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Lawmakers sound off on upcoming session

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New Mexico House Minority Leader Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, prepares for the start of the New Mexico Legislative session on Jan. 15, 2019, in Santa Fe. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)

Local legislators will head to Santa Fe for the 2020 legislative session next Monday, many sharply critical of the proposals put forth by the governor and the Democratically-controlled state Legislature, and others with their own items they want to see enacted into law.

The 30-day session starts Jan. 21 and will last until Feb. 20, according to the official website of the New Mexico Legislature.

Much of the focus of the session will be on crafting a state budget.

State Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said that like last session, the state will experience a surplus. Last session the state saw $1.2 billion in new money — or money that was an increase over the 2018 legislative session. This year the state is expected to have a $797 million surplus.

Sessions where the state experiences a surplus in revenue, Ingle said, are often dominated by debates on how to spend that money.

“So there will be some interesting debates, that is for sure,” Ingle said.

The governor and a key legislative committee have released their respective budgets. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Jan. 6 released her office’s budget proposal for $7.6 billion in the General Fund recurring budget, or an 8.4 percent increase over the previous year, according to a press release from her office.

The Legislative Finance Committee unveiled its own proposal for $7.5 billion in recurring appropriations from the state’s General fund, a 6.5 percent increase from fiscal year 2020 spending levels.

Some leading Republicans have said between the spike in spending last year and additional growth in spending this year, the Legislature needs to be more prudent.

State Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said spending needs to be reined in.

“Spending is out of control and I am concerned that if we don’t get everything in check right now, we’re not going to have anything to show for it right now,” Ezzell said.

To the degree there is spending, Ezzell said, more needs to be invested in repairing the roads and infrastructure in southeast New Mexico.

Some of the surplus, Ezzell said, should also be returned to taxpayers in the form of rebates.

“We do have responsible citizens who do live within their means,” she said. “If we’re going to start spending their money, why not give some of that money back to the people who contributed it?”

Opportunity Scholarship

One of the items included in Lujan Grisham’s budget is $35 million for the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship.

Unveiled in September, the proposal would cover the cost of tuition and fees not paid for through either federal grants or the New Mexico Lottery Scholarship for in-state residents who wish to attend one of New Mexico’s public colleges or universities, starting this coming fall.

Lujan Grisham said in a statement when she announced the idea in September it would be a “game changer” for New Mexico, and help underserved populations get a college education.

Republicans, however, remain skeptical.

“I don’t think free adds value to much of anything,” said State Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, and the lead Republican in the New Mexico House of Representatives.

Having the cost of tuition and fees paid fully by the state, Townsend said, will not keep students in the state after they graduate if they can’t find jobs.

A better use of the state’s money and time would be creating good paying jobs and increasing access to vocational training, he said.

Townsend said there are many jobs in southeast New Mexico that pay good wages and do not require a college degree.

Other lawmakers, such as Ingle, worry if the proposal is implemented, the state could be struck paying for the rising price tag.

The governor’s office defended the Opportunity Scholarship Monday.

In an email, Nora Meyers Sackett, press secretary for Lujan Grisham, said that record investments have been made by the governor in K-12 education and vocational training.

One aspect of the plan, she said, will be memorandums of understanding between the New Mexico Higher Education Department and higher education institutions that would protect against unwarranted tuition increases.

She added that more investments in education mean more New Mexicans will have the chance to become teachers, which mean more teachers for New Mexico schools.

Ingle said that tuition relief, such as that provided by the Opportunity Scholarship, should be reserved for fields of work where New Mexico has trouble finding workers.

“If we are going to do it, let’s do it where it is going to make sense,” he said.

Extreme Risk Protection

Lujan Grisham announced last week she will add the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act to her call for the coming legislative session.

The proposal, which has already been pre-filed, would allow law enforcement officers or relatives to petition courts to temporarily take firearms and ammunition if it can be demonstrated through probable cause someone represents a danger to themselves or other people.

In all, 17 states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar laws, known as “Red Flag laws”

Lujan Grisham and proponents of the bill say at it would provide law enforcement and victims of threats of violence with a needed tool to protect themselves and prevent gun violence.

Opponents of the bill though, such as state Sen. Cliff Pirtle, said they are worried it could undermine not only a person’s Constitutional right to bear arms, but also due process.

“It’s definitely a slippery slope when we start allowing just simple complaints to turn into being stripped of your rights to defend yourself or your family,” he said.

Other items

In addition to the agenda laid out by the governor and the budget, lawmakers also have some of their own proposals.

As of Monday, 254 bills had been pre-filed ahead of the opening of the session.

One proposal that Ingle said will likely be looked at is legislation that would exempt some Social Security benefits from being taxed.

New Mexico is one of the few states that taxes Social Security benefits, he said.

Two proposals have been introduced already. One, House Bill 77, would allow an individual to exempt $24,000 of Social Security Benefits from being taxed.

Another proposal would allow all of an individual’s Social Security benefits to be exempted from being taxed.

Pirtle said he hopes bipartisan support can be found to put some of the state’s surplus dollars into a savings account that could be used to fund infrastructure upgrades.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.