New Mexico Senate Approves Gasoline Tax Increase, Senate Wants Lower Pot Penalties

Mar 2, 2017

New Mexico Senate Approves Gasoline Tax IncreaseThe Associated Press

The New Mexico Senate has approved a plan to shore up state reserves and boost road maintenance spending by increasing taxes on gasoline, diesel and vehicle sales.

Senators in the Democratic majority were joined by three Republicans on Thursday in approving a bill to raise about $180 million annually.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith supports the tax increases as a way to protect the state's credit rating and avoid cuts to spending on public schools, health care and public safety.

The bill now moves to the House of Representatives, which has approved its own $250 million package of revenue increases that include a tax hike on vehicle sales.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has voiced opposition to outright tax increases as New Mexico wrestles with a budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year.

New Mexico Senate Wants Lower Marijuana-Possession PenaltiesThe Associated Press

Criminal penalties in New Mexico for possession of small amounts of marijuana would be replaced with a $50 fine under a bill approved by the state Senate.

The Senate voted Thursday to replace penalties including possible jail time for low-level marijuana possession violations with a purely monetary penalty.

Possession of a half-ounce or less of marijuana or drug paraphernalia would be handled much like a traffic ticket, with no court appearances unless the $50 fine is challenged.

Democratic Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces says the changes would free up resource for courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys to focus on pursuing violent crime cases amid a state budget crisis.

Eight Republicans and one Democrat voted against the bill. The proposal now moves to the House of Representatives.

State High Court Hears Arguments About Criminal RecordsThe Associated Press & The ABQ Journal

The state Supreme Court is considering whether judges have the authority to order law enforcement agencies to expunge felony arrest records.

The New Mexico Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Wednesday, advancing the eight-year dispute between an Albuquerque police officer and a paramedic who was arrested for battery, The Albuquerque Journal reported.

Paramedic Christine Stump was arrested for battery on a police officer after she grabbed the arm of a police officer as the two argued about who had priority over a scene after a woman attempted suicide. Stump and the officer reached an agreement out of court and the criminal charges were dropped.

Public records, however, still show Stump has an arrest record.

Unlike most states, New Mexico law offers no guidance on the issue of expunging felony arrest records. Lawmakers have considered the issue at least 11 times since 2005 and passed four bills, all of which were vetoed.

Stump's attorney, Jocelyn Drennan, argued that in the absence of state law, the justices need to take "lawmaking action" to give judges authority to expunge arrest records. She is asking that the case be sent back to district court with orders to expunge Stump's record.

When Stump's case went before 2nd Judicial District Judge Clay Campbell in 2015 he said he was sympathetic to Stump's case, but that he did not have the authority to expunge her record.

Opponents of expungement argue the public has an interest in knowing why someone was arrested by law enforcement officers.

"It is almost never in the public interest to withdraw public records," Greg Williams, lead attorney for the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, which argued against Stump's case.

New Mexico's GOP Congressman To Hold In-Person Town Hall The Associated Press

The only Republican in New Mexico's congressional delegation has finally scheduled an in-person town hall meeting amid angry scenes nationally.

Congressman Steve Pearce announced Wednesday that he will hold a town hall on Saturday in the small mountain hamlet of Ruidoso — a village of 8,000 people.

The Hobbs Republican recently held a telephone town hall with more than 10,000 participants.

Republicans who want to repeal Obamacare are facing angry pushback at constituent gatherings from Utah to Michigan to Tennessee and elsewhere, even in solidly Republican districts.

The protests are being amplified by liberal activists modeling their opposition to President Donald Trump on the tea party groups that sprang up to oppose President Barack Obama.

Environmentalists Challenge Rio Grande Water Transfer – The Associated Press

Environmentalists are challenging an application by one of New Mexico's largest cities to transfer water from a farm in Socorro County.

WildEarth Guardians has filed a protest with the Office of the State Engineer, saying the transfer proposed by Rio Rancho would result in reduced flows along nearly 100 miles of the river in central New Mexico.

The group contends that changing the amount and timing of return flows to the river could negatively affect endangered species and the state's annual obligations to deliver a certain amount of water to Texas.

It's not clear when the state engineer will make a decision.

Under the proposal, Bosque del Sol LLC would stop using the irrigation water so it could be transferred upstream, allowing the city to offset future groundwater pumping.

New Mexico Democrats Push for Gasoline Tax Increase The Associated Press

A clash over whether to increase taxes in New Mexico is escalating as Democratic lawmakers push forward with a proposal to raise the state's tax on gasoline.

Deliberations were scheduled Thursday on the Senate floor for a plan to add 10 cents a gallon to the state tax on retail gasoline sales. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has urged lawmakers to look for alternatives to tax increases to bridge the budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year.

A bill backed by Democratic Sens. Clemente Sanchez and John Arthur Smith would raise about $57 million a year from increased taxes on gasoline, specialty fuels, and motor vehicle sales with additional fees.

New revenues would bolster state reserves and fund road and bridge projects to stimulate a sluggish state economy.

New Mexico Seeks Return To Pre-Recession Employment Levels The Associated Press

A panel of New Mexico lawmakers and private-sector experts says the state needs to add 151,000 jobs over the next decade to offset attrition and return to pre-recession employment levels.

The New Mexico Legislative Jobs Council released a report Thursday that lays out goals for boosting employment and reversing a trend of outward migration.

The council says some regions of the New Mexico are having more difficulty identifying new opportunities for employment, particularly on the Eastern Plains and southwestern and south-central portions of the state.

New Mexico has the national's second highest unemployment rate behind Alaska. Economic development efforts by state government are hampered by a state budget crisis linked to a downturn in the oil and natural gas sectors.

New Mexico Senate Approves Minimum Wage Hike – The Associated Press

A Democrat-led push to raise New Mexico's minimum wage for the first time since 2009 cleared the state Senate on Wednesday, with limited resistance from Republican lawmakers.

The Senate voted 24-6 to raise the pay floor from $7.50 an hour to $9. 

The minimum wage bill now moves to the House, where a separate bill would set the wage floor at $9.25 and place restrictions on local policies that curb flexible scheduling by employers. Both bills also include minimum wage increases for tipped employees such as restaurant staff.

The increase would be felt most acutely in rural, low-income areas. The state's three largest urban areas — Santa Fe, Las Cruces and Albuquerque — already have local minimums. The highest is $11.09 in Santa Fe.

The Senate bill was amended at the start of deliberations to increase the minimum wage in two steps, starting at $8.25 in October and $9 in April 2018.

Senate Bill Sponsor Clemente Sanchez said the new amendment responds to concerns from agricultural businesses.

Navajo Language To Be Taught In Grants-Area Schools – The Associated Press

The Navajo language will be offered in one more New Mexico school district under an agreement signed by the tribe and educators.

Navajo President Russell Begaye announced the agreement with the Grants-Cibola district on Wednesday. About 10 percent of the district's 3,700 students are Navajo.

Begaye says Navajo identity and language are tied together and that the Dine language provides an expression of the tribe's culture.

He says the ability of children to learn their native language and understand where they came from will help them develop as individuals and pursue their goals with confidence.

Superintendent Marc Space says the district already offers courses in Spanish and Keres, which is spoken by some of New Mexico's pueblo communities.

About $200K In Funds Missing At Northern New Mexico College – The Associated Press

State auditors have confirmed the theft of an estimated $200,000 in funds at Northern New Mexico College.

Auditors began looking into the matter after financial discrepancies were found.

They say a high-level employee in the business office has resigned in connection to the missing money.

Along with stolen cash, checks were not deposited that deprived the college of additional funds.

State Auditor Tim Keller is referring the criminal matter to the New Mexico State Police and First Judicial District Attorney's Office.

Southern New Mexico School District Opts For 4-Day Week The Associated Press, The Silver City Sun-News

Officials in one southern New Mexico school district have decided to go to a four-day week starting in August due to a budget crunch that has educators across the state looking for ways to cut costs.

The Silver City Sun-News reports that the Cobre Consolidated School Board had been discussing the possibility for the past two years and that the budget crunch made the schedule change a reality.

Superintendent Robert Mendoza says there's also a teacher shortage and the change could help attract more educators to the district.

With a shorter week, the district will see a savings on substitute teachers as well as transportation costs.

To help make up the time, elementary students will stay an additional 30 minutes each day, with middle schools and high schools going an extra 35 minutes.

Feds: New Mexico's Signature Crop Fares Well In 2016 – The Associated Press

The numbers have been crunched, and there's some good news for New Mexico's chile farmers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported Wednesday that both the number of acres planted and the tons produced in New Mexico increased in 2016.

The data shows 9,200 acres were planted, or about 11 percent more than the previous year. Some 69,000 tons of the signature crop were produced, with most of that being sold for processing.

The value of New Mexico chile production in 2016 was estimated at more than $50 million, a significant jump from $41 million in 2015.

The figures show Luna County led in acreage and production. Dona Ana County — home of the community of Hatch, which is known as the "Chile Capital of the World" — came in second.

New Mexico Governor Pressures Senate To Act On Nominations – The Associated Press

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez is pressuring the Democratically controlled state Legislature to move forward with confirmation hearings for nominations that include agency heads and university regents.

The Senate on Wednesday responded to a letter from the governor seeking to withdraw the names of more than 50 appointees to various state commissions and boards. Martinez says withdrawing the names would give the Senate more time to consider 23 pending nominations to critical posts.

In a written response, the Senate says that candidates cannot be withdrawn from the nominating process unless they are removed from their acting positions in government. Senators say to do otherwise would circumvent their constitutional powers.

Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan says the Senate has willfully neglected its constitutional duty by stalling key confirmations. The Legislature adjourns March 18.

School District Looks To Boost Attendance With Car Giveaway – The Associated Press & The Daily Times

A school district in northwestern New Mexico is hoping to cut down on truancy by giving students the opportunity to win a free car.

The Farming Daily Times reported Tuesday that the Bloomfield School District will include students from its two high schools who have a perfect attendance record for the year in a drawing to win one of two vehicles — a 2007 Ford Mustang or a 2007 Ford Focus.

The district saw its graduation rates from both schools go up last school year, but Superintendent Kim Mizell says the district wanted to do more to motivate students to show up to class every day.

The cars were provided with help from two local companies, Interstate Recovery & Towing and BP America Production Co.

They will be given away on the last day of school in May.