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KUNM News Update

TUES: Governor wants tax cuts and crackdown on crime in election year, + More

MLG State of State 2022
Jim Weber/AP
/
Pool Santa Fe New Mexican
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham delivers the State of the State address during the 56th legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Santa Fe, N.M. Her State of the State address was delivered live but remote from her office as lawmakers gathered in their chambers at the state capitol. (Jim Weber/Santa Fe New Mexican via AP, Pool)

Governor wants tax cuts, crackdown on crime in election year - By Morgan Lee And Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico lawmakers are pushing to tap an unprecedented windfall of state income to shore up resources for public education, policing, health care and climate regulation at a 30-day legislative session that began on Tuesday.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, called on the Legislature to support new investments in teacher salaries, tuition-free college, the expansion of police forces and care for aging military veterans — while slashing taxes on sales and Social Security benefits.

"We have right now unimaginable financial resources," Lujan Grisham said in her annual State of the State address. "When we have the money to do it all, let's not limit ourselves."

She also called for tougher penalties for some violent crimes and legislation aimed at keeping more people accused of violent crime behind bars while awaiting trial. Public defenders have cautioned pretrial release is not linked to increases in violent crime rates.

"We are going to pass a law this session that will keep violent criminals behind bars until justice can be done. We will put a wedge in the revolving door of violent crime in New Mexico," said Lujan Grisham, who is seeking a second term in the fall election. The state House, where Democrats have a 45-24 advantage over Republicans, also is up for election in November.

Republican leaders noted that cracking down on crime has been among their top priorities for years and their legislative efforts have been rebuffed by the governor and the Democratic majority. They suggested Tuesday that the governor is rallying behind the issue only now because frustrated residents will be going to the polls this fall.

"For years past, when Republicans brought forth proposals that would have answered many of these problems, they were cast aside," Senate Minority Floor Leader Greg Baca of Belen said.

The governor delivered her speech by webcast from her office, rather than the House floor, as a precaution against the coronavirus, while legislators of all political affiliations wore masks.

A blend of online and in-person deliberations are anticipated at the state Capitol, with proof of vaccination — and booster shots — required for members of the public to enter the state Capitol. Legislators are exempt from some requirements.

"I'm proud of how we have responded to the crisis, we have found ways to come together safely," Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe said as the session convened. "Masks will be required again, social distancing will be sought out when possible. We're going to have virtual committee meetings.

Outside the Capitol building, a handful of sign carrying protesters denounced vaccination requirements as infringement on individual freedoms. Republican Sen. Craig Brandt bristled at a restriction preventing senators from inviting children and other relatives onto the Senate floor for opening-day ceremonies, calling it "ridiculous." House members were accompanied by relatives.

Many legislative proposals take aim at violence and urban crime and were stoked by outrage over a record-breaking year for homicides in Albuquerque in 2021.

"There is a massive amount of crime, a crisis in Albuquerque," Egolf said in an interview. "It is caused by many different factors. That means we have to have multiple solutions. There's no one answer."

Lujan Grisham's budget recommendations would set aside $100 million 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.

Democratic legislators are drafting legislation would expand access to voting, in coordination with Lujan Grisham and New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat who oversees elections.

Legislators could decide to make Election Day could a state holiday in New Mexico to encourage voting, with automated distribution of absentee ballots for residents who want to vote by mail or with drop-off ballots. The initiative counters a wave of new voting restrictions from Republican-led states.

New Mexico Republicans raised concerns Tuesday about some of the proposals, including one that would allow those as young as 16 to vote. They also said some counties have more people on their voter rolls than they do residents and suggested voters should be required to present identification at the polls, like they do for many other government services.

Several Lujan Grisham initiatives take aim at transforming energy production and climate-related regulations in the nation's No. 2 state for oil production. Her administration's top environmental regulators are seeking $2.5 million for a new "climate change bureau" to oversee efforts to reduce emissions.

The bureau also may oversee forays by businesses into hydrogen production in New Mexico, using natural gas to make hydrogen, as the federal government jump-starts the industry with $8 billion in dedicated infrastructure spending. Legislators are pushing to approve local financial incentives to increase support for the efforts.

State economists foresee a $1.6 billion general fund surplus for the coming fiscal year, which runs from July 2022 to June 2023, in excess of current spending obligations.

Legislators still have $600 million in federal pandemic relief to dispense from the state's original $1.7 billion allotment. They are drafting a long list of eligible infrastructure projects, ranging from high-speed internet lines in remote areas to road construction and repairs.

Budget proposals from the governor and legislative leaders would increase annual state general fund spending by about $1 billion to nearly $8.5 billion.

The roughly 14% spending boost would 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.

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

Without federal funding, Baca suggested New Mexico won't be able to sustain such high levels of spending over time.

Plant count increases ahead of New Mexico marijuana sales - Associated Press

New Mexico regulators have doubled the number of marijuana plants that licensed growers can cultivate as the state prepares for recreational sales to start this spring, officials announced Tuesday.

Increasing the plant count makes sense "to ensure that everyone can maximize the benefits of a thriving cannabis industry," said state Cannabis Control Division Director Kristen Thomson.

The division also needs to ensure that supplies remain consistent for the tens of thousands of New Mexicans who participate in the state's medical marijuana program.

But some marijuana industry players are concerned that the change is too little and too late to meet demand because of the time it takes time to put in place the needed infrastructure and for plants to grow.

Officials with Ultra Health, the state's largest cannabis producer, told the Albuquerque Journal that the rule change likely wouldn't significantly change the amount of cannabis that will be available by April. It typically takes around 5½ months to get a plant in the ground and ready for harvest.

"We're probably not going to receive any relief in the remaining 74 days to April 1," said Ultra Health President and CEO Duke Rodriguez.

Ultra Health has filed multiple court challenges against state agencies and requested emergency rule changes in the past to increase the plant count. Rodriguez said he would like to see the state abolish plant counts altogether and take a market-based approach.

Ben Lewinger, executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, said increasing plant counts now undermines previous work by advocates and lawmakers to keep the industry from being dominated by a handful of large-scale producers.

The rule change does not allow micro producers authorized for fewer than 200 plants to grow more of them. Their plant counts are set by statute and state officials say legislative action would be needed for the micro producers to be allowed to grow more plans.

"Equity and fairness are foundational principles of New Mexico's vision for the state's cannabis industry," Thomson said. "We will work with legislators and the governor to ensure those values are upheld and that micro producers see increased plant count limits as soon as possible."

New Mexico's cannabis law was signed last year by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat. It set a deadline of April 1 for recreational sales to begin. The state has estimated that annual recreational sales could reach $300 million in the first year.

Unlike other states, New Mexico has no limit on the number of producer licenses that can be issued.

About 290 applications have been submitted so far and 30 have been approved. The state has also renewed licenses for 34 existing medical cannabis producers.

US announces $83M in latest round of tribal housing grants - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Emergency management officials on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota have a new building, but they have been operating out of an old jail that's set to be torn down.

That's because the new building near a small airport doesn't have water and sewer connected, said Lislie Mesteth, who runs the Oglala Sioux Tribe's solid waste program. A new round of grant funding that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Tuesday will make those connections and help emergency responders into their new digs.

"They never had enough money to get it built entirely, so we've been doing little grants here and there," Mesteth said.

The $3.4 million grant to the Oglala Sioux Tribe is part a third round of "imminent threat funding" from HUD, using money from the American Rescue Plan Act. The latest infusion — $83 million — will benefit 74 tribes across the country and boost the total amount awarded so far to $209 million spread among 191 tribes.

"This is thankfully, historic levels of funding in this particular program, and I know we're grateful for it, and I know the tribal communities are as well," said Adrianne Todman, deputy secretary of HUD. "This is a fair amount of money."

At least one more round of funding is coming with the remaining $71 million, she said.

Tribes have been eagerly awaiting the money to cover cost overruns for existing projects and to start new ones. The Native Village of St. Michael in Alaska is getting $1 million to build 26 tiny homes to help alleviate a housing shortage. The Northern Arapaho Tribal Housing Authority in Wyoming will use its $1 million grant to buy a couple of mobile medical units to aid its COVID-19 response.

Tribes in Arizona and New Mexico have been awarded grants in all three rounds for housing, sanitation services, internet access and health care facilities, and to help families struggling to pay housing and utility bills during the pandemic.

Todman acknowledge the grants won't be enough to fulfill all the needs in Indian Country. She said budget proposals have included increased funding.

HUD typically awards about $70 million annually through its Indian Community Development Block Grant program for competitive grants and $4 million for imminent threat grants. About 200 tribes apply each year, but only about 80 are funded, HUD spokesman Michael Burns said.

All of the American Rescue Plan Act money for the grants was designated as imminent threat, making it available on a first-come, first-served basis. HUD switched up its approach from awarding grants under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act from releasing it in one batch to doling it out in rounds to give some tribes more time to apply.

HUD also raised the maximum amount that could be awarded through American Rescue Plan Act funding by 15% because it was a bigger pot of money and construction costs have soared, Burns said. The agency first considered requests that weren't funded under the CARES Act before taking new applications.

Tribes are required to report back to HUD on how the money is being spent.

Emergency management officials on the Pine Ridge reservation were using the grounds outside their new building Tuesday to make COVID kits. Much of their supplies are stored in shipping containers at the old jail that the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs plans to tear down once they move out, tribal officials said.

The Oglala Sioux's emergency manager, Steve Wilson, said tribal officials have been working out of the concrete jail for several years, even though it's been condemned. He said the electrical system is outdated and the building is inefficient.

The tribe applied for a HUD grant for the water and sewer in the new building in 2020 but didn't get it and was placed on a priority list for funding under the American Rescue Plan Act, he said. Construction of the new building started in 2019 but was delayed by a flood and the response to COVID, Wilson said.

Some finishing work still needs to be done, along with work on the computer network.

"I'm hoping summertime, we can get everything moved over to that place," Wilson said.

Mesteth also turned to HUD to request funding to restore a pump for a well in the village of Pine Ridge, connect 30 homes to the water system, repair broken water pipes in residents' homes and remove dilapidated mobile homes that are a health risk, she said. HUD fully funded the requests.

"This is really significant," she said. "This imminent threat one will be good, really good."

New Mexico sees most number of pedestrian deaths in decade - Associated Press

Albuquerque officials are renewing their pledge to prevent pedestrian deaths as New Mexico sees the highest number of them in a decade.

KRQE-TV reports a new director will oversee Albuquerque's Vision Zero initiative Tuesday, working with a $4 million budget to design more secure roads and pedestrian crossings.

Mayor Tim Keller announced the Vision Zero program in 2019 with an aim to eliminate pedestrian fatalities by 2040.

But for the past two years, there have still been dozens of pedestrian deaths in Albuquerque each year. They include the tragic hit-and-run death of a 7-year-old boy just before Christmas.

According to the New Mexico Department of Transportation, 99 pedestrians were killed on New Mexico roadways last year. That is a significant bump from 81 in 2020 and 83 in 2019.

Patrick Montoya, director for the Department of Municipal Development, said the city continues to review intersections that seem to be hotspots for traffic incidents. Officials are also looking at how to bolster crosswalks.

At the same time, he says, pedestrians and drivers have to behave responsibly too.

Albuquerque school district to reopen after cyberattack -Associated Press

New Mexico's largest school district will reopen Tuesday after a cyberattack that forced a two-day closure, officials said.

The Albuquerque Public Schools district discovered problems last Wednesday with its student information system that tracks attendance, grades and emergency contact information.

The district said Monday it hasn't fully resolved the problems, but it has found a way around the issues so that students can return to class.

"We will be able to take attendance, contact parents in emergencies, and assure that students are picked up from school by authorized adults," the district posted on Twitter.

The district serves one-fifth of New Mexico's K-12 public school students.

Officials said students will have to make up the two days of classes they missed in May. The investigation into the cyberattack is ongoing.

Governor adds rent reform to packed session schedule, but one big provision missing, advocates say -Patrick Lohmann, Source NM 

Lawmakers will soon consider a bill that would help tenants avoid becoming homeless in the middle of a public health emergency, the governor’s office confirmed Thursday.

As Source New Mexico’s Patrick Lohmann reports, a spokesperson for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said a rental reform bill will be on her agenda for the 30-day legislative session that begins Tuesday.

The housing issue will join a packed session schedule that includes figuring out how to spend record-high revenues and the remainder of the American Rescue Plan Act funding, plus addressing voting rights and climate change. Though it will be in the session, housing did not make it into the list of the governor’s priorities released Friday.

The housing bill – a draft of which is published below – was produced in consultation with the Apartment Association of New Mexico, which represents landlords, and various groups representing tenants, according to spokesperson Nora Sackett.

The bill, if passed, would close a loophole many landlords used to evict tenants during the pandemic, one that circumvents a Supreme Court order banning evictions for non-payment of rent. Under the new law, landlords will not be allowed to refuse to renew a tenant’s lease – effectively evicting them – while a disaster or emergency is declared by the governor or a joint act of the Legislature.

It would also extend the amount of time tenants have to come up with rent when they get a written eviction notice from their landlords, from three days to 11 days. There are other changes too, like preventing tenants from being evicted if they come up with rent money by the time a sheriff’s deputy arrives to kick them out. Those changes would be in effect regardless of whether an emergency is declared.

“We appreciate that the sponsors worked with stakeholders to come to a productive consensus that will improve landlord-tenant relations and allow housing-insecure New Mexicans greater opportunities to remain housed,” Sackett told Source New Mexico.

The bill, however, does not include a ban on so-called “source-of-income discrimination,” a provision that some lawmakers and advocates have been calling for throughout the pandemic.

Current law allows landlords to refuse to rent a tenant who is paying with a Section 8 voucher. Those vouchers are provided by the federal government to low-income renters and allow them to pay 30% of their income toward rent, with the government picking up most or all of the rest of the rent bill.

New Mexico is one of 19 states where it is still legal for landlords to reject a tenant based on how they’re paying rent, be it a Section 8 voucher, a Veterans Affairs benefit or some other subsidy, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.

Advocates — like the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Chainbreakers Collective — also note that banning the practice would have meant landlords would not legally be allowed to refuse rental assistance money made available to tenants and landlords during the pandemic.

The state Emergency Rental Assistance Program has so far provided about $85 million from a $170 million federal fund to landlords on behalf of tenants who couldn’t make rent during the pandemic.

But at least 2,000 times between late July and late September (the most recent data available) landlords refused to accept or ignored rental assistance money that their tenant qualified for, the state previously told Source New Mexico. Those landlords frequently go ahead and evict their tenants, often to move in a new tenant at a higher rent or to sell the property during a hot housing market, advocates have said.

If the ban on “source-of-income discrimination” had passed when it was considered during the 2021 regular session, those tenants could still be housed today, said Maria Griego, attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

The Apartment Association of New Mexico during last year’s session fought against requiring landlords to accept Section 8 tenants, Griego said, which is her best guess as to why it wouldn’t be included for consideration this time around.

“They were really opposed,” Griego said. “And so the governor knows that this is a bill that is supported by both housing advocates and landlords’ group, and so I think that’s probably why she’s willing to stand behind it.”

Sackett did not respond to a question about whether the governor supported a ban on Section 8 discrimination.

The Apartment Association of New Mexico did not respond to a phone call or email Friday.

State Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces), a sponsor of the bill, said she hopes to fight for the ban in future years, along with other reforms. She hopes this 2022 bill will pass quickly through both chambers, given the Apartment Association’s support and the governor’s endorsement. The Senate, where the bill died last year, will be the legislation’s biggest test, she said.

“I’m hoping that within the interim we can come up with a comprehensive housing plan that is going to address a lot of those issues,” she said.”I know that we have the support right now with the current version of the legislation of the landlord Association, which is why I’m hoping that the Senate will will defer on any amendments.”

Navajo increases ability to do COVID testing, vaccinations - Associated Press

Health facilities on the Navajo Nation are increasing the ability to test for COVID-19 and vaccinate people as the omicron variant spreads, tribal leaders said.

Navajo President Jonathan Nez said the facilities also are working to give out more home testing kits this month while cases are surging.

The tribe reported 129 additional COVID-19 cases and 117 delayed reported cases. The death toll remains at 1,600. A full report with total case counts during the pandemic will be available Tuesday, the tribe said.

"The Navajo Department of Health has implemented many public health emergency orders, but the trend in new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths ultimately comes down to the individual choices we make each day. So, please make the right choices for yourself, your family, friends, and everyone in your community," Nez said in a statement Monday.

The omicron variant spreads much more easily than other coronavirus strains. However, early studies show omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than the previous delta variant.

The 27,000 square-mile Navajo Nation extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Youth climate activists convene on eve of session - Austin Fisher, Source NM 

On the eve of the 2022 regular legislative session, a panel of New Mexico youth climate activists will hold a live discussion about organizing for power-shifting solutions, instead of proposals prioritizing the pockets of industry and corporations.

As Source New Mexico’s Austin Fisher reports, Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA) plans to host an Energy Democracy Convergence today to deliberate the principles, frameworks, opportunities and threats in environmental and climate justice movements.

The group says we are in a critical moment with climate scientists having warned the world we need to act before the planet heats to a point where hundreds of millions of people will face flooding, droughts, poverty and other effects of climate change.

“We need to make sure that these investments and plans benefit our communities,” the group said in a Jan. 12 news release. “Climate policies should be led-by and directed by those impacted.”

Climate is the focus of one-quarter of the proposals in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s agenda for the 30-day session.

Environmental and climate justice groups have opposed the administration’s Hydrogen Hub Act because it promotes producing and distributing so-called blue hydrogen, which is developed from natural gas. This is all happening in a state that already struggles policing natural gas operators.

The governor’s blue hydrogen proposal was part of an agenda released Friday alongside a new conservation fund called the Land of Enchantment Bond, a statute codifying climate goals, and a proposal to reduce the carbon footprint of the transportation industry called the Clean Fuel Standard Act.

“This agenda supports a thriving New Mexico, one where we choose to proactively invest in families, communities, workers and businesses,” Lujan Grisham said in a written statement Friday.

YUCCA counters that the climate legislation proposed in the Roundhouse over the last few years took a “top-down corporate approach” that prioritizes industry and corporate interests.

“We need to make sure to work together to build power and work against forces that aim to co-opt and divide us or marginalize us — and get clear about what we are working FOR,” YUCCA wrote.

YUCCA members spoke about the legislative process and the forces behind it at a panel on Dec. 2 hosted by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. Elena Gonzales, a YUCCA member from Socorro, said there is a misleading popular narrative that New Mexico is a leading state in combating climate change.

“We cannot lead the climate movement while we are also leading in oil and gas production,” she said. “Those two things cannot coexist, and we have to recognize that fact to move forward in a just and equitable way.”

Man cycles through New Mexico on journey to see US capitols - By Matt Dahlseid Santa Fe New Mexican

Bob Barnes has spent the past handful of years shuttling other people where they need to go as an Uber driver in Syracuse, New York. On Aug. 1, he set off on a ride for himself.

The scale of the ride is hard to fathom, and it's an experience he'll never forget.

The affable and tenacious 52-year-old is in the middle of a 15,000-plus-mile cycling odyssey with the goal of visiting every state capitol, plus the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., within 12 months. He calls the trek the "Great American Triple Switchback" because it will take him across the country not once but three times.

If he completes the trip, he will have traveled a distance greater than half the circumference of the Earth.

Barnes pedaled his way to the Roundhouse in Santa Fe on Day 160 of his journey to tick off his 25th capitol, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported. He has ridden more than 7,000 miles so far, averaging 40 to 50 miles per day, and he showed no signs of letting up as he barreled down on Austin, Texas, atop his trusty bike he affectionately calls Seabiscuit 2.

"I feel good, I feel strong, and I'm still getting stronger as I go," said Barnes, who said he has lost 27 pounds since he started the ride.

Barnes began his trip in Syracuse and tagged the capitols of the Northeast before dipping down the East Coast to North Carolina and then slicing west across the middle of the country.

He hit California, including a ride along the Pacific coastline down breathtaking California State Route 1, and visited Tijuana, Mexico, for fun. Now he's headed back east to string together the capitols of the Southern states. When he reaches Florida, he'll head north to Ohio and make his final switchback west across the Lower 48's northern states.

To cap the trip, he'll ride from Olympia, Wash., to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, where in July he plans to catch a ferry to Juneau, Ala.; there's no way to reach Juneau by road. Finally, he hopes to fly to Hawaii, bike to the capitol in Honolulu and take some well-deserved time to rest and relax on the beach.

Barnes hadn't seen large swaths of America until this monumental adventure. Everything is fresh in his eyes, and the promise of new discoveries ahead drives him to push through the challenges of tough climbs, flat tires or tired legs.

"Every day is like the first day of a vacation. It's new and exciting every single day," Barnes said.

"It's everything you think it would be. You get on your bike and you just ride; it's like a big neighborhood. But it also shrinks the country because now you know more of it."

Peanut butter sandwiches, canned soup and morning coffee and donuts help Barnes power through his days. At night, he takes his tent and sleeping bag out of the small trailer he pulls behind his bike and sets up camp.

He has only spent nine nights in a hotel, staying inside to avoid hazardous conditions. In recent weeks, he ran into a snowstorm heading into Flagstaff, Arizona, and had to hole up in Gallup, New Mexico, to wait out a winter storm warning.

Much of Barnes' trip has been crowdfunded. He has raised nearly $5,000 through donations to a GoFundMe campaign. The money goes primarily toward food, water, bike repairs, campsites and other expenses. He hopes there will also be enough for that flight to Hawaii to cap off his trip.

In return, Barnes provides updates on his progress three times a day through his Bibbery Travels Facebook page (Bibbery is a nickname he picked up in college). The posts include photos of what he has seen and descriptions of his encounters.

He powers his phone and his lights with the help of a solar panel he carries on top of his trailer.

Barnes has built a modest but active following of more than 1,200 people on his Facebook page. Most of his posts receive several comments that include words of encouragement, questions or remarks on what he has shared. He regularly responds to many of them.

He said the interactions make him feel like he has a group of hundreds of people traveling along with him, which provides a boost of motivation.

While pedaling the pavement, he also has received an "overwhelming" amount of support.

"Anywhere you go in the country is going to be the same thing but different," Barnes said. "People are people; I find everybody is kind. There are different cultures and different ways of life, but everybody is human."

Truck drivers have been particularly thoughtful when he's riding on the shoulders of interstates. He has had two instances in which a trucker has stopped ahead of him to give him water when he passes by.

Barnes also tries to give back as much as he can. He donates blood every 60 days and volunteers his time on the holidays. He spent Thanksgiving helping out at an American Legion dinner in Salinas, California, and Christmas assisting at a Salvation Army dinner in Phoenix.

"I'm a big fan of paying it forward and giving back," he said. "I like to do what I can do with what I have. I don't have money, but I can do other things."

It's strange to hear him say it, considering what he's currently doing, but Barnes calls himself an underachiever. He said he had a couple of small cleaning businesses in his 20s and 30s, and now he drives Uber to pay the bills.

"I hate to say it, but I've done nothing exciting, as far as work, in my life," Barnes said.

Outside of work, however, he has always been active and goal-oriented.

Barnes said he has completed 15 full marathons, and three years ago he did a 5,800-mile bike tour across the northern portion of the country.

This trip is by far his biggest challenge to date and his most fulfilling.

He's learned a lot about the country — like that it can snow heavily in Arizona and New Mexico — and a lot about himself.

"I'm stronger than I thought I was," Barnes said. "I like who I am, if that doesn't sound too arrogant. And I can do more than I thought I could."

Barnes said he's going to have a problem when this trip is over. What do you do after living on the road for a year and completing the adventure of a lifetime?

"I have to prepare myself for the end and either come up with something else or just learn how to relax a little bit," Barnes said. "Life is going to be like a wave that hits me from behind."

Fortunately, he's got at least 8,000 more miles before he has to face that reality. He can spend a bit of that time thinking about what comes next, but most of the time he said he'll be focusing on the present and the remarkable journey he's on.

He hopes his story inspires others to take the leap and pursue their dreams, too, while they physically still can.

"A lot of people talk about it, but they don't do it," Barnes said. "People need to do it."

Staffing marks top education goal for New Mexico lawmakers - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico lawmakers are meeting starting Tuesday to craft the state budget, about half of which is expected to go to K-12 education.

Early proposals from key legislative committees and the governor put the total budget around $8.4 billion and the K-12 public school budget at around $3.8 billion, a 12% increase over last year.

A growing educational staffing crisis is taking center stage in that discussion, as New Mexico struggles to keep America's oldest teacher workforce in the classroom, keep up with inflation, and compete with other states and private employers who are raising wages.

State leaders believe the funding increases including raises are possible, thanks to surging oil and gas revenue, and essential for filling government and public-school positions. They also think it's necessary, with unfilled teaching positions reaching around 1,000, and many more unfilled school worker positions. With 7% national inflation, and strong competition from the private sector, getting teachers and other workers to staff schools is a growing challenge.

Democrats hold the governor's office and strong majorities in the state House and Senate, and their pending priorities are most likely to become law.

But Republicans want to restrict how race is taught in schools, ban vaccine mandates, and pursue the long-standing priority of allowing parents to carry their child's education funding from public schools to private schools.

TEACHER RAISES

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and key legislative committees are in synch in proposing an increase in the minimum teacher salaries based on levels of certification. The goal is to make the state competitive with its neighbors, incentivize young people to join the profession, and stem looming retirements.

Right now, starting teachers earn at least $41,000 and that would be raised to around $50,000, with mid-level teachers earning a minimum of $60,000 and master teachers around $70,000. For teachers affected by the minimums, the increases could reach 20%.

For teachers who already earn near those levels, a minimum 7% raise would be instituted. There's a similar raise proposed for school staff, from janitors to principals. Given the inflation rate, it wouldn't amount to an increase in buying power.

Lawmakers are proposing many other ways to add teachers.

"We are putting money into our teacher loan repayment, scholarships and (the Grow Your Own Teachers Act)," said Senate President Mimi Stewart.

Stewart and Lujan Grisham also support a plan to pay Indigenous language arts and culture teachers the same as starting teachers. For years, they've been paid as education assistants, with salaries as low as $14,000. But if the proposal is adopted, their language teaching certification, approved by tribal authorities, would count toward compensation.

FOOD, MAINTENANCE, TEACHING ASSISTANTS

In New Mexico's largest school district, Albuquerque, there were 742 staff vacancies as of Friday. Only 225 had "teacher" in the title, with food and maintenance worker vacancies taking up much of the list. Teaching assistants are also in short supply, and many are covering for teacher shortages, with a teaching workload, and without commensurate pay.

There's a proposal to set a minimum wage for school workers at just over $13 an hour, which could be competitive in rural areas but less so in cities like Albuquerque. Some lawmakers are calling for a $15 minimum wage, which Lujan Grisham has endorsed for state workers, but hasn't for school workers.

Across the board, raises could hit some snags. In Las Cruces, for example, increased funds could end up in the hands of contractors without reaching drivers because of their contract structure. Drivers in that city went on strike this fall, making students miss an increasingly rare day of in-person learning.

NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENTS

A court found in 2018 that students who are low income, Native American, English language learners, and disabled — around 70% of all K-12 students — aren't being offered an adequate education, which is guaranteed in the state constitution.

The court identified areas where the state needed to improve education but didn't prescribe exactly how to fix the problems in the Martinez-Yazzie education lawsuit, named after Hispanic and Native American mothers of plaintiff students.

Heading into the final year of her first term, Lujan Grisham hasn't released a plan to address the ruling or negotiated with the plaintiffs' lawyers.

Without a plan from the courts or the governor, the Legislature doesn't know what it can fund in order to resolve the lawsuit.

MORE SCHOOL DAYS

The lawsuit placed the responsibility for closing the education divide on the Legislature and governor, but public-school districts still wield most of the power over how schools are run. State lawmakers broadly agree that students need more days in class to close the learning gap between more and less economically privileged students.

The urgency for extra learning has only increased during the pandemic, which by all available data indicates that students fell even further behind, in a state that regularly places last in measures of academic proficiency among K-12 students.

But more school days mean shorter summers. And that hasn't gotten support from teachers or the most vocal parents, who tend to show up at school board meetings. Last year, superintendents and school boards rejected tens of millions in state funding for extra days, bending to local pressure.

Proposals from lawmakers this month suggest a new approach, offering the perks of an extra-days program, with fewer restrictions. For example, schools might be able to offer more instruction hours during the school year instead of lengthening it.

"It is the belief of the executive and I think ... the Legislature that we have learned from COVID and also from reviewing the research that we need more time with students engaged with their teachers," education secretary Kurt Steinhaus told a legislative committee Friday.