By MORGAN LEE, Associated Press

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Critical decisions on government spending, voting access, public education and criminal justice await New Mexico legislators for their upcoming 30-day legislative session that starts on Tuesday.

New Mexico’s state government has a multibillion-dollar general fund surplus thanks to pandemic relief funds from the U.S. government and a surge in oil production and natural gas prices.

The state is simultaneously contending with shortages of teachers, police and nurses along with a spike in urban violence and concerns about the fragile status of American democracy and the environment.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Democrat-led legislature are promising to increase spending, cut tax rates and improve public health and safety. Fall elections and a fresh surge in coronavirus infections loom over deliberations.

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Proposals from the governor and legislative leaders would increase annual state general fund spending by about $1 billion to nearly $8.5 billion. The 14% spending boost is aimed at 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.

Public education spending would increase by more than $420 million amid new investments in child wellbeing. The budget would pay for more home counseling for couples as they become parents. Public schools would be required to extend classroom learning time.

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

Budget proposals would expand scholarship funds for in-state public college education, making tuition free for high schools students who graduate with a 2.5 grade point average and head to college less than two years after they graduate.

Additional scholarships are directed a teacher career preparation, and paying off past student loans for active teachers. Together the student-aid initiatives cost nearly $100 million for the coming fiscal year.

Republicans in the legislative minority want the state to move toward a voucher-like system for education spending that ties public funding to students to spend at their school of choice. They’re also emphasizing efforts to stem violent crime, rein in vaccine mandates and return public employees to in-person work.

The governor and legislature are proposing a modest reduction in gross receipts tax on retail sales and business transactions, the single largest source of state government income. Current rates range from roughly 5% to 9% amid variable local tax options.

Republicans in the legislative minority are renewing efforts to end taxation by the state on Social Security benefits. Democrats may be warming to the idea under a bill that also increases taxes on tobacco.

Amid hardships of the pandemic, Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe says he hopes legislators will consider a new one-time tax rebate for essential workers and low-income families.

Democratic lawmakers plan a push to expand access to voting in New Mexico, just as Republican-led states implement greater restrictions. In Congress, Democrats’ major elections and voting rights legislation has stalled.

New Mexico’s Democratic secretary of state is seeking legislation to turn Election Day into a state holiday to encourage voting and create a permanent absentee voter list so qualified residents can automatically receive mail-in ballots before each election, among other election changes.

Currently, New Mexico voters must request absentee ballot applications before each election to vote by mail or ballot drop-off.

The state Republican Party has said that the changes would invite fraud and confusion and put new pressures on county clerks.

Wirth, the Senate majority leader, said that “voting, and access to voting, is under attack.”

“I certainly support national efforts. But boy, until that happens, I think it’s critical at the state level that we make access to voting as easy as possible.”

A long list of legislative proposals take aim at violence and urban crime, stoked by outrage over a record-breaking year for homicides in Albuquerque in 2021.

Budget recommendations from the governor include the creation of a $100 million fund 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.

A separate proposal would deny pretrial release to more people charged with murder or major gun- or sex-related crimes, revising the state’s no-money bail system.

Lujan Grisham said the burden would be placed on defendants, rather than prosecutors, to prove they would not be a danger to the community if granted pretrial release.

Public defenders have said that pretrial release is not linked to increases in violent crime rates and that incarcerating more people before trial or conviction will ruin lives and harm communities.

In matters of environmental protection, Lujan Grisham has proposed a new state “climate change bureau,” with a 15-member staff and $2.5 million initial budget, to implement pollution standards for cars and work toward a net-zero emissions state economy in coming decades. New Mexico is the No. 2 producer of oil in the U.S., behind Texas.

The Legislature will debate a low-carbon fuel standard to help ratchet down pollution and financial incentives to introduce large-scale hydrogen production in New Mexico, using natural gas to produce hydrogen.

Subsidies for hydrogen production from natural gas are opposed by environmental advocacy groups that say it would prolong dependence on fossil fuels through a process that produces climate-warning carbon dioxide that may be difficult or impossible to fully capture and store underground.

In the health care field, leading lawmakers want to expand post-partem Medicaid coverage to guarantee enrollment for up to a year after births, up from 60 days.

In economic development matters, Lujan Grisham is asking for money to found a training academy for the film industry that would be run by a consortium of existing state colleges and universities, and to spend heavily on tourism advertising.

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