Crime, education steer legislative agenda in New Mexico

The New Mexico State Capitol, known as 'The Roundhouse.'

SANTA FE (AP) – New Mexico lawmakers are confronting heightened concerns about violent crime, a weak economy and lackluster schools as they convene for a 30-day budget legislative session.

The session begins Tuesday against a potentially acrimonious political backdrop, with the Republican-controlled House and Democratic Senate both up for election in November.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has wide discretion over what bills are heard and has indicated a focus on public safety efforts in response to a string of high-profile cases over the last year, including the shooting deaths of two police officers and a 4-year-old girl who was killed during a road-rage incident in Albuquerque.

The Legislature’s plate also will be full addressing New Mexico’s immigrant driver’s licenses and noncompliance with the federal Real ID Act. The governor and lawmakers are largely in agreement on increasing spending on Medicaid, mounting incarceration costs, and expanded early childhood development and economic development programs.

All of this is on the agenda for and hammering out a state spending plan for the next fiscal year. Spending will be tempered by faltering revenues that have resulted from low energy prices and sales-related taxes.

Here is a look at some big issues coming up in the session:

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EDUCATION

The governor wants to increase introductory teacher salaries by $2,000 for the third straight year to boost recruitment, while lawmakers favor a smaller $1,000 bump for new teachers paired with cost-of-living adjustments for all school employees and veteran teachers.

Martinez also is seeking increased funding for performance pay for teachers and principals.

The debate over whether to hold back third graders unable to read at their grade level also will be rekindled. An end to the so-called social promotion policy has long been supported by the governor.

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PUBLIC SAFETY

The long list of criminal justice proposals includes harsher punishments for repeat DWI offenders, provisions for local governments to enact child curfews, and giving judges access to juvenile criminal records for deciding bail and sentencing.

Republican lawmakers also are pushing to expand the list of crimes that could be considered when sentencing someone as a habitual offender to a mandatory life sentence.

The governor wants to raise salaries collectively by $11 million for prison guards, probation and parole officers, forensic scientists, and child abuse caseworkers.

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BAIL REFORM

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is backing a constitutional amendment to overhaul New Mexico’s bail system to give judges more authority to deny bail for dangerous defendants while allowing low-risk defendants to be released pending trial if they don’t have the means to make bond.

The reforms – which are expected to reduce incarceration costs – have the backing of both prosecutors and civil liberties groups.

If passed by the Legislature, it would be up to voters to approve the changes in November.

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ETHICS AND CAMPAIGN FINANCE

Martinez has indicated she will hear select proposals, including one requiring legislators to disclose outside sources of income to protect against conflicts of interest.

But the real push has been for the creation of a statewide ethics commission and reform of the state’s campaign finance reporting system. Calls for reform were sparked last year by a scandal that brought down former Secretary of State Dianna Duran. The Republican ended up spending the holidays in jail after pleading guilty to misusing campaign funds to fuel a gambling spree.

Democrats also want to toughen a pension forfeiture law aimed at corrupt elected officials and require that donations funneled to winning candidates for inaugural celebrations be reported like any another campaign contributions.

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DRIVER’S LICENSES

Lawmakers are under pressure to meet federal identification standards now that U.S. officials are enforcing some provisions of the Real ID Act.

The act mandates proof of legal U.S. residency for those who want to use state IDs to access certain areas of federal facilities and, eventually, board commercial flights in January 2018. New Mexico has no such requirement and allows immigrants to get state driver’s licenses regardless of legal status.

The House and Senate have at least two dueling proposals to consider.

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ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

The governor has recommended dedicating $10 million toward the state’s job training incentive program and $10 million for grants to local infrastructure projects that help attract specific companies to New Mexico, among other initiatives.

Lawmakers also will weigh recommendations to increase funding to the “New Mexico True” tourism marketing campaign.

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