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N.M. Governor says she wants tax cuts, crackdown on crime in State of the State address

SANTA FE — New Mexico lawmakers are pushing to tap an unprecedented windfall of state income to shore up resources for public education, policing, health care and climate regulation at a 30-day legislative session that began on Tuesday.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, called on the Legislature to support new investments in teacher salaries, tuition-free college, the expansion of police forces and care for aging military veterans — while slashing taxes on sales and Social Security benefits.

“We have right now unimaginable financial resources," Lujan Grisham said in her annual State of the State address. “When we have the money to do it all, let's not limit ourselves.”

She also called for tougher penalties for some violent crimes and legislation aimed at keeping more people accused of violent crime behind bars while awaiting trial. Public defenders have cautioned pretrial release is not linked to increases in violent crime rates.

"We are going to pass a law this session that will keep violent criminals behind bars until justice can be done. We will put a wedge in the revolving door of violent crime in New Mexico,” said Lujan Grisham, who is seeking a second term in the fall election. The state House, where Democrats have a 45-24 advantage over Republicans, also is up for election in November.

Republican leaders noted that cracking down on crime has been among their top priorities for years and their legislative efforts have been rebuffed by the governor and the Democratic majority. They suggested Tuesday that the governor is rallying behind the issue only now because frustrated residents will be going to the polls this fall.

“For years past, when Republicans brought forth proposals that would have answered many of these problems, they were cast aside," Senate Minority Floor Leader Greg Baca of Belen said.

The governor delivered her speech by webcast from her office, rather than the House floor, as a precaution against the coronavirus, while legislators of all political affiliations wore masks.

A blend of online and in-person deliberations are anticipated at the state Capitol, with proof of vaccination — and booster shots — required for members of the public to enter the state Capitol. Legislators are exempt from some requirements.

“I'm proud of how we have responded to the crisis, we have found ways to come together safely,” Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe said as the session convened. "Masks will be required again, social distancing will be sought out when possible. We're going to have virtual committee meetings.

Outside the Capitol building, a handful of sign carrying protesters denounced vaccination requirements as infringement on individual freedoms. Republican Sen. Craig Brandt bristled at a restriction preventing senators from inviting children and other relatives onto the Senate floor for opening-day ceremonies, calling it “ridiculous." House members were accompanied by relatives.

Many legislative proposals take aim at violence and urban crime and were stoked by outrage over a record-breaking year for homicides in Albuquerque in 2021.

“There is a massive amount of crime, a crisis in Albuquerque,” Egolf said in an interview. “It is caused by many different factors. That means we have to have multiple solutions. There's no one answer.”

More: New Mexico lawmakers seek greater spending, voter access

Lujan Grisham's budget recommendations would set aside $100 million to help recruit, hire and retain law enforcement officers and staff across the state. A variety of enhanced sentences for gun-related crimes are under consideration.

Democratic legislators are drafting legislation would expand access to voting, in coordination with Lujan Grisham and New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat who oversees elections.

Legislators could decide to make Election Day could a state holiday in New Mexico to encourage voting, with automated distribution of absentee ballots for residents who want to vote by mail or with drop-off ballots. The initiative counters a wave of new voting restrictions from Republican-led states.

New Mexico Republicans raised concerns Tuesday about some of the proposals, including one that would allow those as young as 16 to vote. They also said some counties have more people on their voter rolls than they do residents and suggested voters should be required to present identification at the polls, like they do for many other government services.

More: Proposed 'Clean Future Act' targets greenhouse gas emissions in New Mexico

Several Lujan Grisham initiatives take aim at transforming energy production and climate-related regulations in the nation's No. 2 state for oil production. Her administration's top environmental regulators are seeking $2.5 million for a new “climate change bureau" to oversee efforts to reduce emissions.

The bureau also may oversee forays by businesses into hydrogen production in New Mexico, using natural gas to make hydrogen, as the federal government jump-starts the industry with $8 billion in dedicated infrastructure spending. Legislators are pushing to approve local financial incentives to increase support for the efforts.

State economists foresee a $1.6 billion general fund surplus for the coming fiscal year, which runs from July 2022 to June 2023, in excess of current spending obligations.

Legislators still have $600 million in federal pandemic relief to dispense from the state's original $1.7 billion allotment. They are drafting a long list of eligible infrastructure projects, ranging from high-speed internet lines in remote areas to road construction and repairs.

Budget proposals from the governor and legislative leaders would increase annual state general fund spending by about $1 billion to nearly $8.5 billion.

The roughly 14% spending boost would shoring up public school budgets and access to health care as the federal government winds down pandemic-related subsidies to Medicaid, the program that gives free health care to the needy.

More: New Mexico senator seeks $60M to send masks and COVID-19 test kits to residents

Pay raises of at least 7% are proposed for public education workers and for most state government workers. The pay raises include higher minimum salaries for teachers and hefty pay and retention increases for state police officers.

Without federal funding, Baca suggested New Mexico won’t be able to sustain such high levels of spending over time.