Editorial: Legislators should focus windfall on making our state's core government work - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Legislators should focus windfall on making our state’s core government work

Last week the Legislative Finance Committee and the Governor’s Office released dueling spending proposals calling for significant overall spending hikes — about $1 billion — for next fiscal year.

The challenge for lawmakers in the 30-day legislative session set to start Jan. 18 will be to spend the historic windfall in a way that truly sets the state up for measurable success. It is simply unacceptable that many residents still lack access to clean water, internet and either have been or fear becoming a victim of crime. Also key will be limiting recurring spending so future legislatures can deal with inevitable economic downturns.

The legislative and governor’s budget plans differ slightly, but together they show a clear inclination to catch up from the austerity of lean budget years and COVID-related interruptions to services. The prudence of 13-14% spending growth — and whether the new benchmarks they establish can be sustained going forward — should be a dominant theme of this budget-centric short session. Top-ranking Democratic lawmakers say the state has already saved adequately for a rainy day, pointing out both plans call for roughly $2.6 billion — or more than 30% of state spending — to remain in cash reserves in case projected revenue levels don’t materialize.

As happened in 2017, when legislators were scraping money out of every state account just to pay the bills.

It will require a lot of analysis and debate to get a budget that actually makes the core components of government — infrastructure, public safety, education — work better for New Mexicans. In addition, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has already promoted a few non-budgetary items on her upcoming “call” — though several deserve to wait for the robust debate a 60-day session can deliver in 2023.

We’re on board with teacher pay raises tied to additional instructional days, more funding for the lottery/opportunity scholarships to honor the unkept promise of free tuition for all, adding 1,000 law enforcement officers across the state, and reforming pretrial detention with rebuttable presumption, which shifts the burden of proof to those charged with certain violent offenses to show they can safely be released.

But it’s the wrong time for the governor’s insistence on implementing new clean fuel standards or chasing unproven technology in the form of hydrogen development. Ditto for an issue as complicated as voter reform. Letting 16-year-olds vote in local elections, restoring voting rights for felons or reverting to a straight-party ballot option require close examination and shouldn’t be jammed through just ahead of an election.

Or is that the point?

The Journal’s Editorial Board urges the Legislature and Lujan Grisham to consider the following:

• Adopt the legislative budget proposal for teacher raises as well as its mandate that all N.M. schools provide 10 additional instruction days.

• Limit how much school districts can spend on administrative personnel. It’s imperative to enact permanent reform to direct more resources to the classroom — especially in light of the Yazzie/Martinez ruling calling for a more equitable education system.

• Add financial literacy to New Mexico education standards — allowing districts to offer a stand-alone course or offer it as part of an already-required course. Many of the state’s ongoing problems — high poverty, reliance on predatory lenders, low retirement savings — can be traced to low financial literacy.

• Repeal the state’s tax on Social Security benefits. This form of double-taxation forces too many N.M. retirees to struggle and potential transplants to look elsewhere.

• Improve protections for people who end up in a temporary guardianship or conservatorship. Proposed amendments to state law would require a judge to hold a hearing within 10 days after a temporary guardianship is granted by a court to decide whether it should continue, and all interested parties could attend. This is a well-vetted proposal from a state Supreme Court-appointed study group to protect some of our most vulnerable from bad actors.

• Give serious youthful offenders a second chance. Abolish life without parole for juveniles sentenced as adults and make them eligible for parole after serving 15 years. Remember that earlier release is only an option, not a certainty. But victims and victims’ families need to be part of the process.

• Increase disclosure and transparency requirements for lawmakers and lobbyists. The State Ethics Commission proposes requiring our citizen legislators to release more information on sources of personal income and business relationships and disclose before voting if any family member lobbied on a bill. Lobbyists would have to disclose what bills they’re working on and provisions they’re advocating for or against. Given the latest in a long string of legislator indictment dramas, the reforms are overdue.

• Finally, lower the cap on interest rates on small loans. It currently is a whopping 175%.

But back to this session’s main purpose: The 2022-23 budget.

State economists project next year’s revenues to exceed this year’s $7.4 billion operating budget by about $1.6 billion, mostly owing to robust oil and gas production and heightened consumer activity. The state also has around $724 million in leftover federal relief funds to spend and expects roughly $3.7 billion in federal funding, though not all will be available immediately.

Infrastructure, water and broadband are appropriate priorities that can be tackled with one-time expenditures.

It will be tempting for lawmakers to tackle much more, but this is a 30-day budget session. And it is essential lawmakers honor that core mission, using record revenues to set the state up for long-term success, not just record spending.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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