New Mexico State Speaker of the House Brian Egolf Discusses Education and Economic Priorities
Looking ahead to a new legislative term, The Well News had the opportunity to speak with New Mexico Speaker of the House Brian Egolf about his priorities and goals. In the November election, Democrat Michelle Lujan-Grisham was elected Governor, following eight years of republican leadership in the State as termed-out Susana Martinez left office. Democrats now control all statewide elected offices in New Mexico and have a 46-24 advantage in the House.
Below is a transcript of the The Well News’ interview with Speaker Brian Egolf. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Well News (TWN): We appreciate the chance to discuss your upcoming legislative priorities and the state of politics in New Mexico. For starters, how and why did you decide to get into politics? What issues drive you?
Brian Egolf (BE): Well, I first started running because I thought it was important that there were people serving in the legislature who wanted to adopt policies that would create an environment in New Mexico where kids don’t have to leave the state or could come home after college and pursue a full career. I grew up in Santa Fe and am raising my kids here, I was originally motivated because I wanted to do everything I could so that my kids could raise their kids in New Mexico. It was the idea that in order to build this future, we needed to address specifically New Mexico’s long-term sustainability, protecting water and air, and economic diversification. These issues led me to run for the first time.
TWN: What are some of the key industries in New Mexico that maybe were preventing or making it difficult for people to raise families in New Mexico?
BE: I don’t really think there were things that were preventing people. There are issues in Santa Fe, particularly housing and a lack of jobs outside of the service industry. It’s been a challenge for a long time. Beyond tourism in Santa Fe and lots of restaurant and hotel jobs, there really wasn’t much in tech or light manufacturing. I wanted to see a creative economy and similar industries and positions that I think make it an attractive community for people in their 20s and 30s to move to and settle in and sink roots. That’s been a big focus and since we’ve started discussing how to attract these industries to the state, we have had a lot of success.
We’ve had Meow Wolf come to Santa Fe, which is a nationally known art sensation. They started as an Artists Collective and have now built one of the most successful immersive art experiences and tourism attractions in the state with over a million visitors. It’s the second most visited attraction in New Mexico after the Balloon Fiesta in October and they’re expanding to Denver, Las Vegas and Washington D.C. They just announced there’s going to be Meow Wolf installations and exhibits in those communities and they’ve married this art installation with a manufacturing facility. They bought an old Caterpillar Tractor Factory and they’re going to start manufacturing here with hundreds of new jobs. The equipment and the displays and installations that are going to be placed in the other communities where Meow Wolf exhibits are going to be located. So that’s really exciting.
Descartes Labs is another high tech company. They do geospatial and advanced analytics of satellite imagery and GIF technology. They’re expanding. I think they’ve just crossed 100 employees. They’ve got clients ranging from DARPA to Monsanto and major companies use them to plan and forecast crop growth and population migration – all sorts of things.
Those are just two examples, but there’s a lot more that are coming up and growing in New Mexico and creating a much more diversified economy in the state.
TWN: Education has been a major focus of yours. What can you tell us about your efforts to improve the education system in New Mexico?
BE: Education was the number one issue in the campaign. Michelle Lujan Grisham made it the top issue in her campaign and we’ve been referring to it as an “education moonshot.” We are going to see, over the next four to five years, as much as a 50 percent increase in K-12 funding and are looking to increase teacher salaries by 10, 15 or maybe 20 percent, while hiring thousands more. We aim to invest as much as a quarter of a billion dollars a year in early childhood education specifically, and we’re also looking to create a State Department of Early Childhood Education that will consolidate all the early childhood services into one department. This will allow us to focus on delivering services and assistance to kids right when it can help them the most. So that early childhood and education generally are absolutely top of the list.
We now have huge budget surpluses from our oil and gas production that will give us the ability to make these kinds of investments. We need to break New Mexico’s education ranking out of the bottom and put us in the top 10. This is very achievable, and with our new majority in the House and a new Governor coming in, we really do think that this is something that we can get done this year.
TWN: Addressing the rural and urban divide is critical. You have Albuquerque and Santa Fe as the main population centers, but this is a hugely rural state. There are so many people spread out and a lot of the oil and gas production is not going to be in the urban centers. How are you looking at keeping these educational opportunities for folks throughout the state rather than just in the urban centers where it’s a lot easier to provide those services?
BE: New Mexico has the first in the nation State Equalization Guarantee. We were the first state to adopt a funding formula for education where dollars follow the students regardless of which district they’re in, creating a per-student expenditure. Once we know the population of a school district, the state funds flow and we’re able to make sure that whether you’re in the middle of Albuquerque or out in a little town like Roy, four hours from anywhere, that they get the funding that they need for the kids.
In New Mexico, we have eighty nine school districts, which is probably too many. We have in Albuquerque, a very large student district in terms of student population. We also have possibly one of the smallest school districts in the United States. The Roy school district has 45 or 46 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. So it’s a real issue. But our Equalization Guarantee goes a long way to make sure that the dollars get to the classroom regardless of where the students are.
TWN: Are there partisan issues associated with education in the state?
EB: When we get into testing, that becomes a little partisan. We’ve had Republicans in New Mexico over the last several years leading the charge on testing and supporting Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). That has been a wedge. We’ve also had some issues on high stakes testing. Republicans have been for a number of years pushing legislation that would require a single high stakes test at the end of third grade on reading that if not passed would result in an automatic decision to retain the student for an additional year.
On education funding though, I think there’s going to be widespread support for that. I think that our Republican colleagues would be smart to support these changes because they’re very popular. You don’t get a lot of pushback when you talk about giving raises to teachers. So I hope that the Republicans will join us on that.
TWN: Beyond education, how do you balance the needs between rural and urban communities, economically speaking?
BE: We’ve had, over the last two years since I became Speaker, our jobs listening tour. I take Democratic members, who now are almost entirely from the Rio Grande corridor down to Las Cruces where most of our members are from, and visit places like Carlsbad, Roswell in the southeast part of the state and Farmington and other places in the northwest part of the state that are predominantly Republican. I do this because I want the Democratic members to see what life’s like and what the needs are in the other parts of New Mexico. I want the people there in those Republican parts to know that the Democrats in the majority in the legislature care about their issues, want to help, and want to do things that serve their needs in their communities.
Infrastructure is a big issue with the oil boom in the southeast part of the state. We’ve got huge demands that are being put on roads and all forms of public infrastructure. There’s going to be a big push in this next session to return some of the money, generated from production in the southeast, returned in the form of upgrades to roads and bridges and other public infrastructure. That’s gonna be a big one.
There have been some region-specific rural economic development initiatives that are going to be a top priority. Value-added agriculture is one, agriculture finance is another way of getting value out of agricultural projects to be included as eligible for state investment under our local economic development act is also key.
We’re trying to keep the concerns and the needs of rural New Mexico on our minds so that even though there’s not many Democrats elected right now from southeast New Mexico, those folks still deserve to get good service from the legislature and to have the education and infrastructure needs met fully. So we intend to do just that.
TWN: Speaking of legislative priorities I’ve read a little bit about what some are calling the “rocket docket,” as we move into the new legislative term. Would you tell me a little bit about that?
BE: The idea is to take all the bills that passed the Legislature last term with unanimous or virtually unanimous support, but didn’t get signed by Governor Martinez, and reintroduce them by giving them a single committee referral and get them up to Governor Lujan Grisham in the first week or two. That way, we can show the people of the state that we’re here to work and ready to get moving. Governor Elect Lujan Grisham proposed this idea during a session, I think it’s a good idea, so we’re gonna do it.
TWN: This being the first Democratic Governor you’ve had in a while, how is this changing your approach to legislating beyond the obvious of just having a Democrat in office?
BE: I did serve for the last two years of Richardson, but it was at the end of his eight years. So this coming in with a Democrat who’s in the first days of her time in office is definitely a first for me. It’s got everybody excited. The first thing Michelle Lujan Grisham did after the election was ask for a meeting with the Democratic and Republican leadership of both the House and the Senate. We spent about 90 minutes together. Some of the Republicans in the room said that that was more time that they’d spent hearing from the executive in an eight years with Governor Martinez. Its a real change of tone in terms of wanting to have direct and open communication between the Governor and the Legislature. That’s a very good thing.
There are members that have had ideas introduced and passed and vetoed over and over again over the last eight years. I’m looking forward to having a Governor that will start to sign some of these things. Michelle is very familiar with state government and with the Legislature. I think it’s really good. Governor Martinez was not when she came in, she was a District Attorney and didn’t spend much time in Santa Fe or the Legislature prior to coming into office, so it was kind of new for her. Michelle doesn’t have quite the learning curve.We’re all looking forward to her being able to get in, get right to work, and work collaboratively with the legislature.
TWN: Throughout our conversation, We’ve heard education, infrastructure and economic development. What other issues do you think you might be interested in pursuing over the next two years?
BE: Those are definitely going to be the priorities, but I’m sure other things will come up. We’re going to look at the legalization of recreational cannabis as one. We’ve got to pass legislation to implement that. Voters also adopted an amendment to the Constitution that creates an independent ethics commission so we will have an enabling legislation that we need to pass on that. There will also be a few health care related bills that we’re going to try to get into state law to protect individuals with preexisting conditions. That will all be part of the mix. Those are the things that immediately come to mind, but with education, infrastructure and economic development that’s a couple of billion dollars worth of work and that is going to be the big focus at least for this first session in 2019.
TWN: Thank you very much for your time, we really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you about your goals and plans for New Mexico. This is a very exciting time and we wish you the best.
BE: Thank you.