New Mexico Democrats boost school spending, shun marijuana

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The Democrat-led Legislature approved a $700 million general fund spending increase Friday that will go mostly toward public education as lawmakers scramble to address a court order to expand learning opportunities for low-income and minority students.

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The budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 allots 6 percent salary increases to school teachers and staff, a 4 percent boost for state employees, and money to fill vacancies at offices with responsibilities ranging from child protective services to oilfield regulation.

Spending would increase for at-risk students and to expand the school year by five weeks at many elementary schools.

Two successive annual budget surpluses in excess of $1 billion are allowing the Legislature to plot a major economic stimulus package and respond to a judge's order to boost resources to public education.

State general fund spending would increase by 11 percent to roughly $7 billion. Nearly a half-billion dollars of new annual spending would go toward public education.

The budget now moves to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who backs many major provisions and can veto any or all portions of the bill.

The first-term Democrat made a last-ditch appeal to a Senate panel Friday to provide greater funding for early childhood education, warning that the state is making a "Sophie's choice" to educate some young children and not others.

Lujan Grisham signed a bill this week to create a new childhood education agency that will work toward universal access to early childhood education programs. She said universal access would require $285 million in sustained annual spending once the agency is up and running.

A package of tax increases was thrown into limbo when the House rejected Senate amendments. The bill would increase taxes on car, internet and cigarette sales, while enlarging the state tax credit to families with children.

The consequences of sweeping Democratic midterm election victories in New Mexico were coming into focus on the final full day of the state's annual legislative session.

A bill dubbed the Energy Transition Act was awaiting the governor's signature to provide incentives for electric utility companies to close down a major coal-fired power plant and invest in solar arrays and wind turbines. New Mexico's version of a "Green New Deal" aims for carbon-free electricity production within a generation.

"We are now literally at the tip of the spear in moving toward renewables and carbon-free electricity," said House speaker Brian Egolf, who says fall elections gave Democrats a mandate to pursue campaign promises on education, economic development and progressive social policies.

At the same time, ideological divides among Democrats sunk efforts at a bipartisan effort to legalize recreational marijuana through state-run stores. And a bill that would have removed a dormant criminal ban on abortion was defeated on a 24-18 Senate vote Thursday to the dismay of advocates for abortion rights who fear the U.S. Supreme Court could overturn a 1973 decision that made the procedure legal.

Lujan Grisham, whose campaign was supported by pro-abortion rights groups including Emily's List, called the vote "inexplicable" and the law a continued source of embarrassment.

The Legislature has allowed the governor to deliver on some promises to institute gun control measures. She signed a bill last week to expand background checks for private, person-to-person gun sales that have been largely unregulated.

The Legislature approved late Thursday a bill designed to ensure that firearms are relinquished by people who have been ordered to stay away from domestic violence victims.

Those initiatives and a stalled bill that would make it easier to take guns away from people who may be suicidal or bent on violence have generated a backlash among county sheriffs and others — including local elected leaders in Democratic strongholds around the state — who have argued that enforcement would be difficult and that some of the additional restrictions would do little to address gun violence.

"We need to let our Legislature know that we put them in office, we can take them out of office," Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace told a rally for gun rights outside the statehouse this week, where scores of supporters arrived on horseback behind a "Make America Great Again" flag.

Mace, a Democrat, added: "Keep the irons hot, we got 'til Saturday."

The Legislature adjourns at noon Saturday.

Bills sent to the governor ran the gamut from new road rules to protect bicyclists to increased film production subsidies that could pay the industry over a half-billion dollars over the next five years.

Republicans have pushed back with fiery floor speeches and filibuster tactics against the Democratic agenda on everything from abortion to gun control and energy regulations.

In a House floor session that stretched into the pre-dawn hours Friday, Democrats pushed through the state's first minimum wage increase in a decade. The deal would gradually increase base wages outside major urban areas from $7.50 an hour to $9 next year and $12 by 2023.