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New Mexico’s top state Senate Democrat outlines priorities

January 9, 2021 GMT
New Mexico Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth, of Santa Fe, guides a floor debate Saturday, June 20, 2020, at the Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M. The New Mexico Legislature met in a special session to address a gaping budget hole linked to the coronavirus and economic upheaval. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also urged legislators to enact policing and temporary election reforms. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
New Mexico Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth, of Santa Fe, guides a floor debate Saturday, June 20, 2020, at the Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M. The New Mexico Legislature met in a special session to address a gaping budget hole linked to the coronavirus and economic upheaval. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also urged legislators to enact policing and temporary election reforms. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s top-ranked state senator said Friday that Democrats will push for direct financial relief to low-income, front-line workers who have borne the brunt of the pandemic — an idea already championed by minority Republicans — during the upcoming legislative session.

Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth said pandemic relief efforts are likely to take center stage at the outset of the 60-day session that begins Jan. 19 and efforts are underway to channel some of the state’s robust financial reserves toward workers and small businesses. Reserves have swelled to about $2.5 billion, or 34% of annual general fund spending obligations.

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“Up front you’re going to see a real focus on, again, using some of the non-recurring money that we have ... a huge chunk of money ... to get it out to small businesses that are really hurting, to working families, to essential workers,” Wirth said.

He described a possible “supplement of some kind” to essential workers making less than $15 an hour.

Republican Senate minority leader Gregory Baca of Belen lamented that Democrats didn’t embrace proposed relief to frontline workers during a November special session.

Baca said Senate Republicans are focused on the coronavirus and economic recovery — and will push for a more democratic approach to pandemic-related emergency health orders — one that gives the Legislature a role in authorizing restrictions that currently are issued by the executive branch of government.

“Our priority right now is the protection and recovery of New Mexico,” Baca said. “We’re going to have a recovery that is going to be challenging, due to the length of the shutdown and the severity of the shutdown.”

Wirth noted that new direct federal aid to state government is more likely now that the U.S. Senate is controlled by Democrats after Tuesday’s runoff elections in Georgia. He said New Mexico school districts already are likely to receive $400 million in direct federal relief under the package approved in December by Congress and President Donald Trump.

Wirth said initiatives to authorize recreational marijuana and shore up state abortion rights provisions are also high on the agenda, after several Democrats successfully campaigned on the issues.

The progressive political shift among Senate Democrats also may lay the groundwork for tax reform, he said, including adjustments to personal income tax rates that ease the burden on low-income residents, raise rates on high earners, or both.

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“There is a willingness to look at ways to really use the tax code to prioritize our values,” Wirth said.

Democrats will hold a 27-15 majority in the state Senate and a 45-15 majority in the state House when the Legislature convenes.

A push also is underway among Democrats including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to channel more money each year toward early childhood education from the state’s multibillion dollar permanent funds.

In a new twist, Wirth said proposals are being prepared that would also channel that trust money toward K-12 education and preschool to address the state’s struggling school system and the threat of court intervention. Recent proposals have focused on preschool students only.

Lawmakers are looking for answers to a landmark 2018 state district court ruling that found New Mexico fails to provide adequate educational opportunities to poor and minority students and those with disabilities.

Parents and school districts sued the state successfully in efforts to claim more resources for public education amid frustrations over state budget priorities and average rates of academic proficiency in reading and math that trail most states.

Leadership positions in the state Senate are up for grabs with the departure of Senate President Mary Kay Papen after a primary election loss. Democrats have nominated Sen. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque to fill that slot that holds sway over top committee posts.

Wirth says he is confident Stewart will be elected by a vote of the entire Senate.