease,” he said.

                    Sandoval said the department has large and small projects and is working with the industry. One proposed bill, to be carried by Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, is intended to make contracting easier.

                    In the future, he wants to improve all the rest areas. To get them all up to snuff will cost $30 million, he said.

                    Sen. George Munoz raised the issue, as he did last year, of semi-trucks suddenly pulling out in front of vehicles. Sandoval joked that he got a new phone with more memory so he can look at Munoz’s photos of traffic backups. Seriously, he said, it’s one of the top three complaints he gets.

                    “It’s really a capacity issue. We need to three-lane I-40 from Gallup to Albuquerque in both directions,” Sandoval said.

                    Sandoval said his department is still rebuilding from 528 vacancies, or 22%, a year ago, and is currently at 16.2%. His goal is a 10% vacancy.

                    “We have trouble hiring engineers,” he said. “They have a lot of opportunities. We have to compete with the private sector.”

                    Projections are for the gasoline tax to continue increasing, then plateau and taper off. Several legislators cautioned about the impacts of electric vehicles and hybrids on the gasoline tax. Currently, fuel efficiency has depressed revenues somewhat.


1-24
Coal plant
By Sherry Robinson
Independent correspondent
          What’s next for the Escalante Generating Station?
            A bill to create an economic district around the Escalante Generating Facility following its closure passed its first committee on Friday.
            HB 8, by Democratic Reps. Patty Lundstrom, Harry Garcia, Eliseo Alcon, Wonda Johnson, and Joseph Sanchez, would create the Electric Generating Facility Economic District. Lundstrom and Johnson are from Gallup, Garcia and Alcon are from Grants, and Sanchez is from Alcalde.

The district could make contracts, borrow money, exercise eminent domain, sell property, and issue revenue bonds and pay them off with its own gross receipts tax. Sales and bonds would be exempt from state taxes.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association recently announced plans to shut down the 253-megawatt, coal-fired plant near Pruitt by the end of 2020. The closure will cost 107 jobs at the plant and another 100 at the coal mine. It would also jeopardize jobs at the paper mill, which buys steam from the utility.

Lundstrom explained to the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, that although the bill responds to the recent announcement, a local group has worked for the previous five years to prepare for such an event.

With HB 8, she said, “the idea is to set up a special financial district to redevelop and reuse this industrial site. It’s not unlike a strip mall or anything else. We’ve got strong studies supporting the work we’re doing.”

Impacts from the closure will be severe. One-sixth of the McKinley County budget comes from the plant, Lundstrom said. “This is the poorest county in the poorest state,” she said.

“Grants is in bad shape,” said Garcia.

Evan Williams, deputy director of the Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments, pointed out that the plant’s workforce comes from Cibola County, and the payroll totals $14 million.

“Once the workforce leaves, they’re gone. They’re not coming back,” he said.

Rhonda Mitchell, of Tri-State, said through tears: “These people are friends. The decision came quicker than we thought it would.”

Tri-State intends to replace 200 MW of power at the site with solar and has set aside $5 million for redevelopment.

Lundstrom said the district would provide a mechanism to take the necessary next steps toward decommissioning the plant, cleaning up the site, and identifying companies that would be a good fit at the site.

The district would be governed by a board with five to nine members. Lundstrom wrote in a “no politicians” rule because the board should be apolitical, she said.

This year’s general appropriations bill has $15 million in special appropriations for the bill, which is a compromise between $20 offered by the governor and $10 by the Legislative Finance Committee.

The committee passed the bill unanimously.

In a related development, Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, met with NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu to discuss the closure.

“We are part of this community with our NMSU Grants campus and we stand ready to help by offering educational programs tailored to those who have been impacted and in support of economic development in this region,” Arvizu said.

Sanchez and Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, also plan to introduce bills to address the closure.


Public pensions, 1-17

By Sherry Robinson
Independent correspondent
            Public-employee pensions will be a hot topic in this year’s 30-day legislative session, which starts Tuesday.
            Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, who chaired the interim Investments and Pensions Oversight Committee, is carrying four bills developed by his committee and the governor’s Pension Solvency Task Force, organized last year to address the solvency of the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA).
            The PERA covers firefighters, police officers, local government workers, and state employees.
            The anchor is the 91-page SB 72, proposed by the task force, which would relieve the PERA’s unfunded liability by $700 million. Currently the plan’s available money is just 70 percent of what it owes. SB 72 could eliminate the unfunded liability within 25 years.
            “The most important thing is, if there’s a recession, those funds become almost unrecoverable,” said Munoz. “This shores up the fund for future retirees. That’s the big picture. My biggest worry is recession pressure.”
SB 72 would also:

  • Increase the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) from 2 percent to 2.5 percent for retirees over 75; Exempt retirees over 75, disabled retirees with 25 years of service and pensions under $25,000 from proposed changes;
  • Introduce a profit-sharing in annual COLAs that can increase up to 3 percent depending on investment performance. Currently, the annual increase is 2%.
  • Reduce the waiting period to qualify for COLAs from seven to two years
  • Eliminate the earnings cap of 90 percent;
  • Phase in higher contributions from workers and public employers;
  • Delay contribution increases for municipal and county workers for two fiscal years;
  • Decrease employer contributions as funded ratios improve;
  • Allow return-to-work employees, such as retired police officers who serve as school resources officers, to receive a COLA.
  • Include juvenile corrections, probation and parole officers and adult probation and parole officers in the State Police and correctional officer plan.

            To take the pain out of a temporary reduction in COLA increases, retirees would receive 2% of their pension in a lump sum for three years, paid for by $76 million from the state.
            Supporters note the steps to protect the most vulnerable retirees and say the plan will ultimately save money by improving the state’s credit rating. Moody’s Credit Service mentioned the liability in its June credit analysis of New Mexico.
            “We pay about $1.2 billion to retirees – about $600 million from the corpus and $600 million in investment returns,” Munoz said. “We can’t continue doing that.”
            Some retirees, including members of the Retired Public Employees of New Mexico, aren’t so sure. They have taken issue with the COLA changes, arguing that it’s one of the most important pieces of the state’s pension system and changes fall on those least able to adjust to the changes.
            Currently, employees provide 12% of contributions and employers (local and state government) provide 14.88%. The shortfall is 6.51 percent, according to the PERA.
            The task force recommendations were endorsed by AFSCME Council 18, Communication Workers of America, New Mexico Professional Firefighters Association, Fraternal Order of Police, National Association of Police Officers, and the Albuquerque Fire Department Retirees’ Association.
            “We’ve got to show leadership and compassion to fix the problems we face,” Munoz said last month. “The governor’s leadership on this legislation shows she is willing to do what is right and fair and work with the Legislature to get it done.”
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said, “I support the bill and hope my colleagues will also support it.”

More bills

Munoz’s second bill, SB 60, is his attempt to reform the PERA board by increasing qualifications for board members and changing the board’s composition. Currently members aren’t required to have a background in finance or investment management, even though they oversee a $15.8 billion fund for 90,000 public workers and retirees.

“The PERA board is completely dysfunctional,” said the nonpartisan Think New Mexico, “and research shows that poor governance can cost pensions 1 to 2% annually. Just a 1% reduction means the dysfunction on the current PERA board could cost the fund nearly $160 million dollars a year.”

“I think every board has its quirks,” Munoz said. “What I learned is that a good functioning board with knowledge can help the fun by a half percent.”

News accounts and Munoz himself have described unprofessional and even childish behavior on the part of some board members.

SB 60 would remove the Secretary of State, the State Treasurer, four members of a municipal coverage plan elected by members, and two retired members elected by their association and replace them with one member of a state general coverage plan appointed by the personnel board, one active county member of a municipal general coverage plan appointed by counties, one member appointed by the New Mexico Municipal League, two non-members with experience in retirement investing or plan designs appointed by the House Speaker and Senate President, the state Secretary of Finance and Administration, and two retired members appointed by retiree associations (one must have financial knowledge).

Two other bills by Munoz are SB 71, which calls for PERA and ERB staff compensation to be performance based, and SB 62, which would change the definition of “salary” for public employees to include overtime pay required for a regular scheduled tour of duty.


Opening day, 1-21

By Sherry Robinson
Independent correspondent
            Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, in her second State of the State speech, called on legislators to maintain the momentum -- and spending -- of 2019.
            And Sen. George Munoz is the new vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He replaces Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Taos, who died last year. The post makes Munoz the heir apparent to Sen. John Arthur Smith, 77, who chairs the powerful committee.
            Smith, elected to the Senate in 1989, had passed on more of the committee's heavy lifting to Cisneros in recent years, and it was assumed Cisneros would be chair when Smith eventually steps down. Munoz, like Smith, is a Democratic moderate with a good grasp of numbers.
            "Year One: I’d call it a very, very good start," the governor said.
            Lujan Grisham said nobody has patted her on the back for a job well done, but in her conversations with people around the state, many have said, "Keep going."
            The governor opened by celebrating 15,000 new jobs in the state since she took office, "the best year for job growth in the state since 2005," she said. Businesses are investing in the state, one-third of newcomers to the state came here for jobs, and New Mexico is 8th nationally in job growth.
            State government is stronger. December's rapid-hire events drew 3,700 job seekers. The Children, Youth and Families Department reduced the average wait time on its Child Abuse Hotline from over an hour to less than five minutes. The Corrections Department took over management of the private prison in Clayton. Her task force crafted public pension system reform that "protects New Mexico taxpayers and respects retirees."
            "We are fixing what was left broken and addressing urgent needs and turning the corner into the bright future," she said.
            Lujan Grisham referred to last year's Energy Transition Act, saying, "We put New Mexico on a direct path to being the nation’s clean energy leader."
            The ETA is a bitter pill locally because it was tied in some conversations with the planned closure of the Escalante Generating Station. However, local legislators don't blame the ETA.
            "The gut feeling I got was they were going to shut down anyway," said Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Grants. It was a business decision, he said.
            Although the plant's owner said even months ago that the plant had years of operations, its sudden announcement this month took lawmakers by surprise.
            Munoz said, "It wasn't driven by the ETA but by outside forces and the political environment in the country. The writing was on the wall."
            Munoz, Lundstrom, Alcon, and Grants Democrats Sen. Clemente Sanchez, and Rep. Harry Garcia have introduced or will introduce bills to help existing area industries.
            Lujan Grisham admitted that "the economic growth we’ve seen has not touched families in every part of the state." The needed diversification and expansion is still a work in progress.
            So is the governor's "educational moonshot," as she termed her reforms. "Transforming our public education ecosystem is no less than a moral mandate, an imperative that found us, this group of legislative leaders who are obligated and, I believe, destined to deliver the single best cradle-to-career educational system in the country."
            Lujan Grisham said she insists, along with parents and reformers, "that we get it right, right now," but "a moonshot doesn't occur overnight."
            She repeated her demand for higher teacher pay and more teachers. Last year, schools cut the teacher vacancy rate by 13 percent. "After 8 years of neglect and disrespect, New Mexico values and supports its world-class educators once again," she said. She expects lawmakers to deliver another pay raise this year and stay the course with programs like extended learning and K-5 Plus.
            Early childhood education and care is a priority this session, as is tuition-free college. She encouraged legislators to pass support both bills. "If we build it, they will stay," she said of the state's young people.
            "Students want it. Parents want it. Let’s give them the opportunity," she said.
            Lujan Grisham said the state set a record last year for film and television shoots, with more productions in rural communities. The state Economic Development Department is investing in homegrown businesses around the state.
            "We are rapidly climbing out of the lost decade of job growth, the stagnation and forced austerity of the last administration," she said.
            The governor also pitched legislators on legalizing recreational marijuana, "the next frontier of our economic expansion." She added that 75 percent of New Mexicans support legalized cannabis.
            "Every year we’ve said, 'No, not yet, it’s not for us.' Well, it’s easy to get to 'no.' It’s harder to stand up and create something good and new."
            Lujan Grisham called attention to SB 1, which would allow the importation of wholesale prescription drugs from Canada to cut healthcare costs. She supports capping co-pays and out-of-pocket costs for chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma and COPD.
            She proposed the Kiki Saavedra Senior Dignity Fund, named for the late chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, to provide services for the elderly and for caregivers.
            Finally, she advocated for a package of criminal justice bills that would catch and hold repeat offenders.
            "In these next 30 days, I will be who you know me to be: Relentless, competitive, and caffeinated. I will be tireless on behalf of the New Mexicans who have not yet felt the effect of our changing fortunes."
            Munoz said he appreciated the plan to reduce drug prices but didn't hear any targets for new job creation. Legalization of marijuana, he said, still faced a long road.
            Sanchez said the governor has an ambitious agenda. "I was kind of surprised there wasn't a whole lot on the budget," he said. The cannabis bill is huge, he said, and he’s reserving judgment until he reads it.