By Lynn Janes
On January 19, 2023, Senator Siah Correa Hemphill held a townhall meeting through Zoom. Drew Prestridge hosted, and Lieutenant Howie Morales and Senator George Munoz participated. Approximately 40 people participated in the Zoom meeting.
Morales opened the meeting by expressing how proud he was to be there and supporting Hemphill. He praised Munoz as chair of the senate finance committee and Hemphill’s knowledge of education. He announced some of the items they would be introducing and their priorities. Families will continue to be a huge priority. Last year they had been able to introduce early learning programs and had made significant changes. They had also been able to cut taxes for people receiving social security and for veterans. Morales said they knew covid had caused a significant impact to education and they planned to invest in that problem. Public safety has become a big concern to New Mexicans, and they plan to invest in that problem. Behavioral health has become a big concern in Grant County, and they will be doing something to address that. They will also be looking at protecting the environment in a responsible way.
Munoz said he knew Hemphill works hard for her community and makes the commitment to make her state better. Hemphill serves on the finance committee along with Munoz. He said she would be carrying some large education bills. “Rural New Mexico matters, and Hemphill cares.”
Hemphill thanked Munoz for his kind words and leadership. The legislature just finished their first week and Hemphill said she thought it started off well. She looked back on when she first started. “I started with not the best situation, covid had started, plexiglass was everywhere, we had to be masked and the capital was fenced off. The insurrection had just happened. Morales and Munoz stepped up and mentored me.”
“We will be working hard to rebuild the education and mental health systems.” She said this year the legislature has unprecedented revenue, and it will give them an equally unprecedented opportunity. They have $3.5 billion of new money, and it needs to be invested wisely. In the past year they have had to deal with a pandemic, insurrection, fires, and flooding.
Hemphill gave a list of all the past accomplishments with opportunity scholarships, significant pay raises for teachers, and mental health. Morales started an early childhood care department that addresses quality education and food availability, it has grown to $3 billion.
They will be working on help for the effects covid had on education. She also brought up the $750,000 they qualified for to fix infrastructure after the flooding and fires here locally. However, she pointed out a problem that the money is not available upfront and small communities, and such don’t have the funds to pay up front. She said they have been talking about creating a crisis rural infrastructure fund to help so they can get those funds. Another important issue to rural New Mexico that they will be working on will be better access to behavioral health care, called the rural health care delivery fund. The legislature will be looking at $200 million to expand behavioral health in rural New Mexico. They will also be looking to start the health professional loan program with funding of $28 million. Hemphill said she would be working with Senator Hickey (retired physician) to work with insurance companies to provide better behavioral health care.
Hemphill will be working on the Supported Decision Making Act. This is something she said had been important to her because she has a disabled son. This would provide help to persons with disabilities to be more independent.
The legislature will be continuing (Connect New Mexico) to expand the broadband availability in the state. They have $38.6 million to invest and will be focusing on rural and tribal areas first.
Hemphill said she would be carrying a bill for a rural institute at NMSU (New Mexico State University) that would collect data so the legislature could make data driven decisions on policy.
People have given a lot of criticism concerning CYFD (Child Youth and Families Department). Hemphill said she would be carrying two bills concerning this. “We need to provide a level of protection for the children; they need and deserve it.”
They opened the meeting to questions.
Gayle Simons had a question. She said she had worked with health insurance campaigns in New Mexico. She wanted to know if Hemphill will support controls on costs. She pointed out that in this country we pay twice as much as other countries. Hemphill said she knew she had worked hard on the Health Security Act and appreciated all she had done. It has been a topic of several meetings and the staff has been doing research and looking for ways to help. Hemphill said Munoz had several bills to cap the costs of medicine. The governor’s website has some recommendations for health care. She brought up that about 100,000 people would be losing Medicaid that they had been able to get because of the pandemic. They will be asking for $80 million to continue that program.
Cheryl Hastings had a question concerning water. She said she thought she heard she would be involved in a water proposal project. Hemphill said she had a rural crisis infrastructure fund and would be asking for $32 million for seed money. Another senator has something similar, and they may combine the two. Hastings said they have been in their fifteenth year fighting to keep their water in Catron County. The same people keep coming with the same proposal and "now we have the third one." This has been an ongoing legal fight and at this point the thought of legislation might help. That is making it illegal for them to sell water from one small rural community and sell it to another. Hemphill said she can’t do anything now but after the session ends, she would contact the interim committee and start those discussions. She said it would have to be given to lawyers to see if that could be done. Hastings said it had been discussed previously but didn’t seem to go anywhere. Munoz said he thought a bill would be introduced having to do with water policies, but he didn’t know if that would be in there.
Grace Williams had a question about teacher salaries being raised - Does it include support staff. Hemphill said last legislature they had raised tier one to $50 thousand, tier two to $60 thousand, and tier three to $70 thousand. It only covered the teachers and this they did to address the significant teacher vacancies across the state. A lot of others had been upset and they recognized that. The support staff recommendation will get a 5 percent increase across the board. Additionally, they have a huge push for $30 million for healthy food standards. Healthy food choices give students a much better chance to learn. Hemphill said Aldo Leopold is known throughout the state for providing nutritious meals for the students.
Another question submitted from a participant. "What can we do in the state legislature to secure federal infrastructure dollars and here especially in rural New Mexico?" Munoz said they have a lot of federal dollars available, but they must be specific. Just recently the congress passed $2.5 billion for many things in New Mexico. Again, must be specific. Hemphill gave an example of funding from 2005, Arizona Water Settlement Act. It provided $60 million and 1400 acre feet of water rights. It encompassed the counties of Grant, Luna, Hidalgo, and Catron. The federal government would have provided more funding. "The problem we have had doing the project has been lack of skilled people to get the project moving as it originally had been intended." They had many other problems that held the projects up and can’t be done. They have been working with the state engineer to do a project that will benefit the counties with those funds that is different from its original intention.
A participant had asked for closed captioning throughout the meeting but the host didn’t know how to turn it on so they could not provide his request.
Hemphill said she could be reached by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org February 1, 2023 will be Grant County Day at the legislature. She encouraged people to attend.