SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday urged legislators at the outset of the state's annual legislative session to rally around new financial commitments to public education that range from an expansion of preschool slots to free college tuition for local residents.
Lujan Grisham delivered her second State of the State speech as legislators weigh what to do with an $800 million budget surplus for the coming fiscal year. The increase in government income is linked largely to the increased production of oil in southeastern New Mexico.
The Democrat boasted about job growth over the past year and told lawmakers that investments aimed at building up opportunities need to continue to ensure the state has a bright future over the next decade and beyond.
She marked education as the key.
“It would be inaccurate to say we chose education as our top priority,” she said in her prepared remarks. "Transforming our public education ecosystem is no less than a moral mandate, an imperative that found us, this group of legislative leaders who are obligated and, I believe, destined to deliver the single best cradle-to-career educational system in the country.”
The governor also declared support for legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana, saying it's time for the state to act. She pointed to a volunteer commission she set up last year to vet health and public safety concerns.
“This is the fact: Recreational cannabis can be the next frontier of our economic expansion,” she said. “We can get in on the ground floor or we can try to play catch up. I know which one I prefer.”
She also addressed public safety, saying violence is too prevalent in the state and that repeat offenders need to be stopped and held accountable.
“We have to draw a line,” she said. “New Mexicans are sick and tired of seeing predators circle in and out of custody, never facing the full force of the law. I am too. Here’s the fact: Dangerous, repeat offenders have got to be in jail.”
She has proposed hiring dozens of state police officers as well as imposing stiffer penalties for drug and gun offenses. She spoke generally of giving law enforcement the tools they need to keep families safe. But the governor did not specifically mention a red-flag bill that would allow the temporary removal of household firearms by court order when police or family members detect dangerous tendencies.
Several sheriffs and advocacy groups have vowed to fight the legislation, continuing a debate from last year that resulted in a wave of counties declaring themselves as Second Amendment sanctuaries.
The governor's priorities for the coming fiscal year would increase general fund spending by about 8%. Leading Republican lawmakers warn the proposed increase — on top of a 12% increase this year — will be hard to sustain if the economy or crucial oil industry falter.
“When you have a windfall or you have high profit, one of the first things that a responsible businessman does is pay down debt and get himself in a position for those lean times in the future,” said Republican House minority leader Jim Townsend of Artesia.
On the education front, New Mexico lawmakers are contending with court challenges from parents and school districts alleging inadequate state funding. New Mexico has the nation's lowest high school graduation rate, while more than 600 teaching positions are vacant across the state despite a drop in the vacancy rate over the past year.
The governor's spending proposal calls for a 4% boost for public school salaries — building on larger salary hikes this year — and a $74 million increase in spending on early childhood education programs for more prekindergarten slots, subsidized day care services for more children living on the cusp of poverty and more home counseling services for families under financial or social stress.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico.