Three Rio Rancho-area legislators in a panel discussion last week agreed on the priorities of funding better infrastructure and workforce development in New Mexico.
The Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce quarterly luncheon Thursday featured a panel discussion among state Reps. Joshua Hernandez and Jason Harper, both Republicans, and Daymon Ely, a Democrat.
Forecasts have predicted the state will have hundreds of millions of dollars, if not a billion or more, of new money for the next fiscal year. Asked about priorities for the budget in the upcoming 30-day legislative session, Hernandez said he believed much of it should go to infrastructure such as roads and water systems.
“That’s not just Rio Rancho; that’s statewide,” he said.
He also believes workforce development and education should be high priorities.
Ely agreed that infrastructure is a priority.
“But obviously we also have a crime problem,” he said.
Crime must be addressed throughout the legal system, and the best deterrent is “swift and certain justice,” Ely said. The governor wants to fund 1,000 more police officers, but that means the state needs more prosecutors, probation officers, etc., he continued.
Harper agreed on the importance of infrastructure, saying it’s a one-time expense, while criminal justice system changes would need recurring money. In his nine years in the House of Representatives, he’s seen two cycles of revenue increasing and then decreasing, since a third of the state’s revenue comes from the volatile oil and gas industry.
Chamber President and CEO Jerry Schalow, moderating the discussion, said New Mexico ranks last in quality of workforce and asked how the legislature could use the budget surplus to help. Many businesses are also short-staffed.
Ely pointed to the pandemic as a cause of the staffing shortage.
“People are afraid to go back to work,” he said, pointing to vaccines as a way to get past COVID-19.
Ely also said college should be free to develop the workforce.
Hernandez said he is sponsoring a bill that would use a “couple million” dollars of the new revenue for scholarships to help people age 26 or older complete their education or go back to school for a degree or technical certification in a field with a shortage of workers.
“It’s a small thing we can do to get ourselves on a good track for workforce development,” he said.
Harper said the Lottery Scholarship has been a boon for the state even though it doesn’t pay full tuition anymore. He believes there should be help for people seeking higher education, but it shouldn’t be free because outcomes are better if students have “skin in the game.”
Harper added that career-technical education is important. However, he said, CTE is expensive and the school funding formula doesn’t encourage school districts to provide it.
Circling back to public safety, Schalow asked how legislators could turn the crime problem around.
Ely said he and Rep. Greg Nibert, a Roswell Republican, have been working to create a new process to fund criminal-justice programs based on effectiveness.
“We just kind of throw money at things and hope it works without looking at the data… ,” Ely said. “That’s just a stupid way to go about it.”
Under his and Nibert’s plan, an entity wanting money for a criminal-justice program would present its plan and goals to the legislature Sentencing Commission. If the commission met the request, the receiving entity would have to show data on whether the goals were met.
If the program succeeded, it would be instituted in other parts of the state, Ely said. If it didn’t succeed, the money would be moved elsewhere.
Ely also wants to incentivize officials in the legal system to work together and share information to ensure swift and sure justice.
Harper said there’s a spectrum of views regarding crime, ranging from “It’s an illness to treat” to “It’s a monster to lock away.”
“I think it’s a little bit of both,” he continued.
He believes crimes that make people angry should be handled with fines, while crimes that led people to fear for their safety should require imprisonment. People abusing substances shouldn’t get a harsher sentence than people abusing children, Harper said.
Meanwhile, Hernandez said the state should fund recruitment, retention and equipment for police officers.
Ely said building a “hydrogen hub” is a good compromise between environmentalists and the oil and gas industry. It would generate hydrogen from methane from natural gas.
He said the hydrogen hub and the legalization of recreational marijuana could have a large beneficial impact on the state’s economy.
Hernandez was also interested in the hub, saying it could “propel our economy forward for a while” if done right.
Also on the economy, Harper pointed to gross receipts tax as a problem. GRT a tax on the sale of goods and services each time an item or service is sold.
“Tax reform is just critically needed,” Harper said.
He wants to stop charging GRT on transactions between businesses. That move would help small businesses who have to contract with other businesses for work such as accounting or legal advise. It would level the playing field between small and big businesses, he said.
Harper said he liked that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wanted to decrease GRT by 0.25 percent, but that made a difference of just $6 a month for his household. That action and removing GRT on business-to-business transactions would cost the same — $100 million of reduced revenue, he said.