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New laws taking effect July 1 reflect progressive shift

June 29, 2019
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FILE - In this April 3, 2019 file photo, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs legislation to raise teacher salaries and increase annual spending on public schools by almost a half-billion dollars at Salazar Elementary School in Santa Fe, N.M. The effects of a progressive shift in New Mexico politics are being felt as new laws take effect that restrict gun access, raise taxes and decriminalize low-level marijuana possession. Starting Monday, July 1, 2019, the state also is increasing general fund spending by 11% amid a windfall in income from the oil industry. New taxes will apply to car sales, online retail transactions and e-cigarettes. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The effects of a progressive shift in New Mexico politics are being felt as new laws take effect that restrict gun access, raise taxes, decriminalize low-level drug possession and provide a major boost in state spending on everything from teacher salaries to road construction.

Starting Monday, taxes on vehicle sales rise by 33%. Background checks will be required for nearly all firearms purchases, and smaller public bathrooms will become gender-neutral.

The state also is raising its salaries and channeling more money toward public education initiatives designed to help at-risk students in response to a court order mandating greater school resources.

Aside from the tax hikes, a windfall from the oil sector will help with increased government spending as the industry is expected to provide the state with a $1 billion surplus for a second consecutive year.

Many of the new laws make good on Democratic campaign promises, while Republican state Sen. Steven Neville warned of “borderline socialism.”

Here’s a glance at the new laws and spending provisions:

GUN CONTROL

The gun regulations that go into effect Monday have been a lightning rod for criticism by rural sheriffs, county commissions and many Republican lawmakers.

Most notably, the new laws expand statewide background checks to nearly all gun purchases. That includes sales between neighbors or friends, with exceptions for relatives and antique guns.

New Mexico also is limiting who can carry firearms on school grounds to trained security personnel and prohibiting people from possessing a firearm if they’re under permanent protective orders for domestic violence.

First-year Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham campaigned on pledges to improve gun safety and signed the new initiatives with enthusiasm.

More than two dozen sheriffs in predominantly rural areas vowed to avoid enforcement, equipped with supportive resolutions from county commissions. New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association President Tony Mace of Cibola County compares the universal background check law to texting-while-driving prohibitions that aren’t enforced a lot of the time.

“What we’re talking about is discretion on which laws we want to use to basically impact crime and prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands,” Mace said. “I do think you’re going to see a difference between the rural parts of New Mexico versus the metropolitan parts.”

State Attorney General Hector Balderas has warned sheriffs and police chiefs that they risk legal liability if they refuse to enforce the new law.

Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki says people including responsible gun owners will be glad to see the changes take place.

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TAX INCREASES

New Mexico is attempting to reduce its dependence on the oil and gas industry and its boom-and-bust business cycles by broadening the tax base.

Taxes on new and used vehicle sales are rising from 3% to 4%, providing funds for critical repairs to roads in southeastern New Mexico.

New Mexico is requiring gross receipt taxes on most internet retail sales for the first time, after a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision cleared the way. The state’s 5.1% tax kicks in Monday. Additional city and county portions of the tax won’t be collected until mid-2021. Retail giants such as Amazon already collect the tax.

E-cigarettes are being taxed for the first time at 50 cents per system cartridge or 12.5% on vaping liquids. The state tax on cigarettes is rising from $1.66 for a pack of 20 to $2.

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GOVERNMENT SPENDING

Annual general fund spending will increase by 11% for the fiscal year starting July 1.

A major share of the increase is aimed at public education, raising school salaries by at least 6% and bankrolling initiatives that extend learning time for students, training for teachers and support services outside the classroom.

“Public education is at the heart of things,” Stelnicki said. “You’re going to see the transformation that New Mexicans have long waited to see.”

The state is wagering heavily on programs such as K-5 Plus that extend the elementary school year by five weeks.

The new spending responds to a court order to put more resources toward K-12 education, citing the state’s failure to provide an adequate education to minority and impoverished students.

With the increase, the state will be spending nearly half of its general fund budget on public education.

Lawmakers also recently approved roughly $930 million for public construction projects and an additional $390 million for roads. Republican Sen. Steven Neville of Aztec said the investments in schools and roads were desperately needed and should stimulate the economy.

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CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Penalties are being reduced for the possession of small amounts of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

Having up to a half-ounce (14 grams) of marijuana becomes a petty misdemeanor that translates into a $50 fine on first offense.

Another new law sets a 180-day deadline for law enforcement agencies to process sexual assault kits that can help identify perpetrators through traces of DNA. It also requires that assault victims be advised of the deadline.

Cities including Albuquerque are attempting to clear a backlog of untested kits.

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COYOTES

The state is banning contests to see who can shoot and kill the most coyotes. The prohibition was among a slate of legislation related to wildlife, gun rights and voting procedures that has drawn the ire of self-described patriot groups that favor limited government.

The groups have unsuccessfully applied to circulate signature petitions to overturn new state laws by voter referendum, a procedure rarely used in the state’s history.

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PENSION WOES

The state is increasing its contributions slightly to retirement trusts for public employees and educators, a bump equal to 0.25% of salary. It’s not enough to allay concerns about growing unfunded pension liabilities.

More significant reforms are kicking in at the retirement fund for educators in an effort to pay down pension liabilities more quickly — over the course of about 46 years, rather than 70.

The changes mean less generous pension benefits for future educational employees with shorter careers.

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