New Mexico Senate Nixes School Bus Air Conditioners After Hot Debate
By MILAN SIMONICH
Few issues have fired up the New Mexico Senate this session like a bill to require air conditioning on school buses in hot locales.
After a vigorous, hourlong debate Saturday, senators defeated the proposal by a vote of 23-16.
Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, sponsor of Senate Bill 321, said installing air conditioners on school buses is a matter of public safety. The state is responsible for buying the buses. Drivers and kids are better protected if they are kept comfortable, he said.
Skeptical colleagues gave him an earful. Many called his proposal a needless expense or one that should be authorized by school boards, not dictated by state government.
Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, said New Mexico has a healthy budget surplus now, but it would be drained with irresponsible spending such as Steinborn’s bill.
“We’re like a homeless person that wins the lottery and is broke again in two years,” Sapien said.
The Public Education Department listed the cost of a school bus at $85,000. A single-unit air conditioner on a new bus adds $6,500 to the expense. A dual-unit air conditioner runs $11,500.
Retrofitting older buses would be even more expensive — $9,400 for one unit and $17,000 for the dual option.
Steinborn pointed out that his bill wouldn’t immediately require any spending. Rather, it would apply to an undetermined number of new buses bought after July 1, 2020.
But Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said the state shouldn’t decide which hotspots across New Mexico need to cool their school buses. School boards need to make that decision and figure out how to pay for air conditioning, Ingle said.
Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said the bill was vague in defining what would trigger the state requirement for an air-conditioned school bus.
Steinborn’s bill only said the Public Education Department would adopt rules for buses “operated in school districts in which temperatures are regularly high enough to pose a risk.” Cervantes said the language was loose and open to interpretation.
Steinborn found a vocal supporter in Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque. She pointed out that the Senate only an hour before had approved a bill extending tax credits for the Boeing Co., and perhaps other makers of high-tech weaponry.
“We just gave away an enormous amount of money to companies that make laser guns, but we won’t give a dime for kids on buses,” Stewart said.
Air-conditioned buses will be more important now that the state is expanding its K-5 Plus program, she said. Some 90,000 students will be going to school in July.
Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, wasn’t convinced. He said the state can’t cover the cost of maintaining its bus fleet.
A total of 330 school district buses and 63 contractor-owned buses are either due or behind schedule for replacement this year, according to the Public Education Department. State law requires that school buses be replaced every 12 years.
The Legislative Finance Committee has recommended spending $32.9 million to replace 387 school buses — figures that don’t include air conditioning.