The crowd fills in at El Calvario United Methodist Church’s offices Friday, Jan. 14 for a meeting hosted by Las Cruces lawmakers to seek public input on the upcoming legislative session. (Photo by Danielle Prokop / Source NM)
LAS CRUCES — About 40 people packed themselves into the offices of El Calvario Church Friday night, squeezing between high-backed quilted chairs and lining the edges of the room. For the next two hours, the air buzzed with requests, concerns and questions for state lawmakers about how to spend a record $3.6 billion budget surplus.
Vanessa Porter attended the meeting “as a community member first, but also as a mom.”
“I wanted to come see what concerns we are all having, to hear what the people from Las Cruces have to say.” she said. “What legislators decide now impacts me. It impacts my children.”
Porter, 37, is an organizer for nonprofit NM Comunidades en Acción y de Fé, which has pushed for higher minimum wages and paid sick leave in southern New Mexico. To her, a successful 60-day Legislative Session in Santa Fe means lawmakers pass bills to give support for more affordable housing and more services for behavioral health in rural areas.
“[I’m] hoping that they bring more money towards us to create a better community to be able to live a peaceful life,” Porter said.
Porter was one of nearly 200 residents to attend a series of listening sessions hosted last week by southern New Mexico lawmakers to hear community concerns and take requests for projects.
Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces) said she hasn’t seen this many people participate in these community meetings.
“We’re seeing increased need. That’s something the pandemic exposed,” she said. “But we’re also seeing increased participation at the Legislature because of remote options, and better access to the democratic process.”
Lawmakers called the upcoming budget “a once-in-history opportunity” to address systemic issues, dovetailing with residents’ requests to strengthen flood mitigation, expand the behavioral safety net and health care access.
While much of the budget process is already complete, Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces) said the meetings shape how lawmakers direct capital outlay requests — a singular system where state lawmakers fund specific projects in their districts.
“When you hear about flooding, roadwork, lighting, and some community programs, these are things that we have the opportunity to bring money and help to solve some of these local problems,” Steinborn said.
New Mexico pulled in record revenues from oil and gas production and higher tax revenue from consumer spending and inflation. Taxes on oil and gas industry account for about 40% of the state’s revenue, which also provides royalties and rent from drilling on state lands.
That translates to $3.6 billion more dollars available for government spending across the state.
The nonpartisan Legislative Finance Committee recommended the state spend $9.44 billion in this year’s budget. That’s about the same size as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s proposed budget. The budgets are not identical, but the governor and LFC overlap on some priorities for the state, such as increasing state spending in Medicaid reimbursements and raising teacher pay.
Controlling the floods
Even as oil and gas money fills the state’s coffers, New Mexico people and ecosystems are increasingly vulnerable to climate disasters, and spending record amounts of money to mitigate those disasters.
Last year, massive wildfires consumed lands parched by years of drought and devastated thousands of New Mexicans. Then when the fires were contained, more intense monsoon rains brought flash flooding across New Mexico.
In August, flash flooding from the Pecos River stranded nearly 200 people at Carlsbad National Caverns.
Communities across Doña Ana County are still reeling from widespread damage to irrigation infrastructure, crops and dozens of homes on the Rio Grande in 2021.
Urban and rural residents called for lawmakers to use capital outlay to build flood protections.
“All of these flood controls got softer, and so floods keep happening over and over again in the same places,” said Scott Krahling with High Horse Cannabis dispensary in Las Cruces, who’s also a former county clerk and commissioner. “We can’t put enough money into flood control.”
Water concerns dominated the conversation at Wednesday’s legislative priorities meeting at the Hatch Community Center. Village of Hatch officials asked for funding to bridge higher construction costs for water projects and flood control.
It floods every year in Hatch, said Mayor James “Slim” Whitlock. In 2006, rains damaged dozens of homes after the Placitas Arroyo failed.
“Hatch is like a little bowl. When it rains hard, all the water reaches the middle of town at the same time, and the storm drain pumps can’t keep up,” he said. “We have small issues every year.”
Doña Ana County officials asked lawmakers at the meeting to provide $4 million in funding for a long-stymied dam.
The county entered into agreements with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a dam in Spring Canyon nearly two decades ago. The projected cost of the dam has nearly doubled, from $12.7 million in 2019 to nearly $25 million in the most recent estimate, said John Gwynne, the flood commissioner for Doña Ana County.
The project is still at least a year away from being shovel-ready, Gwynne said.
“When we started this project, the original contract documents were signed in 2004,” Gwynne said. “Here we are, all these years later, and I don’t even have a set of plans yet.”
The project has already used $3 million in capital outlay awards, Gwynne said, and most funding went towards paying the federal government for the design and doing projects to prepare the ground.
“It took us several years to come up with that $3 million, and that was a Herculean effort,” Steinborn said.
Sen. Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) and Steinborn, both on the Senate Finance Committee, told Hatch officials they would look at pursuing money in the budget process, and from the Governor’s Office for dams.
Lujan Grisham’s budget priorities would earmark $128 million one-time funding to improve water infrastructure. This request includes $75 million to replace water supplies in the lower Rio Grande and another $30 million to improve a stretch of the river where it flows into Elephant Butte.
Diamond warned capital outlay has to be spread across her large district.
“I’ve got districts that come to us with a $20 million water infrastructure plan or something,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to tell them we’re not the resource for that.”
Health care gaps
A concern repeated across meetings were gaps in behavioral health and health care in Southern New Mexico.
A study from 2020 on behavioral health needs,found only 12% of people statewide have adequate access to mental health care.
Roque Garcia, CEO for Southwest Counseling and Border Area Mental Health, which provides services in Silver City and Las Cruces asked lawmakers to support a bill from Sen. Carrie Hablen (D-Las Cruces) that seeks to build a 32-bed facility called the Los Amigos Project.
The Las Cruces-based facility would offer a place to live to people with mental health concerns and substance abuse disorders, or who were previously incarcerated. Residents could stay for 15 to 18 months and would receive psychiatric services, medication, job assistance and counseling.
“We’re trying to establish some kind of stability in their lives — make sure that they have homes, they have some places to live, someplace to be able to work,” Garcia said. The building is already owned by the nonprofit, he added, but requires money to staff.
Rep. Joanne Ferrary (D-Las Cruces) told residents she would introduce a bill to prevent alcohol-related deaths, which kills New Mexicans at higher rates than other states.
“Our Liquor Excise Tax hasn’t been raised for 30 years. And with that tax, instead of revenue going to the General Fund, we want it to go to prevention and treatment programs,” Ferrary said.
Other lawmakers from northern New Mexico pre-filed legislation focusing on access to health care in rural areas that could help with those issues in the southern part of the state.
Rep. Marian Matthews (D-Albuquerque) put forward HB 47 which requests $7.5 million for a state fund. The fund would issue loans of $500,000 each for rural hospitals and other providers to develop plans to expand service, such as purchasing land and equipment, or adding staff.
Rep. Miguel Garcia (D-Albuquerque) introduced HB 38 to give state income tax credits up to $5,000 for rural dentists, doctors and specialists, and up to $3,000 for rural nurses, social workers, mental health workers and counselors.
The governor’s budget offers $200 million for the Rural Healthcare Delivery Fund to ease start-up or operational costs for rural hospitals.
The legislative session begins Tuesday and runs until March 18.
For people like Porter living in southern New Mexico it can feel like the government in Santa Fe forgets these communities during the legislative session.
“I want them to keep us in mind because we are people, and we struggle,” she said.
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