Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Tuesday that New Mexico is preparing to expand in-person learning for students of all ages within two weeks – a plan she revealed in her annual State of the State address to lawmakers.
In recorded remarks, the governor said “every school district in the state will be able to welcome all ages of students safely back to the classroom on Feb. 8.”
New Mexico public schools now offer little in-person learning under public health regulations designed to limit the spread of COVID-19. They have been largely shut down since March, when the pandemic first reached the state.
The governor’s talk was delivered remotely this year because of the pandemic. The Capitol building itself is closed to the public.
In the 25-minute speech, Lujan Grisham called on legislators to dedicate at least $200 million of their capital outlay package to broadband investment and embrace a host of progressive priorities on the environment, education and the economy.
She also highlighted a new push to get students back on campus. Lujan Grisham said her administration has worked with educators, doctors and scientists to craft a “solid, epidemiologically-sound plan for a safe expansion of in-person learning for all age groups, supported by union leadership.”
The governor has faced increasing and bipartisan calls to allow more students back in the classroom, and she has repeatedly said in recent months that she shares the goal, as long as it’s safe.
Lujan Grisham said the state plan is aimed at balancing the importance of in-person instruction with safety.
“There’s no substitute for in-person learning,” she said, “and there’s no negotiating about the health and safety of students, families and educators. … We will get this right.”
The Public Education Department, shortly after the governor’s speech began, announced that schools will have three options.
All schools throughout the state may bring back students on a hybrid model in which 50% of students return at a time to maintain social distancing.
Districts and schools with fewer than 100 students can bring back all students as long as no more than six people are in an enclosed space at one time.
Schools and districts that aren’t ready for the full hybrid return can expand small-group instruction to all grades.
Break with tradition
In a break with tradition, Lujan Grisham delivered her recorded remarks as she sat in her office at the Roundhouse, between the U.S. and New Mexico flags. The State of the State is usually delivered on the opening day of the Legislature during a joint session of the House and Senate.
But lawmakers are conducting much of this year’s session online, and the governor’s speech was scheduled for the session’s second week.
The address was posted online on the Legislature’s website and the website of New Mexico PBS. It was also published on the governor’s Facebook page, following a delay because of technical problems.
Lujan Grisham devoted much of her time to speaking about the grief and trauma of the pandemic. The state’s official coronavirus death toll is nearing 3,200 residents, and the state has endured terrible economic damage.
The governor said Tuesday that her budget plan avoids cuts and would include about $475 million for pandemic relief efforts. The aid could include tax relief and cash assistance for essential workers.
The state, she said, also had much to be proud of, including high per-capita COVID-19 testing rates and the opening of the nation’s first drive-through testing site.
GOP: Rein in gov.’s power
Three Republican leaders in the state Senate – Minority Leader Greg Baca of Belen, Minority Whip Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho and Caucus Chairman Mark Moores of Albuquerque – said it was time to rein in the governor’s power. Lawmakers this session are examining proposals to limit the governor’s emergency authority.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and heavy-handed actions by the governor have wreaked havoc on our state, forcing thousands out of work, shuttering hundreds of local businesses, and keeping our children out of school,” they said in a written statement. “While we are pleased that the governor is finally willing to repair some of the damage, we remain deeply concerned about the long-term effects of her unilateral decisions.”
House Republicans said Lujan Grisham was finally catching up to states that have already reopened schools. She should go further, they said, and relax restrictions on restaurants and other businesses.
“It is about time that the governor is finally viewing this crisis through the lens of medical science and not political science,” House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said in a statement.
State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce, who was defeated by Lujan Grisham in the 2018 governor’s race, said students “should have been in class all year, and now they’ve fallen behind in the worst education system in the nation.”
List of priorities
The governor, in her speech, called on the Legislature to approve a host of priorities in the 60-day session that runs through March, including:
n Dedicating at least $200 million in the capital outlay package – half of lawmakers’ allocation – to broadband investment. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the lack of technological infrastructure in parts of the state. Nearly one-quarter of New Mexico’s students lack access to the internet at home.
n Increasing spending on suicide prevention by 800% as part of a plan to improve mental health care.
n Establishing an ombudsman’s office to focus on the special education needs of students and families.
n Sending to voters a proposed constitutional amendment that would withdraw an extra 1% from New Mexico’s largest permanent fund to pay for early childhood education programs.
The governor also said New Mexico “will enact the country’s toughest methane and air pollutant rules in the oil and gas industry, finally cracking down on waste and pollution in a way that is not punitive but innovative” and creates more revenue for schools.
Lujan Grisham also renewed her pitch for the legalization of marijuana for adults. She described it as a way to bolster an economy now heavily dependent on oil and gas production, a volatile source of government revenue.
“I have no interest in another year of thousands of New Mexicans eager to get to work and make their future in this industry being told ‘no,’ just because that’s easier than doing the hard work to get to ‘yes,'” Lujan Grisham said. “When we emerge from this pandemic, we can have the same old economy with the same old boom-and-bust future, or we can roar back to life, breaking new ground and fearlessly investing in ourselves, in the limitless potential of New Mexicans.”
The governor’s priorities come as the state Legislature is expected to embrace more liberal priorities. In the Senate, for example, 11 of the 42 members are new, and some of the chamber’s most powerful Democrats lost in the primary to challengers from the left.
Democrats hold a 45-25 majority in the House and a 27-15 edge in the Senate.
The governor began her speech with a pause, asking New Mexicans for a moment of silent reflection or prayer focusing on the lives lost during the pandemic. But she said the pandemic had shown that the state can bounce back from anything.
“New Mexico has never been stronger, tougher and more resilient than right now,” Lujan Grisham said.
It was the third State of the State speech for Lujan Grisham, a Democrat elected in 2018.