Education, recreational pot, pensions look like hot issues in upcoming legislative session
Members of San Juan County delegation weigh in on issues
FARMINGTON — This year's legislative session in New Mexico is limited to 30 days and features an agenda focused largely on the budget, meaning it may lack the intrigue of last year's session, which tackled such high-profile issues as abortion, renewable energy and minimum wage increases.
But that doesn't mean there won't be any items of interest taken up when lawmakers convene at the Roundhouse on Jan. 21 for a session that will conclude on Feb. 20.
While legislators try to figure out how to divvy up approximately $800 million in new state revenue, they also are likely to deal with measures addressing recreational marijuana, gun control and underfunded pension plans, according to those who represent San Juan County in Santa Fe.
"It's going to be an interesting session," said state Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, explaining that he expects Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to have a much firmer grip on the process this year as she begins her second year in office.
Neville said the governor certainly was no stranger to the legislative process when she presided over her first session in 2019. But after succeeding Republican Susana Martinez as governor, she had been in office only a few weeks when lawmakers convened last January, giving her little time to establish and generate support for her priorities.
This year will be different, he said.
"She's got her feet on the ground, and she knows what she wants to do," Neville said.
Education likely will be a winner
By law, the state's chief executive sets the agenda for the session this year, limiting the issues lawmakers are allowed to consider. Lujan Grisham unveiled her executive budget recommendations on Jan. 6, a plan that totals nearly $7.7 billion, with much of its new spending focused on education.
Despite their differences in party affiliation, Neville indicated he shares some of the governor's budget priorities, especially those directed toward the classroom. He doesn't expect that lawmakers will be able to dedicate quite as much funding in that direction this year as they did last year, when education saw a major increase, but it will receive another healthy infusion of cash, he said.
Neville supports increased funding for pre-kindergarten programs across the state, citing the cost effectiveness of that approach.
"We've always put a lot of money into pre-k programs, even in years when we didn't have a lot of funding," he said.
Lawmakers could establish a miniature permanent fund, he said, with the earnings from that fund used annually to support pre-kindergarten programs.
Neville also expects more money to be targeted for school districts with large numbers of poor or Native American students — something the governor identified as a priority in her plan.
The governor's support for education drew the strong endorsement of Rep. Anthony Allison of Fruitland, the lone Democrat in the San Juan County delegation. He said his priorities are to secure funding for education, infrastructure and broadband Internet access, and he hopes state spending is spread fairly across the state.
"I hope we address a lot of problems in rural areas — not just Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces problems," he said.
Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, said he hopes some of that money goes to fix the state's aging infrastructure.
"It's going to cost billions to fix our roads and bridges," he said. "Let's do that."
Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington, echoed that sentiment. He also said he would like to see the state repeal its taxes on Social Security benefits and military pensions. That would make New Mexico a much more desirable destination for retirees on a fixed income, he said.
"I sure would like to see some of that money come back to the people," he said. "But I don't know if that's going to be possible with the makeup of this Legislature."
With the state flush with cash because of increased activity in the energy sector, Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, favors the establishment of a 25 percent reserve fund.
"Oil and gas revenue during this (period of) surplus is famously not predictable," he said.
Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, received the news of the governor's recommendations with a grimace.
"Unfortunately, we're going to be playing a lot of defense this year," he said of Lujan Grisham's budget. "If we allow that to go through as is, we will have increased by the budget by 20 percent (over the last two years)."
Montoya said that kind of spending growth is unsustainable, pointing to the aftermath of the last time New Mexico enjoyed a state revenue boom in 2007 and 2008.
"We had record budget surpluses, then everything came back to earth," he said. "So the first priority is to protect future state budgets, not just this one."
Pensions, recreational pot draw attention
A common theme expressed by members of the county's legislative delegation was the need to shore up the struggling retirement funds for state employees and public school teachers. Bandy said the state has been shorting those funds for years, and the time has come to give them their due.
Neville expects his fellow lawmakers to target funding for the public employees pension fund this year, then address the pension fund for teachers next year, with oil and gas-generated revenues expected to remain strong.
Also expected to be on lawmakers' agenda this session is a recreational marijuana proposal supported by the governor. A measure that would have legalized recreational pot during the last session passed the House, but was narrowly defeated in the Senate. Expectations for how legal marijuana will be received this year drew mixed reactions from local legislators.
"I'm sure it'll pass," Strickler said, citing the Democrats' control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office. But he hedged on that statement moments later, recalling that many Democratic lawmakers in Northern New Mexico — where substance abuse is a major problem in some communities — expressed reservations about legalization last year.
Bandy confidently predicted another defeat for the issue this year, explaining he doesn't expect Lujan Grisham to go all in on its passage in 2020.
"It's not going to go anywhere," he said. "I think the governor will want to keep it for an election issue in 2020."
Sharer said he believes recreational marijuana faces some substantial hurdles on the road to legalization, even with a Democratic Legislature. He acknowledged the tax revenue it has generated in other states that have legalized it. But he said that has been more than offset by the increased medical costs of people who over consume.
"If you put a lot of new people in the emergency room because of it, that's not a good plan," he said.
Sharer also said the adoption of a recreational marijuana law in Colorado has had a negative impact on many of its urban areas.
"Look at Durango," he said. "Durango used to be a great place, but it's not so family friendly now."
Neville said he rates the chances of a recreational marijuana bill passing at 50/50, noting that people on both sides of the issue feel strongly about their position. He said everyone understands it can generate some tax revenue, but he said the approach of some states to legalization has not been wise and has led to unanticipated consequences, such as increased homeless and the development of a black market.
"If it were a national change, I'd be a little more in favor of it," he said.
Allison said he was one of the few Democrats in the House to vote against recreational marijuana last year, citing the substance abuse issues in many of the communities he represents. He said he remains personally opposed to its passage, but he has polled Navajo Nation residents at the six chapter houses he represents, and he has found support for legalization at approximately 50 percent this year.
He said he would continue to seek the input of his constituents on the subject, but he said he isn't likely to change his stance unless he becomes convinced that the regulations surrounding the sale and use of recreational pot are tightly established.
Other items on the agenda
Local Republican lawmakers also said they expect Democrats to make another run at passing gun control legislation this session, with Neville saying he expects a so-called "red flag" bill to be advanced that would permit authorities to seek a court to order allowing for the temporary removal of firearms from anyone deemed a danger to themselves or others.
Sharer described such initiatives as "insane" and said they only serve to make criminals out of decent people.
"They shouldn't even be discussed in a 30-day session, but they're coming," he said.
Local lawmakers also remain concerned about the future of the San Juan Generating Station, which the City of Farmington is trying to keep open with a carbon sequestration program.
Montoya said he intends to introduce a measure related to the power plant called the Ratepayer Protection Act, which would limit the rate increases that could be charged to consumers over one-year and five-year periods. Montoya said the measure is necessary because, under current law, he believes the Public Service Company of New Mexico, the power plant's lead operator, has been incentivized to build and abandon new infrastructure every several years until it is producing 100 percent renewable energy.
But he isn't optimistic about the bill getting a hearing.
"We'll see if the governor even gives me a message on it," he said.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at email@example.com.