Tuesday evening, the Silver City-Grant County TEA Party Patriots held a Legislative Forum, to hear about the most recent legislative session and for audience members to ask questions.
The panel consisted of Sen. Howie Morales and Rep. Rodolpho "Rudy" Martinez. Rep. Dianne Hamilton sent her apologies for being unable to attend because of a doctor's appointment out of town.
TEA Party member Vic Topmiller served as moderator for the forum.
Morales thanked those in attendance. "Any time we have constituents wanting to hear from us, we try to make time." He represents Grant, Catron and Socorro counties.
"During the 60-day session this year, the most important item was a balanced budget," Morales said. "It was a difficult session. We were under new leadership, with Mary Kay Papen in the Senate Pro Tem position and Ken Martinez as Speaker of the House."
The legislators went into the session thinking they had a $230 million surplus to work with. "But we had a concern from the first week. The system that balances the state checkbook was off by $70 million. Local communities are responsible for getting their audits in each year, but the state can't get its budget done. Then federal funds weren't giving the services we required, so we had to subtract for services not rendered. The tax breaks that we had passed in 2012, we were told would be about $50 million, but the state has already received requests for $150 million."
Rudy Martinez also thanked the TEA Party for its interest. "This is an annual event on our take of the session. We had 20 new House members this year. They came in with experience for the betterment of New Mexico. We shared our thoughts and, although we were not always in agreement, I think the House came together and did its best for the state."
He explained that House Bill 2, the budget, is the responsibility of the House, then it is sent to the Senate for adjustments and back to the House for concurrence. The next step is the governor's signature.
"We balanced the budget," Martinez said. "This was my first time on the Appropriations and Finance Committee. It's still difficult to provide for everyone. The priority is always education. The budget was $5.9 billion total; $2.9 billion went to education. The rest of the budget is divided among the agencies, with this year, every one getting about a 2 percent increase."
He said one of the issues is the Department of Transportation Fund, which does not receive General Fund money. It is a revenue fund. "We need to figure out how to built it up. Yes, federal dollars come to the state, but they are earmarked for Interstates."
The session opened for questions.
Morales and Martinez were asked on which committees they serve.
Martinez said the Appropriations Committee works with the budget and meets every day during the session.
Martinez said: "I am also chair of the subcommittee of Investment and Insurance, as well as serving on the Advocacy sub-committee." He also serves on the Public Education and Higher Education and Children, Youth and Families sub-committees. His other committee assignments include serving as vice chairman of the Rules and Order of Business, and on the Health, Government and Indian Affairs Committee. In addition, he serves as co-chair on the interim Military and Veterans' Affairs, as a member on the Drought Subcomittee and served as advisory on the Water and Natural Resources Committee and is designee to the interim Legislative Finance Committee. He said interim committees meet once a month between sessions, across the state.
Morales said he was fortunate to be named as a member of the Finance Committee, during his second year in office. "It is a benefit to the area to also have Rudy on the Appropriations Committee. It's nice to have a discussion on the front end before the budget gets to the Senate." On interim committees, Morales serves as chairman of the Economic and Rural Development Committee, as a member of the Legislative Education Study Committee and the Legislative Finance Committee, as well as in an advisory capacity to the Interim Public School Capital Outlay Oversight Task Force.
Morales said the Legislative Finance Committee would meet at Western New Mexico University on June 12, 13, and 14.
The senator and representative were asked what legislative issue was most important for them to sponsor in the next session.
Morales said, during the last session, he carried 28 bills and sat in on the committee hearings for them. "I got 21 pieces of legislation passed. Dear to my heart is education to benefit students. We need to focus on the policy side from kindergarten to higher education. I want to see us turn the corner in the state. I want us to be self-sufficient as a state."
Martinez said he is starting to formulate what pieces of legislation he will carry next session. "I carried 18 pieces this year. I'm really proud of the piece that Sen. Morales and I carried, which brings $3 million to upgrade the Gila Regional Medical Center Cancer Center and $1.5 million to a Lovington hospital."
"I am passionate about serving veterans," Martinez continued. "We got a bill through that enables veterans' spouses, who are licensed in another state, to go to work right away." Another piece of legislation of which he is proud is a bill that provides a stipend to the 80 percent of the states' firefighters who are volunteers to help them pay for fuel to get to the fires, as well as training. "We also tweaked the infamous chile bill to make it more enforceable. I want to make sure we provide for education and for our seniors, as well as bringing in industry to create jobs."
The legislators were asked their opinion of charter schools.
Morales said he believes they give the opportunity to students to have individualized schooling. "But there is a downside. As more charter schools pop up, they spread the budget very thin, so we need to make sure the dollars are appropriately used. I have a concern about for-profit ones from out-of-state, which take our tax dollars and do online courses."
Martinez said he is not opposed to charter schools, but "we have to recognize what the senator mentioned. The more charter schools we have, the less funding for the public schools. For industry-specific charter schools, we should ask companies to help support them."
On the topic of a four-lane highway to Deming, Morales said the funds were already appropriated, and "then we were told they dried up. I appreciate the work by Rep. Martinez on the issue. We will continue to put pressure on the DOT. I want to do it in seven-mile segments, so local contractors in the state can do the work. If it's for the whole project, only out-of-state contractors will be able to the work."
Martinez said he was notified the funds had gone away when he and Rep. Hamilton were sitting on the Transportation Committee. "We got with Sen. Morales and started pushing. The department finally agreed to continue the engineering. We are fortunate that Alvin Dominguez, who worked in District 1, which includes Silver City, is from here. He has moved to the cabinet secretary level. The work that has been done is excellent. The section of four-lane highway has improved the flow of traffic. We have to make sure the funding is found to put local folks to work."
A questioner asked why New Mexico is always at the bottom of the heap.
Morales pointed out that 40 percent of the budget goes to K-12 education and 16 percent to higher education, but not much more than 1 percent to early education. "New Mexico is 28th to 32nd out of 50 in education, but 49th in poverty. Poverty equals education results. We have actually defied the odds, but we need to be in the top five. It is vital to have early education. Education needs to be personalized. There is too much emphasis put on standardized testing. We should no longer expect students to go to a four-year college and graduate school. Maybe a student wants to be plumber, so we must personalize education to what the students need. That's how we will get the graduation rate to improve."
A follow-up question asked if funding is focused on vocational education.
Morales said, a year and a half ago, a group began working on vo-tech for the area. "We want to get students engaged at the middle-school level, trained in high school and get a certificate at graduation. Rather than have more funding to the schools, we need to incentivize this type of schooling, so the same time they are in high school, they are working on, say, an associate's degree in welding."
The same questioner said he was a contractor and discovered kids could not change a decimal to a fraction or a fraction to a decimal. "Focusing on a trade might encourage them to learn math, and learning to read specs would develop their reading skills.
"That's the same argument and same talk I've been giving," Morales said. "Don't standardize, but give them the opportunity to build a building."
Martinez said he has visited schools overseas. "In one country, we saw students leaving the country, so the business sector collected $8 billion to individualize education. At an early age, they assessed children and found out they were more interested in hands-on things, like plumbing or electrical work. For other students, they earn a four-year college degree, then they come to the U.S. for a master's or doctorate degree, then they go back to their own country. Many students are given a problem. They are intelligent, get it done, then they are bored. Create opportunities so they are valuable in the work force."
The rest of the discussions will be covered in a subsequent article.