When the 54th New Mexico Legislature convenes Tuesday, Jan. 21 in Santa Fe, 49th District Representative Gail Armstrong of Magdalena will be pushing forward a handful of bills to be considered in the 30-day session.
“It looks like we’re going to have more money than we did last year,” she said. “But boy howdy, everybody’s got their hands out. I’m hoping to bring common sense to the whole thing.”
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham this week proposed a $7.68 billion budget.
Armstrong has a hunch that a lot of it will go toward education. Again.
“We will fund education more, for sure,” she said. “I’m seeing a lot of money to be going into education. We’ve been underfunding it, and we need to fix that. Teachers should be getting more raises, for example."
As for school districts, she said, “We can’t have a cookie-cutter model for all schools. It doesn’t work. You know, Magdalena is very different from Belen. Every school district is so different, and I’m pushing to let districts make more decisions.”
But hold them accountable, she said.
“We have got to pay teachers well, that’s all there is to it,” Armstrong said. “A lot of the money on education goes into administration and not to the classroom and teachers.
“As far as the free college education issue, we already have an avenue for college education. The Lottery Scholarship,” she said. “What the governor’s team has told me, is that it’s more about filling a gap. But if it happens, I suspect you'll see schools raising tuition.”
Armstrong said she is arguing to include vocational education in that legislation.
“And offer it in the areas we are lacking in New Mexico,” she said. “Doctors, nurses, behavioral health medicine, teachers. To grow those categories in areas that are needed in New Mexico.”
Infrastructure in the 49th District also is high on Armstrong’s priority list
“I’m pushing for things that we can do right now in the state of New Mexico where it’s not reoccurring, like needed infrastructure projects throughout the state, such as roads, bridges and overpasses,” she said. “Of course, it's maintenance money, but let's get our state in order, where people are going to want to come here to make a home.”
The 2020 Census will also be on the agenda for the 30-day session.
“The census is a big deal, as it will affect how much federal funding the state will qualify for,” she said. “They’re asking for $10 million for the commission.” Armstrong sits on the state’s Complete Count Commission and was appointed by Gov. Lujan Grisham.
“We’ve been having meetings for months, now,” she said. “It’s been doing pretty good about beating the bushes and putting an emphasis on hiring locals.”
Armstrong pointed out that Catron County is one of the worst counted counties in the entire nation. "Ultimately, that's money for our communities and our state,” she said. “The commission is putting together an ad campaign to try to get people counted, and to let them know it’s not government just being nosy, but it’s actually for our state to get some federal funds.”
As far as a county like Catron is concerned, “a higher count would give them the ability to access federal funds. For schools and health care, for instance.”
Census Day is Apr. 1, 2020, when every home will receive an invitation to participate in the census. A response can be in one of three ways; online, by phone, or by mail.
In May 2020, those hired by the Census Bureau will begin knocking on doors on residences that haven't responded. “The most important thing they need to do is hire locally; people that people trust,” she said.
Another bill Armstrong is behind is one she said that would help every single New Mexican.
“It’s a piece of legislation that would repeal the state’s personal income tax on Social Security benefits. Across the board,” she said. “The first one I ran last year was to raise the exemption, but this year I’m exempting Social Security from state income tax completely.”
She believes the initiative would be attractive to people wanting to relocate to New Mexico. “We’re one of seven states left in the country that still does that,” she said. “Now, it would cost the state $78 million. But we’re giving the film industry $250 million. Why not take $78 million of that and not tax people that are retired and on Social Security income?
“Another one I’m pushing that’s geared toward seniors is a retirement savings plan,” she said.
The bill advocates for the state to manage a system of individual retirement accounts offered to private-sector workers whose employers don’t offer retirement savings plans.
“This would automatically deduct a percentage from workers’ paychecks to deposit in their accounts,” She said. “Under this bill, private businesses also would not be forced to participate.”
The New Mexico Work and Save Act differs from a bill proposed earlier that forced businesses to participate. “This year, it’s an option,” she said.
Armstrong is also sponsoring a bill that would provide a more substantial stipend for volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel. “The fire fund is huge, and whatever is not spent reverts back to the general fund," she said. "It's being wasted when it could actually be doing some good. Especially in rural New Mexico.”
Another bill Armstrong is behind is aimed at reducing waste at rural New Mexico clinics.
“At those clinics, like the one in Magdalena, the Nurse Practitioners can’t dispense medication unless they give the patient a whole bottle,” she said. “Or, if they order it in bubble packs, they can bubble pack off ten and give it to them.
“But the majority of the time, they give full bottles of medication where pills just get wasted.
So I’m running legislation to put a stop to that.
“The people who are against are Big Pharma because they're making tons of money off of it,” Armstrong said. “With this legislation Nurse Practitioners and health care providers at these clinics can count out, say ten pills, and give them to the patient, instead of a bottle of 30 that gets wasted or in the wrong hands or whatever. It’s become a real issue in rural New Mexico health care.”
What else will be considered this session?
“Legalizing marijuana is still pretty much at the top of the agenda,” Armstrong said. “I think it may pass, but I can’t tell you if I would vote for it or not until I see how it's written. The devil’s in the details. Personally, I'm fine with it being legalized, but I want to know the details.”
She said a significant factor would be to make sure law enforcement could work with it effectively.
“All the legislation I’m running, I believe, is common sense. It's going to be interesting to see what we can get done," Armstrong said. "We're going to be working hard to get things through...and to slow things down."
Armstrong currently sits on the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, House Health and Human Services Committee, and House Printing and Supplies Committee.