District 41 Rep. Susan K. Herrera provides legislative update

District 41 Rep. Susan K. Herrera provides legislative update

By Arin McKenna

Rep. Susan K. Herrera, (D – District 41) provided the Española City Council with a legislative update at Tuesday’s city council meeting.

Herrera described her first year in the legislature as “unique, entertaining, frustrating and sometimes rewarding” and lauded the amount of legislation passed.

“It was very exciting to be in this house at this time when we were able to pass significant legislation that was passed through the house, went to the senate and was signed by the governor,” Herrera said. “It was a very exciting time for a first-time legislator to be there.”

According to Herrera, the house introduced 695 bills. 16 general memorials, 11 joint resolutions, and 94 memorials. The senate introduced 675 bills, 20 general memorials, 19 joint resolutions and 131 memorials. Of those, 309 bills were sent to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk. She signed 281 of those, vetoed 15 and pocket vetoed 13.

For Herrera, some of the most significant legislation included $450 million for education, a six-percent raise for teachers, $173 million for road funding, gun reform legislation, same day voter registration, a bill to increase the minimum wage and a number of important tax changes, as well as the establishment of an Office of Outdoor Recreation and the Energy Transition Act, which will close down coal plants in Farmington and San Juan County.

Herrera’s goal when she walked into the legislature was to create 100 jobs.

“I really had no idea how I could do that, but that was my goal,” Herrera said. “The median income in Rio Arriba County is $33,000, which is not a lot of money. What I was trying to do was look at ways to create jobs that you could build a life on, a good job with benefits that you could build a life on.”

The project she prioritized was proposed by the City of Española and Rio Arriba County: a plan to purchase the former Española Valley Nursing and Rehabilitation Center property to establish a drug treatment program and detox center. Revenue from that center will be used to fund the development of a new nursing home.

Herrera described how she leveraged the $2.4 million each representative could allocate ($2 million for capital projects and $400,000 for governmental operating expenses).

“What I learned at the legislature is do not swim alone. That’s the number one rule,” Herrera said.

Herrera worked with other Northern New Mexico delegates and the governor to leverage the allotment each had to work with. The cost to purchase the nursing home was $1 million dollars. Herrera told Lujan Grisham she was willing to contribute $1 million of her allotment to other Northern New Mexico priorities, such as water projects, if Lujan Grisham would designate $1 million of her funds to purchase the nursing home. Herrera argued that the rehab center and nursing home have the potential to create 160 jobs for the county. Lujan Grisham agreed to her proposal.

Herrera also designated $300,000 for Valdez Park and worked with the Northern New Mexico delegation to fund a women’s drug treatment facility that allows them to bring their children, “because what we know about long-term drug treatment is women won’t go in it if they have kids.” Herrera believes that treatment center could generate another 60 jobs.  

Herrera also designated $40,000 from her operating expense allotment to allow Española to hire a grant writer.

“I hope you’ll turn that $40,000 into $3 million. And you can,” Herrera said.

Operating funds will also be used to hire circuit riders to help local water systems. The New Mexico Rural Water Association will hire lawyers, CPAs and engineers to advise local water systems on issues they are dealing with and help them meet requirements to apply for $143 million in grant funding available through the Water Trust Board.

The bill Herrera dedicated the most energy to was Senate Bill 431, which reopens the Northern New Mexico College El Rito campus as a vocational school.

“What we need is a place that can create these vocational jobs that are desperately needed in the north,” Herrera said. “So that will be opening up programs in the building trades, electrical, plumbing and pipe fitters. Those jobs average $60,000 a year with benefits. When Northern became a four-year college we kind of lost that vocational platform.

Herrera, who served on the Taxation & Revenue Committee, was also proud of tax reforms passed this year.

“We now have a more progressive tax system – I wouldn’t call it progressive, but certainly more progressive than it was – with those at the top paying 5.9 percent,” Herrera said. “If you lived in New Mexico last year, and you made $16.000, your tax bill would have been 4.9 percent. If you made $16 million dollars your tax bill would have been 4.9 percent.”

An increase in the motor vehicle excise tax will fund road construction, with half of that revenue allocated to local governments. Another bill that goes into effect in two years will benefit local governments by requiring internet sales to pay tax at the site of distribution rather than the site of sale.

Herrera expressed concerns about diversifying New Mexico’s revenue stream. She acknowledged that state’s main funding source, oil and gas revenue, is projected to be strong for the next five years, but contended that the state has become too dependent on a volatile industry.

“Diversifying an economy sounds easy. It’s very, very difficult,” Herrera said. “It’s very, very difficult in a state where half the people live in poverty, and you’re only bringing in $1.5 billion out of a $7 billion-dollar budget from personal income tax.”

Lujan Grisham has appointed Herrera to a census committee. Herrera urged the City of Española and Rio Arriba County to form their own committee to address the county’s census undercount.

“Rio Arriba County was the second most undercounted county in New Mexico in the last census,” Herrera said, noting that Catron County had the highest undercount at 50 percent, with Rio Arriba at 42 percent.

“That is real dollars to your community,” Herrera said. “This is money that comes to you from all the federal sources, all the formulas they use to decide how they’re going to allocate federal funds to state funds, to cities, how they’re going to allocate federal funds to state funds for Medicaid. So as a county, we need to address this.”

Herrera offered to serve on a local committee to address this issue.

In other business, Mayor Javier Sanchez broke a tie vote to confirm Deputy Police Chief Roger Jimenez as Interim Chief of Police.

Council rejected Jimenez’ appointment of to the position of director of public safety

in May. With this nomination, Sanchez announced his plan to do away with the director of public safety position and appoint separate chiefs for the police and fire departments. City Attorney AJ Salazar has researched the issue and discovered that the position of director of public safety was created by a previous administration between 2000 and 2001 and was never confirmed through city ordinance or resolution. City code designate the title as chief of police.

Councilor John Ramon Vigil questioned Sanchez’ decision to advertise for the permanent position internally only.

Sanchez responded that he plans to have an interview panel comprised of Mayor Pro Tem Manny Martinez and Councilors Denise Benavidez, Robert Seeds and Chair Justin Salazar-Torrez. The committee will conduct interviews and make a recommendation about whether to hire internally or conduct an external search.

Councilor Peggy Sue Martinez objected to the posting for the permanent position stating that the chief of police will report to the mayor. City ordinance requires the police chief to report to the city manager. Sanchez called it a technicality that could be fixed. City Attorney AJ Salazar confirmed that Martinez was correct, but noted the incorrect language was in the job description, not the job posting, and that steps had already been taken to correct it.

Councilors John Ricci, Salazar-Torrez, Seeds and Benavidez voted to confirm Jimenez, with Mayor Pro Tem Manny Martinez, Peggy Sue Martinez, Dennis Tim Salazar and John Ramon Vigil opposed. Sanchez broke the tie with a vote to approve.