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Legislature 2019: A once-in-a-generation opportunity

January 14, 2019 GMT

The stakes for the 2019 session of the New Mexico Legislature could not be higher.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, addressing Santa Fe area voters last week at a pre-session town hall, made it clear. With “new revenues out of oil and gas — we think we’ll have them for five to 10 years — it’s up to us to use this money to educate our kids and to diversify our economy. Ten years from now we won’t be dependent on oil and gas and we will save a generation of children from a life of poverty.”

Those are the stakes.

This is not simply a session during which lawmakers debate incremental changes to laws or policies. Or one where partisan division on social issues sucks up the air in the room. No, this is a session to take booming oil and gas dollars and invest them — not simply fritter them away — in ways that will fundamentally change New Mexico.

With a governor in charge who already is spending more time with legislative leaders of both parties, seeking to engage, discuss, debate and set priorities, the members of the Santa Fe delegation at last week’s meeting were optimistic about the session ahead.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth said, “It’s exciting to have a governor who wants to govern.”

Two realities make governing easier in 2019.

New Mexico has a surplus of cash, courtesy of the oil and gas boom. The governor, House and Senate all are from the same party, making at least some agreement easier from the onset.

All leaders understand that education must be a priority in the session. A District Court judge ordered more spending on public schools after ruling that the state is not meeting its obligations under the state constitution. What’s more, legislators have known for some time that teachers need raises and that more dollars must be spent on expanding early childhood education. Specifically, more money has to be spent boosting at-risk children, which in New Mexico public schools, amounts to 75 percent of students, Egolf said.

In the $7.1 billion budget proposed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, education will receive a $500 million annual increase. That increases education’s share of the budget from 43 percent to 46 percent. The budget from the Legislature won’t be released until Monday, but indications are that the two proposals will not be far apart. The debate, we predict, will be less about how much money to spend and more about how best to spend it to get results. How much to put in reserves will also be at issue — Lujan Grisham wants 25 percent, or $1.8 billion, away for down times. Others favor a smaller number, around 20 percent, given the needs of the state.

“This is a big, big year,” Egolf said. He is not exaggerating.

The town hall meeting, bringing together lawmakers from Santa Fe to meet with voters, is an annual tradition. There will be another one after the session to discuss accomplishments (or failures). It’s a way for voters to speak directly to representatives but also to hear what their elected officials plan to do.

In the chilly pavilion at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, Wirth, Egolf, Sens. Nancy Rodriguez and Liz Stefanics, Rep. Linda Trujillo and Rep.-elect Andrea Romero discussed their goals for the session. These men and women representing Santa Fe have broad interests and expertise, and it was obvious they will be in the thick of the debate.

Rodriguez, with her roots in county government and financial expertise, has more than two decades in the Senate; Stefanics also served as a Santa Fe County Commissioner and is a health care expert. Rep. Trujillo brings her experience as a lawyer and with the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education, promising to watch over education bills. She told the audience that hundreds of people have been meeting around the state to plan how best to spend money to get better educational results. The session will be where the work is finalized, but much effort already has taken place. Rep.-elect Romero, who won one of the most contentious primaries to get her seat, promised to work on efforts to combat the opioid epidemic and prioritize energy efficiency efforts.

And those are just some of the big issues facing New Mexico in 2019.

We should be optimistic that this team approach — with the governor and Legislature working as partners, not adversaries — offers promise that the right laws will be passed so that New Mexico can move forward. Obviously, the amity of these early days will dissipate. A governor and lawmakers will not always agree on priorities or approach. Members of the minority GOP party will dissent, and we trust that the majority will listen to those out of power and incorporate their suggestions when warranted. A team includes all members.

But it is clear that right from the beginning, the governor and the leaders of the Senate and House are raring to go. They recognize a once-in-a-generation opportunity. New Mexico cannot afford to waste it.