Advocates and families are celebrating recent state legislative wins that they say are important for positive social change – from a higher statewide minimum wage to automatic voter registration. Still needed, they say: Additional progress for all families.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Lawmakers in New Mexico had a short 60-day session to address critical issues – from education funding to renewable-energy standards.
Heading into the 2019 session in January, Micaela Gallegos and other advocates for families hoped a lot could get done in that short period time. A new governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, was in office, and there were new faces in the House of Representatives.
Gallegos, a member of family-advocacy group OLÉ (Organizers in the Land of Enchantment) and the New Mexico Working Families Party, traveled to the state Capitol in Santa Fe to support increasing the minimum wage.
“When you’re not living on the edge, you can be more present in your life,” she said. “You can be a more present parent.”
Gallegos remembers what one senator said on the floor during debate – that not all work is equal.
“That really got under my skin,” she said. “All work matters. We’re all doing our very best to survive and provide for our families.”
Her work paid off. Grisham signed a bill that will raise the state minimum wage to $9 an hour in 2020 and to $12 in 2023. But the bill was missing some things that Gallegos supported, like eliminating lower wages for workers who receive tips.
Grisham also signed a bill that extends minimum wage and wage theft protections to domestic workers in New Mexico.
Getting more people involved, from speaking to the Legislature to voting, is a year-round priority for advocates.
“Our communities have been deliberately left out, and barriers have been put in place to keep certain people out of the process,” said Oriana Sandoval, CEO of the Center for Civic Policy, which facilitates strategic partnerships among a coalition of nonprofit organizations.
Sandoval considered it a win that New Mexico lawmakers passed legislation to create automatic voter registration during driver’s license applications and renewals. The new law also allows same-day voter registration beginning in 2021.
She said another win was the Energy Transition Act, which requires that the state’s utilities move to carbon-free sources by 2045.
“We sat at the table with our mainstream environmental colleagues, but we really brought the community voice to the forefront,” Sandoval said. “And we pushed hard to have workforce development and racial equity language included.”
For OLÉ member Brian Gillespie, a former teacher and stay-at-home parent, early childhood education was a priority. OLÉ helped him navigate trips to the session with his wife and 2-year-old daughter so he could engage in citizen advocacy.
“I didn’t realize until this year you could more or less impose yourself on them, at certain times, to really talk to them,” he said.
New Mexico has a high poverty rate – nearly 30 percent of kids are growing up now in poverty – but is rich in oil and gas resources. The Land Grant Permanent Fund manages and invests oil and gas revenues, and it’s currently valued at nearly $18 billion. It distributes 5 percent a year to education and other state programs.
Legislators debated a proposal that sought voter approval for a 1-percent increase to fund early childhood programs. Similar proposals have failed every year for nearly a decade.
“We’re failing our kids before they ever get to school,” said Bill Jordan, senior policy adviser at New Mexico Voices for Children. “Eighty-five percent of brain development happens in the first five years, but that gets less than 1 percent of the state budget.”
For Gillespie, investing in early childhood education seemed like a no-brainer: “It was a reasonable solution to a problem that would have made a really big difference for a lot of families.”
The 2019 proposal, like past bills, faced significant opposition from lawmakers who believe spending more from the permanent fund could jeopardize it for future generations. Jordan said advocates found common ground and are using funding from other sources to increase access to home visiting, child care and pre-kindergarten, but he said it’s still not enough to meet community needs.
The bill passed the House but failed in the Senate.
A landmark education lawsuit also influenced the session. The ruling in 2018, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico, found the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide equal access to education, particularly for Native Americans, English Language Learners and students living in poverty. Lawmakers allocated $500 million to address the issues raised in the lawsuit.
Sandoval said more needs to be done to address the needs of students, families and immigrants.
“It’s as critical as ever that communities are engaged and holding elected officials accountable and pushing them to be bold,” she said.
Sarah Gustavus is a journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has covered state politics, immigration and Native American communities for 15 years as a public radio and television producer and reporter. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original Equal Voice content can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included. Associated Press photography is copyright protected.
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