Preserving and protecting the bosque from fire, recruiting and retaining healthcare workers and teachers and improving education were among the topics discussed at a town hall meeting hosted by state Sen. Brenda McKenna and Rep.-elect Kathleen Cates on Sunday.

About 30 people attended the meeting in person at the Village of Corrales Council Chambers and another 20 tuned in online to hear from the legislators in advance of the 2023 Legislative session, which begins Jan. 17.

McKenna will be starting her second term as District 9 senator. She has a background in governmental affairs, having worked for the League of Women Voters of Central New Mexico and as a field representative for then-Congresswoman Deb Haaland, now U.S. Secretary of Interior. She served on the Senate Health & Public Affairs Committee and the Indian, Rural & Cultural Affairs Committee last session.

McKenna noted that the Legislature this year had more money to work with, thanks to oil and gas revenues. Lawmakers will have about $12 billion to work with, including $3.55 billion in so-called “new money.”

She said the Democrats would use that money to work toward delivering on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s “cradle to career” promise.

Cates, who described herself as a “gray-haired freshman” representative, unseated incumbent Jane Powdrell-Culbert in House District 44. Her experience is as a small-business owner and nonprofit corporation executive.

She said she’s spent the last two months with every stakeholder imaginable to prepare for life as a legislator. Freshman are assigned mentors and hers is Liz Thomson of Albuquerque.

During her introductory remarks, Cates exhibited a familiarity with local issues, speaking at some length about replacing the disabled Corrales Siphon, which pumps irrigation water from a canal east of the Rio Grande to farmers. She suggested the project won’t be completed until the fall of 2024 at the earliest.

Both Democrats, McKenna and Cates said they would work in support of the party’s efforts to build a stronger foundation for education by investing in early childhood programs, and to codify women’s reproductive rights under state law, the latter drawing a round of applause from the crowd.

What can be done to improve education in New Mexico was the first question asked by an audience member. 

McKenna said the Legislative Finance Committee was working to support a new education initiative and that education priorities this year include career tech and outdoor education.

But the best chance to improve education could be using that new money to bolster the Early Childhood Trust Fund, which directs funding to programs that support kids from birth to age 5.

“To touch these early lives, that will be a game changer,” she said.

Cates agreed, but emphasized there’s no one solution to the problem. One idea that’s been offered was extending the school day to 5:30 p.m. The advantage under this model was that neither students nor teachers would have homework.

A topic that came up more than once was how to best recruit and retain professionals, including teachers but especially healthcare workers.

Fred Hoshimoto, an internist at University of New Mexico Hospitals and a former village councilor, attested that the state is having a hard time recruiting healthcare providers.

“There’s a shortage and it’s not getting better,” he said.

Neither Cates nor McKenna had solutions.

Cates acknowledged the problem, and highlighted the virtues of living in New Mexico. Offering them housing incentives is one idea, she said, but that’s hard to justify when so many families are impoverished.

McKenna said the state has to do its best to grow its own talent.

“For healthcare providers, I know New Mexico is not alone,” she said. “It’s a nationwide problem.”

At one point during the town hall, Corrales Mayor Jim Fahey was asked what the biggest needs are for the village. He rattled off several items, including construction of a sewer line, a performing arts center and road improvements. But at the top of the list was fire suppression in the bosque, which he said would be expensive.

“We will have a fire,” he said. “If we have one like the one that burned in Belen last year, it will totally destroy our bosque and we don’t want that to happen.”

Other topics brought up during the town hall included the viability of blue hydrogen development, switching over to electric police vehicles, the makeup of the Public Regulation Commission, healthcare for prisoners and tax reform, among others.

“All I can say is good luck,” village councilor Rick Miera, who served more than 20 years in the Legislature and moderated the Town Hall, told the legislators at the end of the meeting.

Cates and McKenna both said they had taken notes.

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