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Democrats push for funds for more cops

House Speaker Brian Egolf and other Democrats say they will push in next year’s legislative session to create a new law enforcement fund that would help cities and counties hire more police officers and sheriff’s deputies.

State money – perhaps from a tax that would be imposed on internet sales – would flow into the fund, and a grant writer would help local governments seek federal funding, too.

Democrats will also support toughening penalties for felons caught with firearms, Egolf said.

“Too many families in Albuquerque and throughout the state of New Mexico don’t feel safe,” Egolf said in a news conference on Civic Plaza.

Republicans, in turn, said it was about time their Democratic colleagues got serious about enhancing criminal penalties and adding police officers.

“My first question is, what took you so long?” said Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas.

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, a former GOP member of the state House, said he has spent years asking the Legislature to help change a retirement law that would have helped the city grow its police force.

“I needed your help five years ago,” Berry said in his own news conference, “and we could have been in front of this.”

The city now employs about 840 officers, a 24 percent reduction from 2010.

But Egolf said the new legislation is different from what’s been proposed in the past. Lawmakers have been reluctant to change the retirement system, for fear of worsening the health of the state’s pension funds.

He said he is optimistic about building bipartisan support for a package of legislation aimed at addressing New Mexico’s crime rate – highest in the nation for property crime and second-highest for violent crime, after Alaska.

One area of agreement: Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and Democrats in the Legislature have each embraced a proposal to boost funding for state prosecutors working in the District Attorney’s Office in Bernalillo County.

State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas said it’s also important to provide extra money for public defenders and other parts of the judiciary, especially to ensure that defendants awaiting trial are properly supervised if they’re released.

“We get the criminal justice system we pay for,” he said.

The state is headed into an incredibly tight budget season, and Martinez has repeatedly vetoed tax increases, include a proposed tax on sales made over the internet.

“The governor has made public safety a top priority for years in order to strengthen our communities and keep repeat offenders off the streets,” Martinez spokesman Joseph Cueto said in a written statement. “It’s encouraging to now see that House Democrats are finally listening to New Mexicans instead of calling a focus on anti-crime measures a ‘costly distraction,’ as they stated last year.”