SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham urged legislators to legalize recreational marijuana, underwrite tuition-free college for local residents and boost spending on early childhood education amid efforts to improve economic opportunity in a state with the highest rate of poverty in the American West.
At the start of a 30-day legislative session on Tuesday, New Mexico's Democrat-led Legislature is reaching for new ways to bolster a lagging public education system, open up employment opportunities and address concerns about public safety in the wake of the August 2019 mass shooting in nearby El Paso, Texas, and a spate of homicides in Albuquerque.
Lujan Grisham used her annual State of the State speech to push for teacher pay raises and new “craddle-to-career” investments in public education that include $74 million in new annual general fund spending on early childhood programs.
“We will, this year, expand our axis of emphasis to include early childhood education and care, comprehensively changing the trajectory for the youngest kids in this state,” Lujan Grisham said.
She called tuition-free college for in-state students “a prudent, sustainable investment in the bridge we must build between our classrooms and our workforce.”
"We should all be doing everything we can to make student tuition debt a thing of the past," she said.
A state scholarship fund from lottery proceeds already covers 60% of in-state tuition, and at least $35 million is needed to cover the remainder plus fees.
Some legislators in the Democratic majority are wavering on support for a subsidy that is not based on financial need.
“I'm concerned that this is going to benefit people who can afford college, or whose family can afford college,” Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, told the secretary of higher education at a public hearing this week.
Record-setting oil production is producing an economic windfall for state government, with state economists forecasting an $800 million budget surplus over current annual spending obligations of $7 billion.
The governor is proposing an 8% increase in annual general fund spending to nearly $7.7 billion that would provide salary increases to public school and state employees, help shore up a state pension fund and increase Medicaid spending to support increased enrollment and bolster mental health care services. A lead budget-writing committee in the Legislature supports a slightly more austere plan.
With a 30-day session, the governor has discretion over what policy items are heard. She has called for legalization of recreational marijuana, the creation of trust fund to underwrite early childhood education spending and a law to allow police or family members to petition a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms.
A proponent of new gun control measures on Tuesday moved into a key leadership post on law enforcement issues in the state Senate. Democratic attorney and Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces was appointed to oversee the Senate judiciary committee, succeeding disgraced Democratic Sen. Richard Martinez, who served four days in jail this month on a drunken driving conviction.
Cervantes indicated a reluctance to support the legalization of recreational marijuana.
A bill last year to authorize recreational marijuana at state owned stores narrowly won House approval before stalling in the Senate. Senate majority leader Peter Wirth says that retooled legislation has “bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition.”
“I'm going to be working to find a version that can get to the floor" for a vote, he said.
Democratic election victories in 2018 set the state on a progressive political path that has included a surge in government spending on education and infrastructure and ambitious mandates for utilities to provide a greater share of electricity from renewable sources such as solar panels and wind turbines.
But arrangements by lawmakers to shut down a major coal-fired power plant are in legal limbo as elected utility regulators considering intervening over the objections of lawmakers. Lawmakers this year are proposing tax credits toward electric vehicle purchases, block grants that would fund energy efficiency improvements for low-income households and authorization for community-based solar electricity installations.
A few dozen environmental activists held a demonstration outside the Statehouse on Tuesday, placing children in a model of a guillotine to illustrate the dangers of climate change.
House Republicans plan to highlight concerns concerns that government spending is growing too rapidly. They are proposing a constitutional amendment to restrict tax increases and limit annual general fund spending increases to about 4% with mandated tax rebates when big state budget surpluses arise. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers to advance to a statewide ballot.
“We believe the taxpayers would solidly support this,” Republican House minority whip Rod Montoya said.
All lawmakers are up for election this year.
The Legislature appears unlikely to revisit efforts to overturn a dormant ban on most abortion procedures.