Higher education, workforce development, agriculture bills led the list
Building on smart ideas from people throughout the state, the public policy organization New Mexico First successfully championed a wide-ranging 2019 legislative platform on higher education, workforce development and agriculture.
Recommendations formed through the organization’s public deliberations drove its list of supported bills.
“The hundreds of New Mexicans who participate in our deliberations expect their recommendations to inform policy changes,” New Mexico First president and executive director Heather Balas said. “We are pleased that lawmakers listen and take action.”
A major success was expansion of the College Affordability Act, including replenishing the fund that provides scholarships for nontraditional students. Rep. Andres Romero, D-Albuquerque, and Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, worked with New Mexico First and coalition partners on bills to restore the fund’s endowment and update the scholarship distribution from $1,000 to $1,500 per semester. Romero’s bill, House Bill 127, passed the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The new state budget provides $20 million for the endowment.
Another of New Mexico First’s efforts, on behalf of its 2018 higher education town hall, was to make permanent a community college career-pathways program called SUNPATH. Created by a multi-year federal grant that ended in 2018, 11 New Mexico community colleges collaborated to train and place more than 4,000 healthcare students such as EMTs and nursing assistants. New Mexico First and its coalition partners sought $5 million over four years for SUNPATH, but the new funding did not come through this session. The program did, however, receive heightened visibility that Balas said she hopes will lead to future action.
“We need to keep talking about the value of SUNPATH during interim legislative committees,” Balas said. “It is nationally recognized as a model, and the longer we wait to support it, the more institutional infrastructure and knowledge we lose.”
In addition to its statewide town halls, New Mexico First manages consensus-based coalitions. One of them, the Resilience in Agriculture Task Force, successfully passed a bill addressing the growing shortage of young farmers and ranchers. The new law creates an agricultural internship program to be administered by the state Department of Agriculture, and employers that create qualifying internships may get up to 50 percent of associated costs reimbursed. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, and Rep. Joseph Sanchez, D-Alcalde. The program’s start-up budget of $100,000 was made possible because Bandy dedicated 25 percent of his budget-surplus allocation that was given to each legislator this year in a “junior” spending bill.
The agriculture task force also endorsed the following successful measures:
- Making more agricultural businesses eligible for certain economic development programs
- Funding for the New Mexico-grown fruits and vegetables for school meals program
- Funding for marketing agricultural products
- Funding for the New Mexico-grown fruits and vegetables for senior-center meals program
- Funding to study the potential of a commercial meat inspection program
- Funding for New Mexico State University agricultural education programs, such as county cooperative extension
- Establishing a forest and watershed restoration board and supporting other water and soil programs
On behalf of the 2018 and 2014 higher education and water town halls, New Mexico First also supported passage of legislation to:
- License dental therapists, which are mid-level dental providers who work under the direction of dentists and will enable the expansion of access to dental health statewide
- Enact the Forest and Watershed Restoration Act, with the aims of reducing catastrophic wildfire, improving soil health, thinning forests, and protecting water quality
Looking to the future, Balas said that New Mexico First will continue championing recommendations called for by people throughout the state.
“We cover diverse policy areas, but our most recent town halls on the economy and higher education predominate the reforms we are trying to implement on the way to making New Mexico first.”