New Mexico legislative priorities start with virus, economy

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Top Democratic legislators in the New Mexico House of Representatives say the coronavirus pandemic and recovery efforts will drive efforts as lawmakers meet next week to push forward legislation on the economy, education and health care.

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“Our House Democratic priorities are to quickly deliver additional pandemic relief and legislation that supports small businesses — such as expanding our Small Business Recovery Act, restaurants and hospitality industry — frontline essential workers and unemployed who have endured a year like no other,” state House Majority Leader Sheryl Stapleton said Thursday, as leading House Democrats outlined the legislative agenda.

Democratic House leadership also supports a 3% increase in funding for the Public Education Department, and long-term changes to education funding that would take effect in the coming years.

Stapleton, of Albuquerque, promised "robust support for schools and school districts, so they can reopen safely and quickly to get our children back in the classroom.”

In the short term, that support might include grants for personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing.

Democrats are proposing a constitutional amendment to pull an additional 1% annually from the balance of the state’s $20 billion endowment for education and other public institutions. Approval by the Legislature would send the measure to a statewide vote next.

House Republicans said Thursday that they will be focused on “returning life back to normal as soon as possible” through bills on small-business assistance, the economy and education.

“New Mexico House Republicans want to reassure voters that not only will we oppose the out-of-touch agenda being pushed by progressive Democrats, but we will support and defend those traditional principles that most New Mexicans know are needed to protect our way of life, ” Republican House minority leader James Townsend, of Artesia, said in a statement.

On the Democratic side, there’s a comfortable majority and a new crop of progressive legislators eager to pass long-term school funding legislation that has been on their party’s wish list for years.

Democratic Speaker Brian Egolf, of Santa Fe, says his focus is on “recovery, recovery, recovery," while acknowledging momentum behind Democratic efforts to repeal the state's dormant ban on most abortion procedures. Democrats want to repeal the abortion ban in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established abortion rights nationwide.

“With regard to the antiquated law that criminalizes abortion in New Mexico, it will be repealed this session,” Egolf said.

A repeal bill passed the House in 2019 but was voted down in the Senate as socially conservative Democrats joined with Republicans in opposition.

Republican lawmakers have bristled over the governor’s pandemic-related health restrictions on businesses and indicate they will seek new legislative authority over public health orders. State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce recently described opposition to abortion as the “leading social justice issue of our generations.”

The unsalaried Legislature meets for 60-days in odd-numbered years to consider major policy reforms in addition to crafting an annual spending plan.

The session is expected to include discussions on long-term investments in broadband. The pandemic has laid bare the high cost of being a rural state that’s behind on high-speed internet access, as remote learning and telehealth was hobbled because many residents couldn’t connect.

Egolf confirmed that the Capitol building will be closed to the public and lobbyists as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19, with most activity conducted remotely by video conference.

Despite some proposals to expand the session to a larger building and allow some in-person comments from the public, coronavirus concerns—as well as the recent threats of violence in state legislatures —are restricting public participation to video chats and phone calls.

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AP staff writer Morgan Lee contributed reporting

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.