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New Mexico lawmakers OK crime bill, $500M in tax rebates

February 18, 2022 GMT
Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf speaks following the conclusion of the legislative session on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Santa Fe, N.M., as seen from his seat in the House chamber. Golf announced his retirement from the House, saying he wouldn't seek reelection. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf speaks following the conclusion of the legislative session on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Santa Fe, N.M., as seen from his seat in the House chamber. Golf announced his retirement from the House, saying he wouldn't seek reelection. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf speaks following the conclusion of the legislative session on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Santa Fe, N.M., as seen from his seat in the House chamber. Golf announced his retirement from the House, saying he wouldn't seek reelection. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
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Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf speaks following the conclusion of the legislative session on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Santa Fe, N.M., as seen from his seat in the House chamber. Golf announced his retirement from the House, saying he wouldn't seek reelection. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
1 of 14
Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf speaks following the conclusion of the legislative session on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Santa Fe, N.M., as seen from his seat in the House chamber. Golf announced his retirement from the House, saying he wouldn't seek reelection. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico legislators approved about $500 million in tax rebates and a broad suite of crime-fighting initiatives Thursday at the end of the 30-day legislative session — as the state grapples with economic whiplash from the coronavirus pandemic and concerns about a violent crime surge in Albuquerque and beyond.

Final votes responded to calls by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for economic relief and a hardline response to frustrations with crime as she campaigns for reelection in November. The state House worked through the night before adjourning at noon.

“This session ... was about money in pockets, kids in school — safer streets and communities,” said Lujan Grisham at a news conference. “You do the crime, expect to do the time.”

New Mexico state government is awash in cash linked to a surge in oil production and a federal infusion of pandemic relief funding, allowing lawmakers to provide individual income tax rebates of $250 — and more for parents. State legislators also approved unprecedented new investments in public schools, Medicaid, public safety initiatives and an array of grants, loans and tax breaks to private industry.

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The Democratic-led Legislature approved a record-setting $1 billion annual budget increase that provides for $8.48 billion in general fund spending during the fiscal year starting on July 1 — a 14% increase over current-year spending. Lujan Grisham supports major provisions and can veto any part of the spending plan.

Salary increases of at least 7% are scheduled for school district and state government staff across the state, with a minimum hourly wage of $15 for public employees and higher base salaries for teachers at various career stages.

“We have never raised teacher salaries this much,” said Democratic Sen. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque, describing the standard salary increases as well as incentives for extended work calendars and increased taxpayer contributions for pensions for educators. “We’ve really put money where it needed to be. ... What I’m hearing from the education community is that they’re going to work longer now that they’ve got a pay that makes a difference. It will increase their retirement.”

Annual spending on K-12 public education would increase to $3.87 billion, a 12% boost. Annual Medicaid spending would increase by about $240 million to $1.3 billion as the federal government winds down pandemic-related subsidies to the program that gives free health care to the impoverished.

Legislators assembled the crime bill amid a record-setting spate of homicides in Albuquerque.

It would expand surveillance of criminal defendants as they await trial with 24-hour monitoring of ankle-bracelet tracking devices. Legislators balked at proposals from the governor and prosecutors to ban pretrial release for people accused of certain violent and sexual crimes.

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Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf said that legislators found public safety solutions without running afoul of a voter-approved constitutional amendment in 2016 that made it harder to deny bail while defendants await trial.

The Legislature made “smart, targeted changes to our criminal justice system,” Egolf said. “They will help us deter dangerous violent crime and ensure sure and swift justice to those who violate the law, including eliminating the statute of limitations for second degree murder.”

Egolf announced he would not seek reelection in November to spend more time with his family, and would hand off the top House leadership position to a successor next year.

The crime bill would expand the ranks of state district judges, boost retention pay for municipal police and sheriff’s deputies and bestow million-dollar death benefits for relatives of police killed in the line of duty.

It sets out requirements for crime reduction grants that pursue alternatives to traditional prosecution and incarceration and expands intervention programs to rein in gun violence.

Criminal penalties are enhanced for threatening judges, possession of firearms by serious violent felons, fleeing from law enforcement and more.

Initiatives to expand voting access petered out, as Republicans in the legislative minority used procedural maneuvers to block Senate floor debates.

Major initiatives to slow climate change through pollution caps and clean-fuel standards also stalled as opponents sounded alarms about affordable energy supplies.

“The progressives came into this session with a very aggressive agenda,” said Republican state Rep. Larry Scott of Hobbs, a hub for the state’s robust oil economy. “My moderate and perhaps more conservative colleagues from this side of the aisle got in front of that train and slowed it down.”

The governor, secretary of state and leading Democratic legislators unsuccessfully sought to expand ballot access as a counterpoint to new voting restrictions in Republican-led states since the 2020 election.

At least 19 states have enacted new voting restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The national GOP campaign to tighten voting laws has been partly driven by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

Republican and Democratic legislators came together to approve one-time tax rebates of $250 for individuals who filed taxes or $500 for joint filers.

An additional tax credit or rebate, negotiated by Democratic state Rep. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque, will provide parents with up to $175 per child annually — a benefit that doesn’t expire for nearly a decade. Higher income households would receive a smaller child tax credit, starting at $25.

Legislators also agreed to eliminate state taxes on Social Security income for middle-income earners. Individuals earning more than $100,000 or joint filers earning more than $150,000 would continue to pay taxes on income from Social Security.

The tax relief bill also would give $1,000 credits to full-time hospital nurses for the 2022 tax year and slightly reduce the state gross receipts tax on retail sales and business services in two stages to about 4.9%. Combined state and optional local gross receipts taxes can reach a combined rate of nearly 9%.