2015 Legislative Preview Reveals Tough Challenges

From left, Dist. 43 Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, Sen. Carlos Cisneros, Rep. Jim Smith and Common Cause NM Executive Director Viki Harrison at Thursday’s Legislative Preview at Fuller Lodge. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com
Dist. 43 Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard discusses the upcoming legislative session. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com
Los Alamos Daily Post

Looking at the upcoming legislative session, which begins Jan. 20, Dist. 43 Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard described it as, “a brave new world for all of us.”

For the first time in 62 years, the Republican Party has control of the House while the Democrats retain control in the Senate. Just what will result from this new mix-up in the legislature remains to be seen but Democrat Garcia Richard, Democrat Sen. Carlos Cisneros and Republican Dist. 22 Rep. Jim Smith offered a preview of the upcoming session Thursday night at Fuller Lodge.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the League of Women Voters hosted the event, moderated by AAUW President Judy Prono.

Garcia Richard told the audience that she has three bills she is working on – two which are pre-filed and the third is being crafted. One is on education reform to limit class size. Garcia Richard also is co-sponsoring DUI legislation that calls for home breathalyzers for those who do not own cars and tightens standards for DUI offenders to obtain a driver’s license. The third bill addresses procurement reform to help ensure local businesses are competitive with out-of-state businesses in getting state contracts.

Cisneros joked after hearing Garcia Richard discuss her bills that his first priority will be to kill some of the House’s bills. On a more serious note, he said the state is facing some budget challenges. The decrease in gas prices is not welcomed news for a state that depends on oil and gas production for revenue, he said.

The state projects a decrease in new money from $285 million to $140 million and Cisneros predicted cuts to state spending will be made. Another focus is highway maintenance and repair, he said, adding that it is a concern how the state will meet this need when the cost exceeds a billion dollars.

The budget challenges are “a downside of what we get to look forward to,” he said. “Still, I look forward to a challenging session.”

Smith explained his basic philosophy as a legislator is, “If you’re in a room where everyone says ‘ahem’ to everything you’re saying, you’re in the wrong room.” As a former teacher, one of Smith’s biggest focuses in on education. He describes state lawmakers’ approach to education as “diddlying around the edges.” For instance, lawmakers are looking at installing GPS devices on school buses and to deal with truancy, lawmakers decided students with a high number of absences should have their driver’s licenses revoked. Programs Smith said he is working to help fund include school-based health centers as well as the breakfast before the bell.

Many of the questions audience members asked the lawmakers at Thursday’s forum were about education. One audience member asked how the state might help contribute to the lottery scholarship fund. Garcia Richard said she had heard a proposal to fund it from the general fund and since revenue is projected to fall, the general fund is not looking good. Cisneros agreed, saying the only potential solution was to go get money from the general fund. Smith said he felt the lottery fund could tighten its standards by increasing the grade point average eligible for the scholarship from 2.0 to 3.0.

Los Alamos Public School Superintendent Gene Schmidt asked what legislators intend to do to improve teachers’ salaries since their salaries are $10,000 less than teachers in neighboring states. 

Garcia Richard said that as a teacher herself, she personally knows that while teachers in New Mexico haven’t had a significant increase in pay in six years, they have been given more responsibility. She said while a bill proposing a tiered increase for teacher pay passed the House and Senate, the Governor vetoed it. Garcia encouraged students and parents to continue to advocate for higher teacher salaries. Cisneros said his sense was higher pay was doable but cuts elsewhere would need to be made. He agreed New Mexico needed to be competitive in teachers’ salaries.

Another issue regarding teachers’ salaries was raised. A participant asked what the lawmakers’ thoughts were on merit pay. Smith said, “I don’t believe in merit pay. I just never thought it was a good idea. It pits teacher against teacher.”

Another audience member asked a more general question, which was how could the state get out of its poverty when it has few prosperous businesses because businesses don’t want to come to the state due to the lack of education, including early childhood education. Garcia Richard interpreted the question to mean “what is the systemic change for systemic issues.” She said she highly supports early childhood education, which she called, “the best return on our investment … it’s a great, effective program that works.”

She said state government unfortunately, moves at a glacial pace in dealing with these issues but believes, “if we wisely invest, we can be successful.” Cisneros said the problem is there is a lack of funding to pay for early childhood education and it is a point of contention to dip into the permanent fund to pay for early childhood education.

Another audience member asked lawmakers for their thoughts on legislation that would retain third graders from moving to the next grade level if it is determined that they cannot read at grade level. Smith said he has to wait and see what the bill actually proposes. Garcia Richard said she did not agree that mandatory retention based on a test result would be a good idea. “I have serious heartburn with a bill like that,” she said.

She also wondered why third grade was chosen to hold back students who have trouble reading; Garcia Richard argued if a student had trouble reading in third grade, they probably had trouble reading in earlier grades and the issue should be addressed sooner.

Members of the Los Alamos High School Hilltalkers debate team assisted at Thursday’s Legislative Preview as timekeepers and microphone facilitators.

The League of Women Voters is hosting a forum, 7-9 p.m. (with refreshments at 6:30 p.m.), Wednesday, Jan. 14, in Fuller Lodge for candidates running for the Los Alamos Public School Board and UNM-LA Advisory Board.

Los Alamos Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gene Schmidt asks lawmakers about funding possibilities to provide long overdue raises for teachers. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladilypost.com

Los Alamos County Councilor Susan O’Leary expresses appreciation to Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard for her work on behalf of teachers and education. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladilypost.com

John Courtright raised the question of child abuse and said everyone in the room is guily for what happened to 9-year-old Omaree Varela of Albuquerque whose mother and stepfather reportedly abused him. The boy called 911 for help to no avail and died in 2013 – his mother is charged with kicking him to death. Courtright called on lawmakers to do something to protect children from abusive situations. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladilypost.com

Audience members question lawmakers at Thursday’s event. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladilypost.com

Los Alamos author and train traveler Inez Ross took a brief moment to speak to the audience Thursday and encourage them to contact the Governor about concern over losing the Amtrak Southwest Chief passenger train if funding cannot be found to maintain the rail infrastructure. ‘The loss of the train and the rail line would have a devestating impact on the economy of New Mexico and reduce the essential mobility that the daily train provides … I urge (the Governor) to add legislation to the agenda for the 2015 legislative session to fund Amtrak’s request to New Mexico for $4 million/year for 10 years in order to maintain the rail line and keep the Southwest Chief,’ she said. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com