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WED: New Mexico Lawmakers Press For Higher Spending, Teacher Pay + More

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New Mexico Lawmakers Press For Higher Spending, Teacher PayAssociated Press

Democratic legislators pressed a plan Wednesday to increase annual state spending by more than a half-billion dollars to expand early childhood education programs, boost teacher salaries and shore up health care for the poor.

The state House of Representatives was scheduled to debate and likely vote on a $7.6 billion general fund spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Approval would send the bill to the Senate, where a variety of amendments are likely.

State economists are forecasting an $800 million surplus in state government income for the coming fiscal year that is linked closely to record-setting oil production in the state.

Republicans in the House minority criticized the proposed $530 million, 7.5% increase as irresponsible and unsustainable in the event of an oil-sector downturn.

They outlined their own plan that would increase spending by a more modest 4.3% and called for giving every New Mexico resident a $200 rebate.

Both parties are backing 5% pay increases for public school teachers as the state struggles to retain and recruit educators, with smaller increases for school staff and state government employees.

The budget proposal would increase state spending on Medicaid amid a push to enroll more eligible patients by the administration of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, but leaves out funding for her initiative to provide tuition-free college to in-state students.

House Speaker Brian Egolf predicted that the state Senate would insert funding for the tuition-free college plan. A budget plan is due on the governor's desk by Feb. 20.

New Mexico Looks Beyond US Borders For Savings On Medicine Associated Press

New Mexico's Senate endorsed a bill Tuesday that might allow the state to pursue imports of prescription drugs from Canada on a wholesale basis in search of cost savings.

Several states, including Florida, are looking for pathways to import prescription medicine while adhering to U.S. safety standards.

In December, the administration of President Donald Trump said it was moving forward with proposed regulations that might allow states to import many brand-name drugs from Canada with federal oversight.

It is unclear whether Canadian suppliers are capable or interested in supplying large U.S. markets.

In New Mexico, the bill, sponsored by Democrats, would authorize the state Health Department to develop a future application for federal approval to import wholesale drugs from Canada.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham supports the effort to get the front of the line as states look abroad for drug savings.

The bill now moves to the state House for consideration.

New Mexico Prosecutors Review Secretive State Settlements - Morgan Lee Associated Press

State and local prosecutors are reviewing the results of a special audit about secretive financial settlements under the past administration of New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez that were used to resolve human rights complaints and other legal claims against public officials.

State Auditor Brian Colón told a Senate committee that his agency forwarded audit documents for possible criminal investigation to the office of the state attorney general and Santa Fe-based district attorney's office, as well as the newly founded State Ethics Commission that handles noncriminal complaints.

A special audit from Colón's office of 18 past settlements arranged by the state's risk management division and contract attorneys found that two-thirds of the payouts lacked sufficient documentation or investigations. Some settlements were sealed until Martinez left office at the end of 2018 and appeared to be protecting the former Republican governor's political legacy, Colón says.

Matt Baca, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said the matter is actively under review. Santa Fe-based District Attorney Marco Serna could not immediately confirm the referral.

Contacted Tuesday, Martinez said she was never involved in any state settlement agreements made by the state risk management division.

Albuquerque Begins Process For Picking New SuperintendentAssociated Press

Albuquerque's public school system has started accepting applications for district superintendent, a post that current Superintendent Raquel Reedy will leave when she retires June 30.

District officials announced Tuesday that the Board of Education is seeking a new superintendent whose selection would be announced by mid-May and who would begin serving July 1.

According to the announcement, a search firm has been hired to find a successor to Reedy and that applications are due by May 24.

The announcement said the board wants a superintendent who is a "student-centered leader who puts the needs of children first" and a "collaborative, stakeholder-focused manager."

Reedy announced her retirement plans in October. She served as acting superintendent for several months before she was named to the post in 2016.

The district credited Reedy with bringing stability, reorganizing the district into learning zones, strengthening a bilingual program and expanding other programs.

Santa Fe Plaza Businesses Seek More Police Amid Robberies - Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

Santa Fe Plaza businesses want the city to add more officers to the area after robberies and complaints about crime. 

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports more than 100 downtown business owners, managers and employees have signed a petition asking the Santa Fe City Council and Mayor Alan Webber to address crime and other issues.

The petition signers also cite panhandlers and "vagrants" around the Plaza.

The petition, which seeks increased police patrols, says business owners are regularly cleaning up feces and urine near their shops, restaurants and hotels. 

The request for more police presence also comes as officers are investigating two violent armed robberies in recent weeks.

City spokeswoman Lilia Chacon says the Santa Fe Police Department has begun to address the issues and recently kicked off a two-week enforcement effort called Operation Downtown Focus.

Luján Outraising All Foes In Open Senate Race In New Mexico - By Russell Contreras, Associated Press

Records show Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján is outpacing all of his GOP opponents in the fundraising race for an open Senate seat in New Mexico.

Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission showed that the Santa Fe Democrat raised $974,000 in the last three months of 2019. That's more than all of his potential Republican opponents and his Democratic challenger combined.

Records also show that Luján had a healthy $2 million cash-on-hand at the start of 2020.

Gavin Clarkson, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs officials under President Donald Trump, led all Republicans in fundraising during the same period. He pulled in $249,000 during the last three months in 2019 and reported only having $134,000 in cash.

Businessman Mick Rich reported raising $45,658 during the same period and had $97,787 cash-on-hand.

Elisa Martinez, the founder of an anti-abortion group in New Mexico, reported raising $154,843 after fanfare around her announcement about getting in the race.

She reported having $68,623 cash-on-hand. The records filed by the Martinez campaign reflected the last four months of 2019 instead of the last three since she got into the race later than Clarkson and Rich.

Records did not include campaign finance information for shooting range owner Louis Sanchez or former television weatherman Mark Ronchetti since they've recently announced they would seek the GOP nomination.

Former Española Finance Director Andrew Perkins, who is challenging Lujan for the Democratic nomination, also did not report any campaign finance numbers.

The money disadvantage for Republicans illustrates the challenges the GOP faces in winning in a state that hasn't had a Republican U.S. senator since Pete Domenici retired in 2009.

Las Cruces Council Backs Legalizing Marijuana In New MexicoLas Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press

City officials in Las Cruces have voted to support a bill legalizing recreational marijuana throughout New Mexico.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported that the City Council passed the resolution on Monday. Mayor Ken Miyagishima cast the only opposing vote.

City officials say the vote is a show of support and does not mandate policy. They add the bill would legalize cannabis for recreational use for people 21 years of age and older and would require dispensaries to serve medical patients, automatically expunge past cannabis convictions and allow people with past cannabis convictions to hold jobs in the industry.

The bill would also make medical marijuana tax-free by taxing recreational cannabis at under 20% and establishing a fund to subsidize medical marijuana for low-income patients, officials said.

The state marijuana legalization work group proposed laying out a 9% state excise tax and city and county taxes not to exceed 4% each.

Members of the work group said if the bill becomes law, the legal cannabis industry could add 11,000 jobs and do $318 million in sales in the first year, while bringing in about $55 million in state and local tax revenue.

Opponents say marijuana legalization would increase addiction and youth use.

Cowboys For Trump Eyes Arbitration In Fight Over Reporting - Alamogordo Daily News, Associated Press

The group known as Cowboys for Trump is seeking arbitration in a fight with the New Mexico secretary of state over fines and required reports.

The Alamogordo Daily News reports the arbitration request says Cowboys for Trump is protesting the requirements because it argues campaign finance laws violate free speech and the group doesn't meet the definition of a "political committee.”

Cowboys for Trump members say the group is a for-profit organization.

Last year, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver sent a letter to the group and said the organization falls under the definition of a political committee and must hire a treasurer and file biannual reports. These reports are due in April and October each year.

In November, Cowboys for Trump — started by Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin — had yet to file any of the statutorily required financial reports.

The arbitration date is set within 30 days of the arbitration request, which was received by the secretary of state on Jan. 31.