Violence looms over New Mexico Legislature as work begins

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for new gun control laws and greater accountability for firearm manufacturers while denouncing recent drive-by shootings of the homes of Democratic lawmakers in Albuquerque in her State of the State address Tuesday at the start of the annual legislative session.

New Mexico's Democratic-led Legislature is preparing to tap a multibillion-dollar budget surplus as it takes on daunting challenges of crime, lagging student achievement in schools and below-average workforce participation during its 60-day legislative session.

The governor and leading Democratic legislators want to expand preschool access, lengthen annual instructional time at public schools, increase public salaries and provide at least $1 billion in tax relief and rebates.

But concerns about politically motivated violence loomed over the proceedings after police on Monday arrested a failed Republican candidate in connection with a series of shootings targeting the homes of Democratic lawmakers in Albuquerque.

Addressing a joint session of the state House and Senate, Lujan Grisham condemned what she called “despicable acts of political violence” and a “sickening scourge of gun violence that has infected our nation.” She announced proposals to ban assault-style weapons, allow victims of gun violence to bring civil lawsuits against gun manufacturers, and crack down on black-market sales that funnel guns to ineligible buyers.

“We all know that we cannot keep our people safe, we cannot keep our police officers and their families safe, if weapons of war continue to flood our neighborhoods,” Lujan Grisham said.

“If we are bold and clear in our knowledge that now is the time to do the right thing, we can save lives and protect futures,” Lujan Grisham said. “I'm not going to let up and I know that there will be other ideas and other strategies, and I know that we're going to work together."

Republicans in the legislative minority also condemned the attack on politicians in Albuquerque — and said that gun control measures won't make people safer.

“I got concerned, I made sure that my own firearms were really close at hand,” said state Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho. “Putting in more gun-control laws doesn't allow us to protect ourselves.”

Republican state legislators hope to reinstate immunity from prosecution for policing agencies and tighten requirements for pretrial release of people charged of crimes.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe says he'll sponsor a bill that bans firearms at all polling locations in response to the fears and frustrations of election workers.

Lujan Grisham staked her reelection heavily on her support for preserving widespread access to abortion as a foundation of women’s rights and democracy following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year that overturned Roe v. Wade and left legalization up to the states.

Leading Democratic legislators hope to send her a bill that would prohibit restrictions on abortion by local governments and shield patients and abortion doctors from harassment by out-of-state interests.

New Mexico also is grappling with the aftermath of catastrophic 2022 wildfires linked to climate change and drought.

State legislators want to make the state more resilient to climate-related disasters by speeding up the delivery of federal disaster aid and allowing small water districts to band together as they rebuild from wildfires.

Lujan Grisham hopes to fund the first New Mexico-based corps of elite smokejumper firefighters to ensure a rapid response to future fires. On Tuesday, she proposed the creation of a $75 million trust fund to address root causes of water scarcity and climate change.

State government income is forecast to reach new heights — $12 billion in revenue during the fiscal year that runs from July 2023 though June 2024. That’s about $3.6 billion in excess of current annual spending commitments.

Lujan Grisham urged legislators to tap that windfall to back her “cradle-to-career” strategy of expanding free public education, with new investments this year in daycare, preschool and tuition-free college as enrollments swell at public universities.

“Our commitment to making education accessible and affordable is lifting families out of poverty,” Lujan Grisham said.

Legislators in the Republican minority say more public spending hasn't translated into greater student achievement on Lujan Grisham's watch. They want greater competition among K-12 schools, wider options for students — with public funding of private and parochial schools.

“I think more choice for families ... to have that power back in the hands of parents, to chose where their children will get the best quality education, is where we have to go,” Brandt said.

The governor and leading legislators are proposing a pay raise for state workers and public school educators of at least 4%. Taxpayers would pay for educators' individual health care premiums under a proposal from the governor.

Lawmakers also hope to sock away billions of dollars into specialized trust funds, and use future investment earnings to underwrite programs ranging from smoking cessation to highway construction.