New Mexico lawmakers boost spending, wrestle with crime
By MORGAN LEE and RUSSELL CONTRERAS
Feb. 15, 2018
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Legislature pushed to shore up the criminal justice system and boost spending for education at the close of a 30-day legislative session Thursday.
Lawmakers rallied around a bipartisan package of public safety reforms designed to bolster police ranks, deter repeat drunken driving, toughen gun-possession penalties for violent felons, and better address addiction and health issues among prison inmates as they are released.
The Democrat-led Legislature shunned several hardline crime bills — even as Republican Gov. Susana Martinez offered to testify in the Senate as an expert witness on a bill to expand life sentences for the intentional and fatal abuse of teenagers.
Martinez, a former prosecutor, said she was generally supportive of the Legislature's spending priorities after her office negotiated Senate amendments that boosted funding for the district attorney's office in Albuquerque, where reports of crime have spiked and auto theft rates lead the nation.
"I am pleased that they took important steps to address crime in our state, pay raises for teachers, fund the important elements of our criminal justice system and put our fiscal house in strong order," Martinez said at a news conference.
The operating budget for Albuquerque prosecutors would rise 16.5 percent under the Legislature's proposal. There would be additional funding to prosecute violent crimes against children, create a crime strategies unit and clear a backlog of court cases. An 8.5 percent pay increase is slated for state police, prison guards and parole officers.
More money was allotted to judges and public defenders. However, Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur warned that his staff could be overwhelmed.
"If the increase in the Albuquerque district attorney's budget leads to significant increases in cases being filed, we're going to be in trouble," he said Thursday.
In all, the budget increases general fund spending by $259 million — or about 4 percent — for the fiscal year starting July 1. Base pay increases of at least 2 percent were allotted to public school teachers and all state employees.
A rebound in the oil and natural gas sectors is providing a windfall to the state after two years of austere budgeting.
"We feel very good about getting substantially more funding and resources for our public schools," said Democratic Sen. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque.
The Legislature lined up a 2.3 percent increase on public school funding to $2.7 billion. School districts in New Mexico depend on the state for the majority of their funding.
Separate efforts stalled that would have pumped an annual $150 million into early childhood education by tapping a $17 billion state sovereign wealth fund. The proposed constitutional amendment would have required a statewide vote, but died in the Legislature after Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith declined to give the measure a committee hearing.
New Mexico is one of several states where courts are being called upon to shore up funding for public schools, as frustration mounts with elected officials over budget priorities and the quality of education.
Local school districts, parents and advocacy groups have accused the state of failing to meet constitutional obligations to provide an adequate education for all students, citing lagging academic proficiency and high school graduation rates that trail most of the country.
On government oversight issues, the Legislature backed greater confidentiality for tenant trade secrets and contracts at the state-subsidized spaceport in southern New Mexico. Lawmakers also agreed to spend an additional $11 million to help managers at Spaceport America lure new aerospace clients.
The Legislature voted to increase state oversight and public access to information regarding professional guardians and conservators who manage finances and care for vulnerable elderly and disabled people.
Lawmakers abandoned proposals that would have stripped pension benefits from elected officials convicted of corruption, in response to a string of high-profile scandals. Former state Sen. Phil Griego is scheduled to be sentenced Friday after a jury found him guilty of fraud and felony ethics violations.