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State Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-McKinley and San Juan, returned to her old stomping grounds, as she chaired the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) meeting held May 19-20 in Las Cruces.
“It’s very important that we get out in the field,” said Lundstrom, who graduated from New Mexico State University with a master’s degree in public administration and undergraduate degrees in political science and history.
The LFC’s May road trip began in Truth or Consequences before coming to Las Cruces. A number of state senators and representatives who represent Doña Ana County are part of the joint committee, including Rep. Nathan Small, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
The LFC’s two days of hearings in Las Cruces included testimony from NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu and College of Arts and Sciences Dean Enrico Pontelli and Doña Ana Community College President Monica Torres on preparing college students “to be competitive in rapidly changing industries.”
Others testifying included: Las Cruces Public Schools Interim Superintendent Ralph Ramos and LCPS Board of Education President Ray Jaramillo; Gadsden Independent School District Superintendent Travis Dempsey and GISD Board President Laura Salazar Flores; and Hatch Valley Public Schools Superintendent Michael Chavez. They discussed local school districts’ performance and finances.
NMSU economics professor emeritus Jim Peach moderated a May 19 discussion on borderland economic development that included LFC members, and the committee also heard about restoration of the Mesilla Plaza State Monument, the CARES Act and federal funding for childcare assistance.
New Mexico has received $19 billon in federal support since the onset of Covid-19, Lundstrom said during a May 20 news conference she hosted at NMSU’s Stan Fulton Center, with funds coming in the form of direct payments to individuals, expanded unemployment benefits, business loans, expanded federal entitlement programs and state government relief payments.
Federal stimulus payments have also included more than $1.5 billion to K-12 schools and $346 million to higher education institutions in the state.
“Federal funds pouring in … helped us come back,” said LFC Director David Abbey, who was also in Las Cruces for the committee meeting.
The LFC is tasked with “ensuring these large sums of money are budgeted both swiftly and effectively.” an LFC background paper prepared for the news conference said.
Abbey said the recovery of oil prices and production also helped boost the state’s economy. The price of a barrel of oil, which had fallen below $20 in early 2020, was $66 May 20, Abbey said.
Lundstrom said the General Appropriations Act passed by the 2021 New Mexico Legislature includes $7.44 billion for recurring operations in FY2022, which is a $378 million (5.4 percent) increase over the current fiscal year. The budget includes $1.7 billion (24 percent) in reserves.
Lundstrom said the Legislature also passed a number of pandemic relief measures during the 2021 session, including a four-month gross receipts tax holiday for food services, a $600 income tax credit for low-income New Mexicans and a $500 million small business loan program.
Legislators also approved $500 million for capital projects around the state, including $300 million for state and local road projects, said Lundstrom, who has been a member of the New Mexico House of Representatives since 2001.
“I want you to know who I am as your LFC chair,” Lundstrom said at the news conference. “The public here needs to understand what we’re working on. We’re on it. We know how to build a budget. We’re not asleep at the wheel.”
During the LFC’s visit, which included Spaceport America and Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine on the NMSU campus, Lundstrom said she also wanted to learn more about the issues that are important in Las Cruces.
While Covid-19 caused “major disruption” and the loss of lives and businesses, it also led to important innovations, Lundstrom said. A good example is the Legislature’s focus on broadband availability to improve remote learning, she said. In Gallup, where Lindstrom works as executive director of the Greater Gallup Economic Development Corporation, she said students without Internet connections at home often would sit by a school bus to connect to a hot spot.
“That’s not the best way to deliver education,” she said, asking at the same time if it would have come to state leaders’ attention “without the need to innovate” that was created by the pandemic.