Local legislators discuss infrastructure, education funding

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Lawmakers don’t always agree, but on Wednesday afternoon at Santa Ana Star Center, a trio of Rio Rancho’s legislators agreed on the need for improved infrastructure, roads and better education.

The three, all Republicans — Sen. Craig Brandt and Reps. Jane Powdrell-Culbert and Jason Harper — spoke to attendees of the Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce’s quarterly luncheon during a legislative roundtable at Santa Ana Star Center, sponsored by the Observer and moderated by Editor Argen Duncan.

After they’d finished speaking, Sandoval County Commissioner David Heil and Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull echoed their comments, repeating the need for improved infrastructure and the continued work to complete Paseo del Volcan, aka Pete V. Domenici Highway, from Unser Road to, first, Paseo del Norte, and thence to Interstate-40.

By legislator, here are the major points gleaned:

Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert

 Powdrell-Culbert: She’s in support of anything that will make her District 44 a better place to live, as well as aiming to “work really hard to try to mitigate as many new laws that affect business and new business.”

She was also concerned not only with the quality of the roads and highways in Sandoval County, but also in the southeast portion of the state, where she recently traveled. She suggested having the state improve what she termed “short state roads” and then having the cities and villages assume upkeep.

Powdrell-Culbert, with 18 years in the House under her belt, also said she wanted to see more “3 P’s”: public-private partnerships to help fund needed infrastructure projects.

Lastly, being involved in a nonprofit organization, she said that in light of the state having more than 9,000 nonprofits, “New Mexico shouldn’t be the primary funder” for social services.

As for new legislation legalizing the use of recreational marijuana, Powdrell-Culbert didn’t mince words: “Everybody knows I don’t support it.”

During the roundtable, Powdrell-Culbert said she had a concern about merely spending more on education: “There is also a concern about parenting. You know a teacher cannot educate when kids are not sent to school, properly prepared …”

She said she’s seen tutoring programs have success and it’s vitally important to have parents “buy in to get our kids ready for the next level.”

As important as improving education in the state was to the legislators, there was concern about not only extending PdV but also the ongoing delays and driver frustrations over the US 550 project west of Bernalillo.

Powdrell-Culbert even ventured to say she’d support a higher gas tax if it would help the West Side’s roads and the PdV extension.

Rep. Jason Harper

 Harper: The lifelong Rio Ranchoan was proud to say he specializes on tax policy. Harper — in his fourth term in the House — spoke about the two sides of the financial coin: The income side and the spending side.

“Our state budget right now is $7 billion; that’s what we get from taxes here in New Mexico. We also get about that same amount from the feds — it’s mostly Medicaid reimbursement dollars — and we’re looking at roughly $12, $13, $14 billion. … The vast majority of that goes to education.”

But, Harper said, other states spend less and have better education outcomes.

“Maybe it’s an allocation of resources problem,” he said.

Harper said the “safe number” to annually increase the state budget is 3½ percent, to “not have to worry about cutting things (later), and usually that’s education.” But the state grew its recurring-expenses budget by 12 percent last year.

“We went from $6 billion to $7 billion — and you’ve seen this movie before. … There’s a nice peak in spending: Everyone gets a Rail Runner and a Spaceport. And what happens? There’s a huge spike-down and … you’re sweeping money from K-12 schools.

Process-control, then, is important.

“Briefly on the revenue side… there are consumption taxes, property taxes and income taxes; we have a fourth one here in New Mexico: We have a permanent fund,” he explained. “Really, a brilliant idea the legislature had in the ’50s was not to spend every tax dollar it gets.”

Harper was happy to say the state’s property taxes “are generally the lowest or second-lowest in the country.”

As for GRT, it’s “a terrible tax,” he said. “Diving into it, I was like, ‘OK, this is a backhanded way to tax the federal government.’ … I’m looking at how we can fix it.

“This session … (the speaker) says he wants to do gross-receipts tax reform,” Harper said. “I was happy and dismayed to hear that. I’ve been leading the charge a long time. … We’re going to try to work together.”

Sen. Craig Brandt

 Brandt: The former Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education member had a quick history lesson: “In 1997, our funding for public education was $1.2 billion. Today, the last budget was $3.1 billion — almost triple.

“One of the things we need to look at is providing flexibility for districts — I can tell you it’s very (different) for Rio Rancho Public Schools than it is down in Gadsden — completely different.

“With that flexibility, you also have to have accountability,” Brandt said. “(RRPS) is one of the worst-funded districts when it comes to per-student (funding), but we get great results. Why do we see other districts who get four times the amount per student, and those students, 20 percent, are reading at grade level. So that’s a problem, so we have to look at effort.

“Transportation is an issue,” he added. “Rio Rancho should not have to spend operational money on transportation; that’s something the state’s supposed to provide.”

Worst yet, despite an additional $400 million that went into the education budget last year, “We haven’t seen any increases.

“We are at the bottom of every list in the nation in education,” he said.

Brandt said funding education shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

“Education is education,” he said.

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