By Robin Fornoff
CMI Projects Editor
The non-stop action in the movie series “Fast and Furious” will likely have nothing on the New Mexico Legislature’s upcoming 30-day budget session.
Come today in Santa Fe, the clock will have already started ticking on lawmakers already anxious to divvy up what’s left of a projected $253 million surplus.
If there is a consensus, it’s that about half of the taxpayer cash is already earmarked by lawmakers and Gov. Susana Martinez for education. The lingering money fight in Martinez’s $6.1 billion budget proposal will be over raises for state employees, road and bridge work the governor wants to see happen and capital outlay projects legislators and the elected officials in the districts they represent want to see funded.
The session is supposed to be limited to budget matters. But local lawmakers are predicting issues such as same-sex marriage, driver’s licenses for the undocumented and decriminalization of marijuana are likely to pop up.
Regardless, the frenzy to get money matters settled and cash for pet projects will make for a short but lively session.
Sen. Stuart Ingle of Portales, a Republican and Senate minority leader, said he believes voters will be asked to decide on same-sex marriage if a bill makes it out of committee and to the floor in either house. He believes Democrat and Republicans are hungry to let voters decide, despite a recent state Supreme Court ruling declaring bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional and Martinez’s declaration it’s a non-issue because of the court ruling.
Ingle, Republican Sen. Pat Woods of Broadview and Republican Rep. Dennis Roch of Logan think the only real issue will be the language of a same-sex constitutional amendment.
“If it gets on the floor,” said Ingle, “I think it’s got a chance.”
Social conservatives, said Roch, will likely want language defining marriage as only between one man and one woman. He said progressives — read that Democrats, and they control the Legislature — will want language that states consenting adults can marry regardless of sex.
“It’s a hot topic,” said Woods, who is among those wanting a constitutional amendment decided by voters. “I would prefer it be defined as a man and a woman, but if just the question comes before the voters I would be happy with that.”
Martinez has tried and failed three times in as many years to get a bill banning driver’s licenses for undocumented workers living in New Mexico. It will come up again this year, all three legislators agreed.
Woods said he prefers a different kind of license for the undocumented. “Some definite way to show that they aren’t citizens of the U.S. How we prove that, I don’t know.”
Said Roch, “I’m hopeful that just because we’ve had that argument three times now doesn’t mean it still isn’t a valid issue. We still have criminals taking advantage … it will keep happening and if we don’t close the loophole on that, then it’s our fault.”
Education will dominate, all three said, with the Legislature at odds over how the surplus money is divided.
Martinez has proposed slightly larger pay increases for teachers than the Legislature’s finance committee. But her proposed $100 million increase for public education falls $43 million short of the finance committee’s goal.
The simmering education issues are where the extra money gets spent. Both sides agree teachers are in need of sizeable raises. Martinez wants to raise starting teacher salaries from $30,000 to $33,000, about $500 a year more than the finance committee has proposed.
Martinez has also targeted the bulk of increased spending on education to what are known as below-the-line expenses. These include ramped up emphasis on early learning programs to increase reading and math skills in grades K-3. They would also require some federal review.
School leaders across the state, said Woods, are bristling at the possibility of federal review and restrictions and prefer they be allowed to decide how to spend any increase.
“They are telling me that above-the-line, they know where to put the money,” said Woods. “They really like the idea of just send it down here and we’ll spend it. But there is a real push in the Legislature to try to make some fundamental changes … in early childhood education.”
One change Ingle said he wants is to stop social promotion. Students should be able to read by third grade, he said, and “I don’t know why everybody in education doesn’t support it.”
If a third-grade reading requirement fails as it did last year, Roch said at least the issue is raising awareness in schools.
“We’re actually seeing progress at an earlier age,” said Roch, who is also superintendent of Logan schools.
Expect controversy over new teacher evaluations. Roch said he thinks part of the problem is improper or little training on how the evaluations are done.
“There is a sense (training) may not have been sufficient … so that all those involved didn’t know how it was supposed to be carried out,” said Roch. “As a result, some districts are doing it different than those next door.”
Roch said the new system includes objective areas for teacher evaluation, such as student progress, as opposed to the purely subjective evaluations of the past.
“The underlying policy I think is valid,” he said. “Especially because it’s going to give teachers credit for how much the teachers grow their students over time.”
Woods likes the concept of the new teacher evaluations, admitting the program may have weaknesses.
“Most of us are evaluated some way or the other,” said Woods. “I believe that our local school districts were not accomplishing this well in the evaluations in the past and the Legislature agreed we had to step in.
“Have we got it right yet?” said Woods. “Probably not. But just giving every teacher perfect marks is not the answer. We will need to tweak the new system. But I say to local school boards, if they don’t like it, come up with a better plan and bring it to us. Step up and show us how you’re going to evaluate the teacher.”