New Mexico lawmakers to focus on public education overhaul
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — An overhaul of New Mexico’s struggling public education system is at the forefront of legislative priorities as an expanded Democratic majority arrives at the state Capitol for a 60-day session on Tuesday.
The inauguration of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to succeed a two-term Republican has opened a floodgate for progressive-led initiatives on climate change, gun control, marijuana regulation, abortion rights and changes to taxes and subsidies designed to trim state’s fiscal reliance on a boom-and-bust oil industry.
In November elections, Democrats broadened their House majority while consolidating control of every statewide elected office, from attorney general to the state’s commissioner of public lands who oversees a crucial flow of state income from energy leases.
The governor and allied majority leaders of the state House and Senate say the No. 1 priority is bolstering resources for public education. Introductory proposals would not only increase teacher pay but also expand public preschool, lengthen the school year by as much as five weeks and better tailor curricula to the area’s Hispanic and Native American students.
House Speaker Brian Egolf says the goal is to break free of a vicious cycle of poverty.
“We have a once-in-a-many-generation opportunity to achieve major results because of the enormous budget surplus, a new governor who is engaged and ready to lead and a big new majority in the House that shares the governor’s priorities,” he said.
State general fund income is expected to outpace spending obligations by $1.4 billion during the current fiscal year ending in June and by another $1.1 billion for the budget year ending in April.
Lujan Grisham has proposed an annual general fund spending increase of roughly $800 million, from $6.3 billion to $7.1 billion, staring in July. That includes a 12 percent spending increase devoted mostly to public education.
The Legislative Finance Committee will publish its own first draft Monday.
The majority of the budget surplus is traced by state economists to a surge in oil and natural gas production. And fears of a future oil bust are adding urgency to years-long efforts to diversify the economy and stabilize government finances. The Legislature will consider whether to steer more state investments into local enterprises, and Egolf says Democrats are interested in higher income taxes for top earners and lower rates for the gross receipts tax on sales and services.
When it comes to public education, school districts in New Mexico rely almost entirely on state government spending. The governor’s budget proposal would boost annual spending on public education by nearly $500 million to $3.2 billion for the coming fiscal year, beginning July 1, in an attempt to satisfy a judge’s order to increase resources to public schools.
New Mexico is one of several states where courts have stepped in to shore up funding for schools, as frustration mounts with elected officials over budget priorities and the quality of education.
State District Court Judge Sarah Singleton has given the governor and Legislature until mid-April to come up with plan to correct widespread violations of the constitutional right to an adequate education, particularly among students from low-income, Native American and non-English speaking households. A 600-page court order hones in on specific failures and proven remedies, leaving little room for excuses.
“What the court found is that the state knows that only one in four children read at grade level in the third grade,” said Gail Evans, lead attorney for a group of plaintiffs in the education lawsuit. “The state can no longer base the budget on last year’s inadequate budget and then just throw in a little money.”
The departure of termed-out former Gov. Susana Martinez sets the stage for attempts to reform statutes on gun safety, increase the minimum wage and authorize recreational marijuana — ideas that were anathema to her Republican administration.
A vetoed bill designed to deny firearms to perpetrators of domestic abuse will be back, and lawmakers will consider extending federal background checks to more gun sales.
The Legislature has limited guns to concealed-carry permit holders on opening day and will screen bags for weapons. It’s a one-day exception to Statehouse rules allowing the open carry of legally owned firearms without entranceway screening.