BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos Public Schools Board members heard from District 5 Senator-Elect Leo Jaramillo, Rep. Chris Chandler and District 6 Sen. Bobby Gonzales on their plans and projections for the upcoming legislative session during their virtual regular board meeting Tuesday evening.
Jaramillo, who hails from Rio Arriba County, noted that he always calls Los Alamos his home away from home.
“My mom lives in White Rock and I work at the Laboratory so pre-COVID I worked in Los Alamos five days out of the week and now at least one day out of the week, so I truly understand the dynamics of the community and the importance of how that community comes together to bring us the world’s greatest science together and a dynamic schools system led by a school board and a superintendent that are first class,” he said. “I love when I am in Senate caucus meetings when we talk about education and Los Alamos is one of those pillars that we talk about as a model for success in the state of New Mexico.”
When it comes to legislation, Jaramillo said he has really been really looking at what can be done about housing during COVID to keep families in their homes not have them out on the streets during the pandemic and that he is working with other legislators on this issue.
He said a major issue that the Board is probably used to is having issues with is connectivity.
“If you think of some of the rural areas like Rio Arriba County, there are a number of students that can’t even connect to the internet because they don’t have any internet. No access to the internet means that they’re falling behind in the virtual classroom,” he said.
Jaramillo noted that at the opposite end of the spectrum, senior citizens are having a hard time when it comes to tele-health.
“Representative Chandler can tell you initiatives that she has worked on to make sure there are cellphone towers, because in a lot of rural areas there are no cellphone towers and yet again broadband is an issue,” he said. “I will be working with Sen. Michael Padilla to look into broadband as an infrastructure in the state of New Mexico.”
Jaramillo said he also wants to tackle major issues concerning children who have been sexually abused and have to re-tell their stories time and time again.
“I am going to be sponsoring legislation which would mean they would be videotaped once and then children would not have to face the offender when they go to court because we understand that’s traumatic for students,” he said.
Jaramillo also wants to look at the diversification of New Mexico’s economy with the legalization of cannabis and to work with fellow senators to tap into the Permanent Land Grant Fund to fund early childhood education.
“I have my training wheels on so I’m sure there’s so much to learn and so much stuff that I’ll take on in the years to come but those are the few major areas of concern that I want to look into and areas I want to tackle,” he said.
Jaramillo noted that he used to work at Los Alamos High School with the cheer team.
“For years I coached at Espanola Valley High School and there used to be tension between the rival cities and rival schools. What I would do, is I’d come to Los Alamos High School and I’d teach a routine to those cheerleaders on Saturday mornings, come back to Espanola in the afternoon and teach the Espanola team that same routine that evening,” he said. “So I’m really excited to work again with Los Alamos. I’ll sing that fight song for the Toppers if you need me to!”
Jaramillo said what he is most excited about is working alongside Chandler.
“She’s the true champion of the community. She’s the true trailblazer. I not only think of her as a colleague but I think of her as a friend and I can’t wait for what the two of us are going to do together,” he said.
Chandler noted that the “rookie senator is turning out to be a pro already”.
“It’s been very enjoyable getting to know Senator Jaramillo and I’m looking very much forward to working with him on initiatives that impact the state and our shared part of the district. We all talk now with one another in the north and that has been very productive I think. We often visit with Rep. Susan Herrera and others in the north on things that we can work on together so that’s been a really refreshing experience and it’s nice to have some partners in working on legislation and issues that we care about,” she said.
Chandler noted that being in the statehouse has been an interesting and very productive experience. She said she thinks this year’s session will be very hard.
“We in the house are talking about how we’re going to operate within the confines of being COVID-safe. It’s likely that a large part of our session if not all of our session will be virtual. Certainly all of our committee hearings are likely to be virtual much in the way you all have been operating and in terms of the floor debate, I think it’s going to be largely virtual although some people may choose to be on the floor,” she said.
She said legislators had tried that during last month’s special session and that it was really quite challenging.
“So now we’re stepping back from what we learned from the special session to try to understand better how we might improve on our operation and develop techniques for interacting with the public. That is a really difficult thing right now and we are all very conscious of the fact that we benefit greatly from interacting with citizens, stakeholders, elected officials and government officials, and all of those things that are going to be much more constrained and probably a little stilted,” Chandler said.
She said the intention is to have full participation in committee hearings to the extent possible.
“That worked pretty well during the special session. People did log on. We always reserved time in our meetings for public input on bills we were hearing and people did participate. I’m hoping that will work well,” she said. “Some of us think it may even improve participation because many people live in the four corners of the state and if they can get to reliable broadband or internet service, it may open up access to our hearings and lead to greater participation. That’s what we’re hoping for but we certainly recognize that it will be hard for the public and that will make it hard for us because we really appreciate the role of the public.”
Chandler noted that legislators will be working on the need to support business, the unemployed and the underemployed.
“The housing topic that Senator Jaramillo referenced – much of that in terms of people not being able to afford housing right now is something I imagine we will continue to focus on and support,” she said, adding that in the recent special session monies were set aside through a grant program to help with that issue.
Chandler said she is anticipating the additional need for financing and support for the business community, including the unemployment fund which is now running at a very significant deficit.
“The challenges continue. We are hopeful though that the federal government next term will provide additional support to local and state communities, and hopefully the schools as well because I know you all are struggling with the financial impact that COVID has levied on all of you,” she said.
Chandler said the governor’s office and many legislators have been talking to the congressional delegation about what they can do to help support another CARES type relief package to infuse more money into all the states’ economies.
“Respected economists recognize that the money is needed now not later and I think with the new administration more will be done and needs to be done,” she said.
Chandler addressed work she and several other legislators from around the state have been doing to come up with a broadband package that will address the multifaceted problems that have impeded the state’s ability to move forward. She said the group has been working with the Legislative Finance Council Service to come up with a bill or two bills to address several items that have been identified by internet providers as impediments to providing service.
“It’s not all just money. Certainly money is needed to build out the infrastructure – that’s an important component – but there are many policy impediments or structural impediments in terms of how broadband has been organized that we think can be addressed through legislation and it is our intent to file a package that will address as many of those things as we can with the aim of moving us off the dime on broadband,” she said. “It has just lingered for years without a sufficient level of attention and if you can say that there are any benefits to this horrible pandemic we’ve been living through, it has highlighted the lack of progress in that area for us and the incredible inequities it has created for students across the state for people who do not have adequate access.”
Chandler said the group just met with Speaker Brian Egolf about the package they want to bring forward and they felt really good that they are making a dent on the problem and that she is really looking forward to working on that issue.
In addition, Chandler will be re-filing some bills she filed in the past such as the paid medical leave bill which the House passed two years ago. She thinks the House as a whole is looking at bills that will support rural communities.
“I think many of us heard when we were running that the rural communities feel they have been left out, certainly as indicated by the broadband deficiencies, but there are other things such as clean water, electricity – all of these things are not nearly as efficient as they should be,” she said.
Chandler gave the example of a large area in her district where the road goes through Gallina and Regina to Cuba that does not have any cellphone service.
“My constituents out there have contacted me to see what can be done to get cellphone service out there. Cellphone companies are commercial companies that don’t see the population there that justifies putting in a cellphone tower. My husband and were out there meeting with constituents one day and I noticed a tower on a mesa and I wondered what is that tower? It turns out the state has all sorts of communication towers across the state and we need to find a way to make those accessible,” she said.
She noted that mapping all such towers in the state so that providers have easier access to that information is part of the broadband package the group of legislators has put together.
“All I did was call Verizon, hook them up with our IT group and now they’re talking and it will be my greatest achievement as a legislator if I can get cellphone service in Gallina, simply by marrying these two entities that should have happened years ago using existing infrastructure pretty much, where they can hang whatever they hang to do cellphone,” Chandler said. “These are the kinds of impediments that exist that have not been taken on in a really consistent way and our broadband bill I’m hoping is going to address that.”
Chandler said she will also be filing her trapping on public lands bill that she is co-sponsoring with Rep. Matthew McQueen. She noted that the bill was recently endorsed by the Albuquerque Journal.
Senator Gonzales, who had spent the day chairing the Legislative Finance Committee, joined the meeting later. He said he serves on several other committees but the LFC is his main focus and he is now working on the framework for the FY2021 budget.
“We have had some very good briefings from economists to see where we are as far as what to project for FY2021. We thought it was going to be a lot worse and one of the reasons for that is not, is the very strong reserves that we hold. We were up to 35 percent but part of the elevation to that was federal dollars that have come in,” he said. “Right now we’re at 30 percent and we’re projecting that we are going to bring them down to as low as 22 percent in order to give more flexibility to the budget. And of course education is always the number one priority.”
Gonzales noted that the rig count for oil and gas is gradually climbing back again and that is good for New Mexico. He said overall, with the pandemic, there have been a lot of adjustments.
“Now we’re getting to the framework part, hoping that the vaccine will be coming soon and how we would schedule that in our state,” he said.
He said there was discussion at the LFC about how it is going to play out if new federals are received.
“One of the concerns that was raised is that we are showing that fewer students have been attending or are enrolled in districts and also we have a population decline of at least one percent,” Gonzales said.
He noted that it has been a very difficult and challenging year. A former superintendent of schools himself, Gonzales said he was very impressed with a presentation to the Board by Chamisa Elementary School Principal Craig Washnok and Administative Assistant Debra Snow on the Public Education Department’s virtual site visit to Chamisa to review the school’s hybrid model of learning.