While the 2016 State Legislative Session was somewhat anticlimactic -- largely due to revenue projections falling far short of expectations -- several bills supported by AARP New Mexico still managed to make it to Governor Susana Martinez’s desk.
“This was probably one of the more challenging budget sessions we’ve had in recent years because there was very little new money coming in,” said Leonel Garza, AARP New Mexico Legislative Committee Chairman. “As a result, a majority of the bills introduced, requiring any kind of funding, just didn’t go anywhere.”
The Session in even numbered years is only for 30 days and is a budget session. Only funding bills are introduced unless the Governor determines that a specific issue requires attention. In this case the Governor will send a message to the Legislature specifying that the issue may be considered.
When the Session began lawmakers were expecting an estimated $232 million in new revenue. However, just days into the Session, that number begin to shrink, largely due to the falling prices of oil and gas, and ended up at just over $30 million.
One of the areas AARP closely watched throughout the Session was funding for senior programs, provided by the New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services Department.
“While we had hoped for an increase in funding, in reality we wanted to make sure these programs, which provide vital services, such as resources for family caregivers, meals, transportation, and senior center programs, didn’t sustain any substantial cuts,” Garza said.
The Department’s 2016 budget includes $63.4 million in state funds. The 2017 budget passed by the Legislature provides the Department with $62.9 million, a cut of $771,000.
“That sounds like a lot of money but really it’s a fairly reasonable reduction. The biggest impact will be on the Aging and Disability Resource Center, which connects people, especially family caregivers, with available resources in their communities. We know the Center will remain operational but with less money there will be an impact,” Garza said.
“We are just grateful the cuts, at this point, weren’t any deeper,” he said.
There are four bills that AARP New Mexico supported that are now awaiting the Governor’s signature:
House Bill 70 – Hearing Aid Options: Connections with Assistive Listening Devices, sponsored by Rep. Carl Trujillo, and Rep. Paul Pacheco. The bill would require hearing aid providers to educate clients on options and technology available in hearing aids to be directly connected to assistive listening devices in public places and movie theaters.
House Bill 252 – Motor Carrier Act Exemption for Agency on Aging Transportation, sponsored by Rep. Jim Trujillo, Rep. Nick Salazar, Rep. Roberto “Bobby” J. Gonzales. Transportation services for seniors provided through the Area Agencies on Aging, funded under the Older Americans’ Act, can only request a suggested donation, not a fare, for service. Recently it was determined that existing state law would require a more stringent certification program than under the federal law. This bill eliminates that conflict in the requirements.
House Bill 160 – Wastewater System Funding, sponsored by Rep. Randal Crowder. The bill appropriates $1.4 million from the Public Project Loan Fund to the Wastewater Facility Construction Loan Fund for expenditure in FY 2017 and subsequent fiscal years to provide state matching funds for federal Clean Water Act projects and to carry out the purposes of the Wastewater Facility Construction Loan Act.
Senate Bill 21 – Brittany Alert Procedures and Notifications, sponsored by Sen. Jacob Candelaria. The bill provides for an alert, much like the Amber Alert, to be issued, through the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, for a missing or endangered person who clearly has an indication of a developmental disability.
Another area that AARP New Mexico pays particular attention to is any measure that might impact the solvency of public employee retirement funds.
AARP New Mexico supported HB58, the Retirees Health Care Contribution Rates, which would require both the employee and the employer to contribute more into the Retiree Health Care Fund in order to keep that fund solvent. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Tomás Salazar and Rep. Dennis Roch. Senate Bill 35, sponsored by Sen. Gay Kernan.
Although HB 58 passed the House and both bills received a passing vote in the Senate Public Affairs Committee, they died due to the budget shortfall. However the issue will most likely be reconsidered during the next year.
Another bill AARP New Mexico kept an eye on was House Bill 171, Retired Law Enforcement Officer Return to Work.
“Several years ago AARP New Mexico worked very hard to get the Public Employees Retirement Association Fund solvent and our concern with this bill was that it would negatively impact the Fund. In addition, passage of this bill might encourage the consideration of similar action in the future, continuing to weaken the Fund,” Garza said.
AARP New Mexico led the effort for the approval of House Memorial 41, sponsored by Rep. Salazar and Senate Memorial 55, sponsored by Sen. Michael Padilla, declaring Feb. 12, 2016, I Heart Caregivers Day. AARP volunteers spent the day thanking legislators for supporting family caregivers.
The Governor has until March 9 to sign the bills.