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New Mexico Legislature confronts gun violence, braces for future with less oil wealth

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's Legislature convenes Tuesday for a rapid-fire 30-day session amid a multibillion-dollar financial surplus and concerns about violent crime, homelessness and childhood wellbeing in an election year for House and Senate legislators.

Lawmakers are searching for new ways to invest a bonanza in state income from oil and gas production — while also planning for an eventual decline in petroleum production.

Legislators and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also are floating ambitious proposals designed to curtail gun violence, expand affordable housing, recycle fracking wastewater and incentivize electric vehicle sales.

Here are a few things to know about the session.

BUDGET WINDFALL

Lawmakers are anticipating a $13 billion windfall in state general fund income that would provide a $3.5 billion surplus over current annual spending obligations. At the same time, legislators are recommending only a 5.9% increase in general fund spending for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

That is because the state's unprecedented surge in oil production is beginning to level off, as legislators call for greater results from school districts and state agencies.

A new “accountability” trust fund would make as much as $300 million available for pilot programs in public education, childhood well-being, workforce training and more — measuring success before permanent funding is guaranteed.

Major progress in public education has been elusive in recent years as lawmakers increase per-student spending and teacher salaries without also raising average high school graduation rates and academic attainment to national averages. State support for annual school district spending has increased from roughly $2.8 billion in 2019 to $4.1 billion currently.

A budget panel led by state Sen. George Munoz of Gallup also is proposing a new endowment for higher education to sustain the state's recent transition to tuition-free college for New Mexico residents.

HOUSING & HOMELESSNESS

Lujan Grisham, a second-term Democrat who leaves office by 2026, has identified affordable housing as a major priority. She is proposing one-time spending of $250 million to expand housing opportunities through down-payment assistance on mortgages.

The state separately would use $40 million to launch a statewide homelessness initiative, and devote $250 million to expand loans for residential and commercial construction and renovation projects, under the governor's proposal.

In November, voters signaled frustration with surging home prices in fast-growing Santa Fe by approving a tax on mansions to pay for affordable-housing initiatives.

A tally of the homeless population in New Mexico one year ago showed an abrupt jump in the number of people living without permanent housing or with no shelter at all.

ENERGY & CLIMATE

Proposed solutions to New Mexico's dwindling water supplies and wildfire vulnerabilities also are on the legislative agenda.

The governor has outlined a $500 million plan to develop a strategic new source of water for industrial uses by treating water that originates from the used, salty byproducts of oil and natural gas drilling.

The goal is to reduce demands from fresh water from strained aquifers. But environmentalists fear it only will encourage more petroleum exploration.

Environmentalists are seeking a ban on oil and gas production within a mile (1.6 kilometers) of schools and day care centers across New Mexico, as state regulators explore ways to protect children from pollution.

The state and governor were recently sued by environmental groups over alleged failures to meet constitutional provisions for protecting against oil and gas pollution.

Democratic lawmakers are pursuing tax credits toward the purchase of plug-in electric vehicles — incentives aimed at reducing climate-warming pollution from transportation.

New Mexico regulators recently adopted an accelerated timetable for automakers to nearly phase out deliveries of gas- and diesel-burning cars and trucks — amid concerns about the affordability of electric vehicles in a state with high rates of poverty.

A proposal from Democrats including House Majority Whip Reena Szczepanski would set aside $110 million to help local governments apply and qualify for federal funding toward renewable energy and climate resiliency projects.

VIOLENT CRIME

Democratic House Speaker Javier Martínez says the scourges of crime, homelessness and drug use are in plain sight across the Albuquerque neighborhood where he grew up. He is hoping for a balanced approach to criminal justice reforms at the Legislature.

“Folks who commit violent crimes, and they’re using a gun, should face tough penalties," Martínez said. "At the same time, we’ve got to keep making the investments that we have been making now for several years into that behavioral-health, drug-addiction treatment as well as violence intervention programs and other strategies to address root causes of crime.”

New Mexico may become an early testing ground for a proposal to make assault-style weapons less deadly.

Lujan Grisham wants legislators to consider statewide restrictions that mirror an unconventional proposal from U.S. senators aimed at reducing a shooter’s ability to fire off dozens of rounds a second and attach new magazines to keep firing.

The proposed federal GOSAFE Act was named after the internal cycling of high-pressure gas in related firearms and comes from such senators as New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich, a Democrat.

The state’s pretrial detention system also is coming under renewed scrutiny for possible changes. New Mexico’s overhauled the system, starting in 2017, to eliminate money-bail and ensure dangerous individuals can be jailed pending trial.

Republicans in the legislative minority, meanwhile, hope to rein in the governor's authority to restrict gun rights under emergency public health orders in response to shootings last in Albuquerque that killed children. They are also calling for an overhaul of the state's foster care and child protective services agency.

The governor’s orders restrict people from carrying guns at public parks and playgrounds in the state’s largest metro area — alongside gun buyback efforts, monthly inspections of firearms dealers statewide, reports on gunshot victims at hospitals and wastewater testing for indications of illicit drug use at public schools.

There are 14 Republicans in the 42-seat state Senate. House Democrats hold a 45-25 majority over Republicans.