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Thursday, January 18 Education News

Lawmakers tackle crime as New Mexico state finances improve

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico lawmakers and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez are preparing to boost spending on public schools, early childhood education programs and law enforcement as state government climbs out of a financial crisis linked to fluctuations in energy markets.

Strategies for reducing property crime and violence, particularly in New Mexico's largest city, also are at the top of the agenda, as lawmakers convene Tuesday for a 30-day session.

New Mexico government income for the coming fiscal year is expected to surpass annual spending obligations by $199 million — new money that lawmakers in the Democrat-led Legislature want to direct toward public schools, early childhood education programs and the judiciary.

The governor wants to raise an additional $99 million to further bolster public education, prisons, business incentives and state spending reserves. Both spending proposals emphasize investments in early childhood education.

The fiscal scenario marks a dramatic turnaround from a year ago, when lawmakers scrambled to fill a budget hole and address a credit-rating downgrade amid a sustained slump in oil and natural gas sectors. The state resorted to tapping severance tax notes, spending cuts at several state agencies and a hiring freeze.

"The New Mexico economy is starting to recover from the double whammy of the Great Recession and the bust in the oil industry," said Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairwoman of the Legislature's lead budget-writing committee.

With a rebound in the oil and gas sector that underwrites one-third of state spending, pay increases are being proposed by both lawmakers and the governor for teachers, prosecutors, judges, public defenders, state police and corrections officers — with an upward bump of at least 1 percent for all state workers.

The Legislature wants a $2,000 base-pay increase for teachers, while the Martinez administration is emphasizing performance incentives — with a new proposal for annual bonuses of $5,000 and $10,000 for teachers with high accolades.

Public education accounts for nearly half of state general fund spending in New Mexico — $2.7 billion out of the proposed $6.3 billion budget proposed by the Legislature. Looming over spending decisions is a lawsuit that accuses the state of failing to meet constitutional obligations to provide an adequate education, especially for low-income, Native American and English-language learners. Local school districts, parents and advocacy groups have asked the judiciary to intervene to boost educational resources and oversight.

Martinez and lawmakers already are clashing on public safety issues. Martinez wants to sign legislation for stiffer criminal penalties including reinstatement of the death penalty. Leading Democratic lawmakers are highlighting efforts to better address community policing efforts at local law enforcement agencies and pay for a data-driven project that helps prosecutors target cases that reduce crime.

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"More statutes on the books is fine, but the people of New Mexico would prefer to see more cops on the street," said Democratic House speaker Brian Egolf, an opponent of capital punishment.

Martinez, a former district attorney from Las Cruces, is prepared for a final push to expand the state's three-strikes law for repeated convictions on violent felonies and toughen penalties for people who commit crimes while on parole or after escaping police custody.

Her capital punishment proposal would apply to murder convictions involving children, law enforcement and corrections officers. It has repeatedly been rejected by the Legislature.

Martinez also is reviving a proposal to grant police broader immunity from prosecution in use-of-force lawsuits. The push comes as the newly elected Democratic mayor of Albuquerque revamps the city's police department and seeks to address federal-government concerns about police brutality.

Republican House minority leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque has struck a more bipartisan tone with proposals designed to enroll inmates suffering from addiction and mental illness in Medicaid as they are released into society and to provide state matching funds so local police forces can pay more to retain veteran officers. Democratic Sen. Daniel Ivey Soto of Albuquerque has co-sponsored those measures.

Many early legislative proposals are opposed by the governor and designed as a prelude to a new administration in 2019 — be it Republican or Democrat. Those measures would legalize and tax recreational marijuana, raise taxes on tobacco products to pay for education, study new taxes on sugary drinks and expand paid access to Medicaid health care.

The governor has discretion over what non-budget items get heard during abbreviated legislative sessions in even years, while lawmakers can revive previously vetoed legislation and place constitutional amendments on the statewide ballot.

At least four lawmakers are running for statewide elected office or Congress in June primaries ahead of the November general election. The entire House is up for re-election.

By law, Martinez cannot run this year for a third term.

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