The League of Women Voters of Los Alamos and the American Association of University Women held a Legislative Preview Wednesday night at Fuller Lodge. The 2014 legislative session will begin Jan. 21 and continue for 30 days. The short session is limited to budget items, vetoed legislation from 2013, and legislation that the Governor puts on her call.
Dist. 43 Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard and Senators Carlos Cisneros, Dist. 6 representing White Rock and Richard Martinez, Dist. 5 representing Los Alamos town-site, shared their views on the upcoming session. Also, Kristina Fisher of Think New Mexico shared the group’s jobs creation initiatives and Los Alamos Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Gerry Washburn discussed proposed education legislation.
The revenue picture is a bit brighter this year, Richard said, mostly due to a $100 million increase in mineral lease revenues. An increase in funding for education is already on the table, with Gov. Susana Martinez proposing a 3 percent increase and other legislators proposing higher increases, Richard said, adding that education will be one of the most important topics of the session.
Richard is one of those spearheading the drive for a constitutional amendment on class size, reducing the student-teacher ratio in grades K-3 from 24 to 18. She also favors a ballot initiative earmarking .5 percent of the interest from the land grand permanent fund for education.
The Legislature will seek a fix for the state Lottery Scholarship Fund, which is currently insolvent, Richard said. Proposals have included changing the GPA requirements from 2.5 to 2.75, requiring students to take 15 rather than 12 credit hours to be eligible and changing the amount of tuition funded from 100 percent to a lesser amount, she said.
“We don’t know what the bill will look like yet,” Richard said. “It’s all about compromise with this type of legislation.”
The three legislators, all Democrats, all support increased funding for education, including increased funding of pre-kindergarten.
Cisneros, who serves on the Legislative Finance Committee, expressed his support for the Committee’s education proposals, at suggested or greater funding levels. They include:
- Increase in funding for early childhood initiatives to $35 million
- $50 million (1.5 percent increase) for cost of living for state, public education and higher education employees; $40 million to schools and state agencies to use for such things as pay adjustments or employee rewards; public schools will also receive $2.7 million to improve pay for teacher’s aides and $4.5 million to raise starting salaries for level one teachers
- $2.7 billion for public schools (5.6 percent increase), is proposed to go towards pension, health insurance and at-risk students
- $836.6 million (5.1 percent increase) is recommended to go towards higher education. $11 million is proposed as a solution for the revenue deficit in the Lottery Scholarship Program for this year’s spring semester and another $11 million is proposed for FY15 contingent on passage.
Sen. Martinez expressed his support for raising teacher salaries. He said the Governor’s proposal to retain third grade students who cannot read at grade level bears further investigation. Poverty, not student motivation may be to blame for their lack of success, he pointed out.
“Until the seventh grade, when I was able to obtain glasses through the Lion’s Club, I was not doing well in school,” Martinez said. “Perhaps some of these students cannot see the board because their families cannot afford glasses.”
In his overview of education legislation, Washburn expressed skepticism about the Governor’s proposal to tie increased teacher salaries to student test scores, as the teachers may choose to concentrate their efforts on high achieving students.
“We want teachers to teach every child,” he said. “The thing we all have to recognize is that everyone feels passionately about education and feels their approach is best. The good news is that there will be increased funding for education this year.”
Richard also highlighted water issues she supports; including funding of a watershed health initiative, updating regional water plans, and a proposal to issue a tax credit for water harvesting.
Other legislation she is pushing for include a proposal for home Breathalyzer testing to monitor whether DWI offenders need immediate treatment and how drinking affects recidivism for DWI offenders even when they are not behind the wheel.
Jobs and the economy also top legislative concerns this session.
“The New Mexico economy is not growing as fast as the rest of the nation, Sen. Martinez said. Job growth is slow. The Legislature’s Job’s Council on which Martinez and Richard serve has named a goal of adding 160,000 jobs by 2023, he said. He will support legislation to entice businesses to relocate in Los Alamos and support initiatives that build on New Mexico’s strengths, such as tourism.
“Brick and mortar” projects are important, not only to support the state’s infrastructure, but to bring construction jobs to rural areas, Martinez said. Audit requirements are keeping some communities from benefiting from funds they could be receiving because the audits are expensive, he said.
Martinez is a strong supporter of minimum wage legislation. Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a bill he sponsored that would have increased the minimum wage to $8.50 per hour last year. He will be reintroducing legislation again this year, including tying minimum wage to inflation as well as increasing the wage.
Think New Mexico, a non-partisan think tank is proposing a number of initiatives focused on job creation, said Kristina Fisher of Think New New Mexico.
“Fourteen percent of New Mexicans, 137,000 people are unemployed or under employed in our state,” Fisher said.
Think New Mexico and its legislative sponsors are putting forward Senate Bills 8, 9 and 10 to help with this situation:
- Bill 8 encourages international students to attend state universities. Immigrants start businesses at a rate twice that of native citizens, she said.
- Bill 9 streamlines burdens on start-up businesses imposed by state regulatory paperwork.
- Bill 10 seeks to attract businesses to the state through tax incentives available after the business has proven itself in the state and closes several tax loopholes.
Read more about the bills at http://www.thinknewmexico.org/jobs.html.
Cisneros highlighted the crisis in New Mexico’s highway and transportation system, stating that $900 million is needed for maintenance and repair, while no revenue stream exists to increase funding due to federal cuts and a reluctance to raise gas taxes.
“The Governor has made clear that she will not sign any tax increases,” Cisneros said. “It’s clear we will have to limit tax relief incentives while we fix things that have been neglected during the recession.”
In his remarks, Sen. Martinez pointed to other legislation he is filing, including a bill to support weatherization assistance to low-income families, a bill to clean up illegal dump sights on Land Grant properties and an initiative to study giving grandparents raising grandchildren rights now enjoyed by foster parents. He also announced that Los Alamos Probate Judge Christine Chandler will join his staff for the duration of the 30-day session.
Visit http://www.nmlegis.gov/lcs/bill_locator.aspx?year=14 to see pre-filed legislation for the upcoming session.
AAUW President Helena Whyte thanked state legislators for passing the Equal Pay Resolution last year, guaranteeing New Mexico Women equal pay. New Mexico is among the states that have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, Whyte said. Three more states must ratify the amendment for it to become law. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com
AAUW member Nina Thayer asks for contributions to the Jean Nereson Books Memorial. AAUW has been raising funds to honor Jean Nereson, who taught in the Los Alamos elementary schools for 52 years. The LAPS Foundation recently gave $5,000 from the fund to benefit each of LAPS’ five elementary school libraries. The Foundation will give funds annually for the purchase of new books, Thayer said. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com
Former County Councilors from left, Robert Gibson (local GOP chairman) and Vincent Chiravelle listen to the legislative preview at Fuller Lodge Wednesday. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com
Katherine Wang served as timekeeper at Wednesday’s legislative preview at Fuller Lodge. She and Emma Lathrop who served as microphone runner are members of the Los Alamos High School Debate Team. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com