by Russell Contreras, Associated Press
March 10, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Advocates are complaining that the Democratic-controlled New Mexico Legislature isn’t doing enough to tackle poverty in one of the nation’s poorest states.

With a week left in the 60-day session, they are warning that brushing off of proposals such as strong payday loan reform and the expansion of early childhood education could deepen poverty in New Mexico.

But Democrats on Friday defended their efforts to craft a state budget and support raising the minimum wage, saying such measures embody their concern for New Mexico’s poor.

Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he fears lawmakers haven’t grasped the gravity of the situation in New Mexico, where almost 30 percent of children live in poverty. “That should outrage a lot of people into action,” he said of the statistic.

Sanchez said the bishops were furious that a House committee debated making the green chile cheeseburger the state’s official hamburger. Instead, he said lawmakers should have discussed the expansion of early childhood education. That proposal recently passed the House, but it appears stalled in a Senate committee.

More than 20 percent of New Mexico residents live at or below the poverty level, according to the group New Mexico Voices for Children. That rate is among the highest in the country.

Advocates for years have been pressing lawmakers to take up policy initiatives that would address poverty from multiple angles. For example, there have been numerous efforts to rein in the payday and title loan industry, which critics say target the state’s low-income population.

Some consumer groups have called for limiting the interest rates charged by storefront lender to 36 percent. A dozen other states have already capped rates at 36 percent or less, and about 30 states have banned auto title loans.

This year marks the first time the legislation has gained any traction in New Mexico, but some Democrats are supporting an interest rate cap of 175 percent — something advocates say still hurts poor residents.

Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Espanola, is among the lawmakers supporting the higher cap. Like other politicians over the years, she has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the storefront lending industry.

“It’s the rural and corporate Democrats like Rodella who are fighting real reforms,” said Javier Benavidez, co-director of the left-leaning SouthWest Organizing Project. “We might have to get people to run against them in the next election.”

Rodella did not respond to emails from The Associated Press seeking comment.

State Democratic Party chair Debra Haaland said in a statement that Democrats are willing to work with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez on raising the minimum wage, early childhood education and a budget that prioritizes workers.

Bill Jordan, a policy adviser with New Mexico Voices for Children, said lawmakers’ hands are tied because Martinez refuses to raise taxes.

But he said there’s still time before the legislative session ends March 18. “It’s never over until it’s over,” Jordan said.

Copyright 2017, Associated Press