Some area Republican lawmakers responded to New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s State of the State address by expressing hope about her desire for input from all state lawmakers, but expressed concerns about the price tag of her ambitious agenda.
With a surge in state revenue and Democrats in full control of state government for the first time in eight years, Lujan Grisham struck an optimistic note in her 40-minute speech, as she laid out a sweeping agenda on issues ranging from education and minimum wage hikes to gun safety, renewable energy and climate change.
“I believe this is an opportune moment, perhaps the greatest moment of opportunity in the history of the state, because we have the strength, and the vision and the willpower to deliver together,” Lujan Grisham said. “The state of our incredible state is enthusiastic, ambitious and ready.”
Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, also expressed a desire to work with lawmakers on both sides of the partisan divide and for their input in shaping policy, something that area lawmakers welcomed.
“I was pleased to hear Governor Grisham promise to listen to all the legislative voices on the upcoming challenges of a balanced budget,” State Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell, said in a phone interview after the speech.
“Best of all, she spoke about working together on a host of issues,” he added.
State Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said the level of spending Lujan Grisham is seeking is unrealistic. Last week, Lujan Grisham released an executive recommendation for a $7.1 billion budget in FY 2020, a 13 percent increase from existing levels.
“She has a very lofty agenda and we don’t have enough money in the state to pay for everything that she wants,” said Ezzell, who is chair of the House Minority Caucus.
New Mexico has seen a surplus in money coming into the state of about $1.1 billion this year, a break from recent years when the state struggled just to balance the budget.
The additional revenue is mostly due to increased oil and gas production in southeast New Mexico. Nibert said that while he does have some concerns, the additional money will provide the state with more latitude to restore funding to areas that had to be cut to keep the state budget balanced.
However, some of the state spending would not just be one-time infusions of cash, but new programs and obligations that would need to be funded each year going forward.
Democrats now hold a 46 to 24 majority in the New Mexico House and a 10-seat majority in the Senate, but Nibert said Republicans will likely continue raising questions about how the state will pay for policies that require investments each year, especially in years when the state does not see an influx in money.
Republicans will likely be a voice of spending restraint, and remind their colleagues that not too long ago the state faced a budget crunch, where it was a struggle to maintain existing programs and services in the state.
“How do we make these expenditures in lean years, if we add to the size of government in New Mexico,” Nibert asked?
Much of Lujan Grisham’s address emphasized the need for increased education funding.
“We are going to deliver a moonshot for public education in the state of New Mexico: A half billion dollars for our classrooms, new money, put to its best possible use, right now,” Lujan Grisham said in her speech.
Her proposals include a $500 million increase in public education funding, raising salaries for teachers across the board by 6 percent on top of raising by 10 percent the salaries of educators at every level, and a $12 minimum wage for all education personnel.
Lujan Grisham in her budget also calls for $60 million for universal pre-kindergarten, $5 million for pre-k classrooms from the state capitol budget, a nearly 200 percent increase in the state Indian Education Fund and $55 million for billingual and multicultural programs.
Nibert said that although he thinks there need to be dynamic changes in education, he thinks dollars also have to be spent more carefully.
He said he thinks many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are going to look critically at the numbers Lujan Grisham has stated in her address and budget recommendation, and ask whether such investments are sustainable.
Ezzell also objected to some of Lujan Grisham’s proposals on philosophical grounds, such as calls for universal pre-k.
“Three-year-olds going to school, are you kidding me? Do they not have anything to learn from their parents?” she asked.
“Where are the parents in the upbringing of this child?” she asked.
Area lawmakers were also critical of initiatives proposed by Lujan Grisham that would expand renewable energy.
In her address Lujan Grisham put forth the goal that the renewable energy sources be used for 50 percent of energy production in the state by 2030, and 80 percent by 2040.
Ezzell said such a proposal does not take into account the long term ramifications for southeast New Mexico, where oil and gas production is a major source of jobs.
“What does that do for the jobs that have been created by the oil and gas industry, by the agricultural community — do those just go away? What then?” she asked.
Nibert said he is also suspicious of Lujan Grisham’s claim that increasing renewables and other measures to lighten the state’s carbon footprint will bring in more money to the state. He said he is eager to see her plans, as to how increasing renewable energy sources will translate into more revenue for the state than what fossil fuels bring in.
Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.