Local legislative priorities

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Public schools account for the largest share of state spending from the main budget account, about 45 percent or $2.3 billion this year. Higher education represents 15 percent of state spending. A report by Education Week ranks New Mexico last in the nation on a “Chance for Success” index that measures a young person’s opportunity to succeed in life.

PROPOSALS: In his budget recommendations to lawmakers, Gov. Bill Richardson calls for a 7.4 percent increase in teacher salaries. The Legislative Education Study Committee proposed a 9.5 percent increase in spending on public schools next year, or $217 million. The committee is pushing many initiatives, including a new high school “diploma of excellence” with extra math, science and foreign language class requirements for graduation. A coalition of education groups wants lawmakers to earmark 50 percent of new state spending for schools.

OUTLOOK: Schools will be a popular topic in the session because the state is flush with revenues. The governor, because of his potential presidential bid, will have an extra political incentive to ensure teachers get a healthy pay raise and he’ll demand money for a significant expansion of pre-kindergarten programs. A nagging question is how the state responds to low student performance on math and reading tests.

LOCAL INPUT: Clovis Municipal Schools officials will push for two causes with the Legislature: Funding creation of a performing arts center, and fencing and doors for Clovis High School, according to Clovis Schools Director of Community Relations David Briseno.
Officials have yet to determine the funding amount they will ask the Legislature for the arts center, to be located at the Arts Academy at Bella Vista. They want roughly $553,000 for funding and uniform door locks at the high school, Briseno said.
Proposals to raise teachers’ salaries by 7.4 percent and earmark 50 percent of new state funding for schools are welcomed locally, Briseno said.
“We never have enough money to meet all our needs,” Briseno said.
“With better pay for teachers,” he added, “we can expect more (from teachers).”

Public safety issues
New Mexico has long been plagued by one of the highest rates of alcohol-related traffic deaths in the nation — eighth in 2005. The problem is drawing renewed attention because six people died in a November accident in which a drunken driver went the wrong way on Interstate 25 near Santa Fe. The state’s crime lab has a backlog of almost 700 cases, including drug testing and DNA analysis.

PROPOSALS: Expect a wide range of measures aimed at drunken driving. Attorney General Gary King recommends a longer requirement for ignition interlocks for drunken drivers, such as doubling it to two years upon a first conviction. Gov. Bill Richardson proposes hiring more staff to help trim the crime lab’s backlog and boost salaries to recruit and retain technicians. The governor also recommends longer prison sentences for crimes involving guns. Anti-death penalty forces will make a push to abolish capital punishment in New Mexico.

OUTLOOK: Some lawmakers contend the state has enough anti-DWI laws and say more emphasis should be given to treatment programs for drug and alcohol abuse. Richardson will try to revive a proposal, which died in the Senate last year, to require life sentences for certain sex offenders.

LOCAL INPUT: Clovis Police Chief Dan Blair embraces efforts to address public safety issues in the Legislature.
Proposals to curb drunken driving, stiffen penalties and increase funding for the state crime lab would benefit Curry County, he said.
Prison sentences for crimes involving handguns would strike at homicides in Clovis, he said.
“When you look back at our homicides in Clovis, the majority of them are firearm related,” he said.
Drunken driving measures are also needed.
“Drunk driving is an issue in any community,” he said.
Also, more funding for the state crime lab and bigger salaries for state crime lab employees would alleviate much stress on the local level. The Clovis Police Department relies on the lab to process forensic evidence. Sometimes, police wait for months.
“We deal with the (backlog) constantly. This has been an issue for several years,” Blair said.

Other issues
Rep. Jose Campos, D-Santa Rosa, pinpointed two issues of local importance: Proposals to Medicaid investments, and funding for water projects.
The Ute Water Project, which would pump water from Ute Lake to eastern New Mexico via a pipe, stands to gain, he said.
“There is going to be a large investment in water and those areas are critical for Clovis,” he said.
The Ute project needs $40 million. If the federal government picks up 80 percent of its funding, the state would need to fund 10 percent, and local government another 10 percent match, he said.
“For when the federal government does take it seriously, we need a pool (of funds),” Campos said.
He also said, “There is going to be a great concentration on the excess funds (in the Legislature). We are going to refund some of the areas that have been neglected in the past 10 years, such as Medicaid.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report

The 2007 Legislature at a glance:

The 2007 Legislature, formally known as the first session of the 48th Legislature, convenes at noon Tuesday.

The session, as required by the state Constitution, adjourns after 60 calendar days — at noon March 17. The governor has 20 days after adjournment to sign bills passed during the last three days of the session. That deadline is April 6.

The Senate has 42 members, 24 Democrats and 18 Republicans. The House has 70 members, 42 Democrats and 28 Republicans.

The New Mexico Legislature is not salaried, but members receive $142 a day during the session to reimburse them for expenses.

There are no restrictions on the subject matter of bills during a 60-day session. There were 2,182 bills introduced in 2005, the most recent 60-day session, and 351 became law.
Among the issues this year are a budget to finance state government and public education, tougher drunken driving laws, tax cuts for businesses and individuals and ethics reforms, including limits on campaign contributions.

Legislators do not run for re-election until 2008. However, Gov. Bill Richardson is considering a possible bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Contact lawmakers by calling the legislative switchboard: 986-4300. Read bills, committee schedules and lists of members on the Legislature’s Web Site: http://legis.state.nm.us.

— The Associated Press