The Legislature adjourned from its special budget session Monday, just nine days before the end of the current fiscal year that we can’t afford. If the timing, tone, infrastructure and legislation passed is any indication, we are in for a rough 2021 unless the Republican caucus picks up significant seats in November.
Holding the special session post-primary hurt conservative Democrat incumbents. Being able to pull out a balanced budget and a longer-term fiscal solvency plan in April or May could have been the boost the pro-business Democratic mini caucus needed to overturn populist left-wing primary challengers. But that didn’t happen, and this is the last budget that will go in front of Senator John Arthur Smith of Deming.
The tone of the overdue session was nasty, if predictable. The GOP should stop demanding equitable treatment from the Democratic majority and simply get more Republicans elected. As it was, no Republican-sponsored bill made the governor’s call, meaning no Republican bills would be heard. The GOP caucus also didn’t get the Zoom video conference link the first day of the session—classy move, Democratic majority.
The element the governor and her Democratic caucus could have, and should have, made better was the access to hearings, even if remotely via a virtual conference platform. I happen to have priced several different virtual conference technology packages for clients in the last month. For around $30,000, less than the cost of a single special session day, the state could have had a completely interactive portal with different levels of access for members, staff, and citizens, accommodating up to 2,500 live participants. Instead, the state used the free-but-limited Zoom, which limits the number of participants to 500—enough for members, staff, the media, and a few private citizens with the patience to sit through multiple outages of the session feed.
But a quick budget-fixing session would have been tolerable under the Zoom constraints. The budget is fairly predictable and publicly available. Instead, significant changes to our elections and policing were introduced and passed, as well as a super-questionable small-business loan program.
The primary election bill is a mess and in no way guarantees open primaries. Let me tell you how open primaries work: Virginia, where I lived for 13 years, has had them for decades. You register to vote. Then you arrive at your polling station and tell the poll worker which party’s ballot you want. That’s it. The bill passed during this session still required independents or “decline to state” (DTS) voters to choose a party. The change is they can register with a party just before entering the voting booth, instead of the previous 4-week-prior registration requirement. That’s not real choice for the growing number of independents in our state.
The policing bill requiring body-cameras statewide doesn’t give municipalities sufficient time to find funds or establish training for the cameras. It passed with no input from law enforcement, due to the Zoom limitations. And the small-business loan program is neither as accessible as the federal programs currently in place, nor can New Mexico afford it.
So, to the main event, the budget. They passed a budget! The new budget eliminates more infrastructure projects, and the associated construction job creation that infrastructure projects offer. State employee and education raises were cut. The governor’s free college plan was cut. The rest of the savings to balance our budget is to come from reserve funds—i.e. our rainy day funds.
Here’s what is still in the budget: $300 million in “found money” for an early childhood trust fund. When the governor introduced the trust fund in January, when we still had a surplus budget, I thought it was a great idea—an investment account meant to become self-sustaining to fund early childhood projects in the future. June looks nothing like January and returning the entire trust fund to the budget would give our cash reserves some breathing room—breathing room we will need in 2021.
That’s not the most upsetting thing about the new budget. While the early childhood trust fund remains intact, every school district in the state is being penalized by the state the amount of federal funding it received under the CARES Act. That means the funding given to local schools to manage remote learning, social distancing, etc. in the classroom during the pandemic is gone.
On the heels of this state education clawback, the Public Education Department (PED) released its back-to-school program this week. Schools will stagger classroom time for students and devote one day a week to deep cleaning without students.
Basically, this model has students receiving remote learning three days a week. We know broadband access is iffy in the East Mountains and having a parent home three days a week will negatively impact working families, especially working mothers. New Mexico public education has already lost a lawsuit over the provision of equitable education access to all children. The PED plan is likely to widen that equality gap; poorer students simply don’t have the same access to computers and high-speed internet.
There’s a really irritating cliché used a lot in my line of work regarding hurried processes and last-minute decisions: “You want it bad, you get it bad.” Sadly, that tired phrase perfectly describes the 2020 special session.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat.