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Violence looms over New Mexico Legislature as work begins


SANTA FE - New Mexico legislators prepared to tap a multibillion-dollar budget surplus as they take on daunting challenges of surging gun violence, lagging student achievement in schools and low workforce participation, at the start of a 60-day legislative session Tuesday.

Concerns about politically motivated violence loomed over the proceedings as police on Monday arrested a failed Republican candidate in connection with a series of shootings targeting the homes of Democratic lawmakers in Albuquerque.

State Rep. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque, the Democratic nominee for House Speaker whose home was targeted by gunfire in December, said the arrest was a relief and that the shootings represent a frightening attack on the democratic process.

"Anyone who takes the plunge to participate in our democracy, to get into the process, should never have to encounter that type of violence and have that kind of fear," Martínez said. "There are a lot of things that can happen when rhetoric gets out of hand."

GOP Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca of Belen condemned an attack that "has no part in our community, or our state." No one was injured in the shootings.

The legislative session in Santa Fe starts with an agenda-setting State of the State speech from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham near the outset of her second term in office.

The Democratic-dominated state Legislature is anticipating a $3.6 billion budget surplus as it crafts a spending plan for the coming fiscal year. Leading legislators want to expand preschool access, lengthen annual instructional time at public schools, increase public salaries and provide at least $1 billion in tax relief and rebates.

Surging gun violence in Albuquerque and concerns about mass shootings nationwide have spawning proposals for enhanced criminal sentencing and new gun control measures. New bills would ban large-capacity ammunition magazines and apply felony sanctions to ensure guns can't be accessed by children.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe says he'll sponsor a bill that bans firearms at all polling locations in response to the fears and frustrations of election workers.

Lujan Grisham staked her reelection heavily on her support for preserving widespread access to abortion as a foundation of women's rights and democracy, in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year that overturned Roe v. Wade and left legalization up to the states. Leading Democratic legislators hope to send her a bill that would prohibit restrictions on abortion by local governments and shield patients and abortion doctors from harassment by out-of-state interests.

New Mexico also is grappling with the aftermath of catastrophic 2022 wildfires linked to climate change and drought.

State legislators want to make the state more resilient to climate-related disasters by speeding up the delivery of federal disaster aid and allow small water districts to band together as they rebuild from wildfires. Lujan Grisham hopes to fund the first New Mexico-based corps of elite smokejumper firefighters to ensure a rapid response to future fires.

Environmentalists are renewing efforts to enshrine rights to clean air and water into the state Constitution, while Democratic state Rep. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup is courting investments in hydrogen-fuel production as a transition away from the burning of fossil fuels in transportation and industry.

State government income is forecast to reach new heights — $12 billion in revenue during the fiscal year that runs from July 2023 though June 2024. That's about $3.6 billion in excess of current annual spending commitments.

The governor and leading legislators are proposing a pay raise for state workers and public school educators of at least 4%. Taxpayers would pay for educators' individual health care premiums under a proposal from the governor.

State Rep. Raymundo Lara of Chamberino on Tuesday signaled support among House Democrats for the proposal to underwrite health care insurance for teachers.

Beyond government, Democratic legislators want to provide automatic future increases to the statewide $12-per-hour minimum wage.

Lawmakers also hope to sock away billions of dollars into specialized trust funds, and use future investment earnings to underwrite programs ranging from smoking-cessation to highway construction and medical school teaching.

It's an investment strategy that has helped sustain public schools in New Mexico for generations through a $26 billion trust, partially sustained by income from oil- and gas-production leases on state trust land.

Legislators in the Republican minority are emphasizing support for greater competition among K-12 schools and wider options for students, while expanding public funding to private and parochial schools.

Morgan Lee is a reporter for the Associated Press.

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