By Robert Nott and Daniel J. Chacón/The Santa Fe New Mexican

Lawmakers from two of the most influential legislative committees held their last meetings Monday before the start of 2023 legislative session, laying out a list of high priorities — including an education measure that has emerged as the latest battleground in what has been called the Capitol’s urban-rural divide.

“Rural New Mexico does not want it,” Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, said of a bill that would increase instructional hours in public schools.

Armstrong was the lone member of the Legislative Finance Committee to vote against the endorsement of the legislation.

The state made other extending learning initiatives optional for districts and students, “and wanted people to buy into it,” she said. “Well, they didn’t buy into it. They don’t want it, so we’re going to mandate it. I don’t like it.”

The proposal is part of a larger effort to boost educational outcomes and close achievement gaps across New Mexico. It calls for increasing the required number of instructional hours to 1,140 annually for all schools, an increase of 60 to 150 hours, depending on grade level.

The bill has the backing of the New Mexico Public Education Department and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has proposed $220 million in her spending plan to increase the school hours by the equivalent of two weeks.

The Legislative Education Study Committee unanimously voted later Monday to endorse the bill, as well as eight other pieces of legislation tied to public education. Among the other proposals is a push to increase salaries of instructional assistants to $25,000 from $12,000 and to increase some of funding allocated through the state’s complex per-student funding formula. 

Armstrong said in an interview after the Legislative Finance Committee meeting a majority of schools in her House district, geographically the largest in the nation, have four-day school weeks. She said she, too, attended school four days a week and had to travel 110 miles to get to class.

“There’s a lot of rural schools that already meet those hours, but they want to keep their four-day week because of transportation,” she said. “It’s a real rural New Mexico issue.”

Chairman Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, said the bills the Legislative Education Study Committee endorsed are ones that committee members have had “substantial discussion” about over the past year.

The Legislative Finance Committee endorsed 10 bills.

Among them is a proposal designed to turn New Mexico into a hub of hydrogen production after a similar measure failed last year. The bill would provide legal authority for government entities, including tribes, to enter into agreements with private partners to develop projects for the production, storage, transport and consumption of hydrogen.

Other bills include increasing the distribution from the Early Childhood Education and Care Fund from $46 million in fiscal year 2024 to $100 million and creating an account in the treasury to deposit the Land Grant Permanent Fund distribution after voters approved a constitutional amendment to increase spending on education.

The committee also endorsed a bill to create a standalone infrastructure office with up to 10 full-time employees. The office would be charged with making recommendations “on the scope of its duties, staffing needs and improved alignment of capital functions within other agencies,” according to an LFC report.