Chaves County legislators were largely critical but open to some of the agenda laid out by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in her state of the state address.
In her 47-minute address to members of both houses of the New Mexico Legislature, Lujan Grisham articulated her agenda for the 30-day legislative session that includes tuition-free higher education, prescription drug reform and crime-fighting measures.
She opened the speech touting the state’s strong job growth in New Mexico, an influx in state revenue and improved services in state government.
“The state of our state is dynamic, ready for more, on the cusp of steady and sustainable progress. We are stronger than we were a year ago — no question,” Lujan Grisham said.
Some Republicans in southeast New Mexico though were disappointed Lujan Grisham did not credit one of the major drivers of that growth in jobs and state revenue: the state’s oil and gas industry.
“Not one time, not a single time did the governor thank the oil and gas community for their contribution to the state,” state Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, and the top Republican in the New Mexico House of Representatives said in a tweet Tuesday.
Many Republicans also said they were worried about the price tag of Lujan Grisham’s agenda, even at a time when the state is in the midst of a budget surplus.
“It was just spend, spend, spend was what it was all about,” Townsend said.
State Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell, said the speech lacked details in the 8.4% budget increase her office has requested for the fiscal year 2021 budget.
Though the governor has called for 25% of new money to be placed in reserves, Republican lawmakers say they worry a surge in spending for state departments and on new programs could force the state to make painful cuts in future years when the oil and gas revenue dries up.
“We definitely need to save some for those years that it doesn’t come in and be responsible so there are not lapses in services in things that people become accustomed to,” state Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, said.
He added some of the extra revenue should go toward repairing roads and infrastructure.
Much of the governor’s speech was spent on education — transforming the public education, including her proposed opportunity scholarship.
The plan would cover the cost of tuition and fees not paid for through either the New Mexico Lottery Scholarship or federal grants for in-state residents who wish to attend one of New Mexico’s colleges or universities.
Lujan Grisham has requested $35 million in her budget recommendation for the proposal, which she called in her address “a prudent, sustainable investment in the bridge we must build between our classrooms and the workforce.”
Local Republicans though are skeptical of the idea.
“Free tuition is a beautiful idea, however, New Mexico must focus on jobs and a growing economy,” Anderson said.
Townsend said he is worried about the potential cost to taxpayers.
“Somebody is paying for it, nothing is free,” he said.
Townsend added the state should be focused on creating those jobs rather than a program to lower college tuition.
Any new tuition assistance program, Pirtle said, should be for those seeking vocational training.
“If we were to be giving scholarships in New Mexico, that is where I think we should be doing it, that way they are shovel ready, come out with certification to go to work if that is what they want to do,” Townsend said.
Some local legislators though indicated that they might support establishing an Early Childhood Trust Fund for early childhood education programs.
Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said whether he would support the proposal would depend on the details of its impact on the state budget, how it would be funded and the scope of what it would offer.
He said he would be open to the idea if it used some of the extra money the state currently has as a result of the surplus.
“So funding a pot of money from which that program could be utilized to pay for itself would be worthy of review,” Nibert said.
Lujan Grisham has thrown her support against a bill that would create a legal framework that would allow for the sale and possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana.
The legislation, House Bill 160 would also create a licensing framework for marijuana sales.
Area Republicans, however, remain steadfastly opposed to the measure.
“I have a problem with that, I really, really do,” Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell said.
Lujan Grisham in her speech said as a result of a working group, she convened to get input from stakeholders from law enforcement and to find best practices in how to go about legalizing cannabis — she thinks the time is ready for legalization.
Critics though disagree. Anderson said he thinks the benefits of legalization are overstated and New Mexico law enforcement, educators and mental health officials need the proper tools and training before legalization can come about.
One area that won applause from Republicans was the governor’s support for legislation to crack down on crime, such as measures to strengthen penalties for gun and drug offenses and human trafficking. She also touted a measure in her budget recommendation that would fund the hiring of 60 new state police officers and improve the pay of new police recruits.
“So I was really pleased to see the governor take a really tough, aggressive stance on crime and I hope our Democratic colleagues will follow suit with really effective legislation because it is sorely needed,” Nibert said.
Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.