We’re two-and-a-half weeks into New Mexico’s 2023 legislative session, and so far things don’t look good — unless you’re a criminal, predatory lender, low-performing school or in economic development in another state. Because so far our lawmakers have:
Sided with criminals
Last week Democrats on the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee — Reps. Joanne Ferrary and Angelica Rubio of Las Cruces, Andrea Romero of Santa Fe and Liz Thomson of Albuquerque— sided time and again with criminals over law-abiding New Mexicans. They voted to table anti-crime bills that target those who make our communities dangerous places to be.
Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque and a veteran of the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s and Albuquerque Police departments, proposed bills that hone in on specific criminal behavior, including protecting businesses that detain thieves “in a reasonable manner for a reasonable time” (HB 57); enhancing sentencing for fentanyl trafficking of certain amounts (HB 60); enhancing penalties for felons who use a firearm to commit another crime or for “straw buyers” who purchase a gun for someone who can’t, say a felon or a minor (HB 61); punishing repeat offenders who commit separate violent felonies under the three-strikes law (HB 58); and making it a third-degree felony to a take gun to a drug deal (HB 59).
You know our state has fallen down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole when the Legislature sides with thieves over consumers, drug dealers over drug victims, and armed felons and career criminals over crime victims. Watch the meeting, at nmlegis.gov, for hours of comments defending violent and illegal behavior.
An example of the misguided rhetoric that dominated the debate came from Kim Chavez Cook for the Office of the Public Defender and the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, who said with a straight face “a firearm is often quote-unquote ‘necessary’ for these folks in these situations to protect themselves because it’s an inherently dangerous environment to be involved in a drug transaction.” Being in the “inherently dangerous environment” of a “drug transaction” is a choice that puts the entire community at risk. In a sane world, where Rehm and Republican Reps. Stefani Lord and John Block who supported his bills reside, going to a drug deal with a gun should have serious consequences.
A January 2023 survey by the N.M. Chamber of Commerce of 500 N.M. voters found three out of four were “somewhat” or “very” dissatisfied with crime in the state. A way to fix that is to ensure New Mexico is a tougher place to be a criminal.
Dumbed down education
Meanwhile, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee chose inflating graduation rates over preparing our students for college and careers, voting 8-2 on HB 126 to remove Algebra II and a foreign language from high school graduation requirements and dropping the number of needed credits from 24 to 22. The bill is sponsored by Reps. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque and a high school teacher, and Ryan Lane, R-Aztec. The bipartisan vote in favor of weakening the requirements included Reps. Doreen Y. Gallegos, D-Las Cruces; Linda Serrato, D-Santa Fe; Joshua N. Hernandez, R-Rio Rancho; Janelle Anyanonu, D-Albuquerque; Mark Duncan, R-Kirtland; Derrick J. Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo; Alan T. Martinez, R-Bernalillo; and Jimmy G. Mason, R-Artesia.
While we agree not every student should be expected to prepare for/go to a four-year university, every student should be ready for college or a career. But this bill doesn’t substitute requirements; it summarily drops them, including the current unit in a career cluster or workplace readiness (which already can be substituted for the foreign language) and a unit in an Advanced Placement, dual credit or distance learning course.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, crystallized our concerns when she explained her “no” vote. She calls it a “dumbing down” of education likely to hurt low-income areas as highly qualified teachers leave/don’t come because of limited course offerings. She says there’s nothing stopping future shedding of requirements. And when the business community comes out in force because students, the future workforce and economy will suffer, they get her attention.
The state chamber poll found just 32% of respondents favor reducing graduation requirements, and the majority want more spent on getting students ready for the next step: 91% want more invested in reading and math tutoring, 85% want more incentives to community colleges for offering technical education, and almost 80% want third-graders to read at grade level before advancing to fourth grade.
To add injury to insult, the committee also rejected Rep. Marian Matthews’ amendment to require a financial literacy course (Lundstrom and Matthews voted for the amendment and against the bill and were the true, though thwarted, champions of our students on the committee). Considering the pervasive poverty too many New Mexicans struggle with — an estimated 382,798 of 2,076,524 live in poverty, roughly one in five — to not equip our young people with the knowledge they need to become financially secure is a grave disservice that helps keep people reliant on predatory lenders and handouts from the state’s poverty industry.
Ignored economic needs
We also learned last week that unless New Mexico quickly weans itself from its over-reliance on oil and gas revenue and broadens its tax base it faces a potential $36 billion budget catastrophe by the mid 2030s.
PFM Group Consulting released its financial analysis of the state, and Director Ryan McNeely said it’s “urging policymakers to strike while the iron is hot and to prepare for the downturn while excess state revenue and federal opportunity allows for decisive and impactful action toward revenue diversification.”
So far the loudest voices from the Roundhouse have been about piecemeal spending the nearly $3.6 billion in “new money” from oil and gas. There has been little to nothing on attracting private-sector companies in pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and PPE; aerospace; microelectronics; advanced manufacturing; rare earth minerals; the defense industrial base; or something else. And there’s been little on statewide game-changing infrastructure investments for clean water, safe bridges and highways or internet connectivity.
Meanwhile neighboring states are crushing us. Look at Arizona (employment 2019-2022 up 220,233 vs. our -22,714), Colorado (manufacturing output $26.5 billion vs. our $4.6 billion), Texas (63.5% labor participation vs. our 56.7%) and Utah (July unemployment 2% vs. our 4.5%). Our poor education system, unfriendly business environment and substandard infrastructure routinely come up when trying to recruit companies here.
There’s time to help New Mexicans live in safe communities where kids get world-class educations that set them up for success in a diverse economy with high-paying private-sector jobs. But it’s up to our lawmakers to make that happen. So far things don’t look good.
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.