Outlook: Higher Education Reauthorization

The 116th Congress will pick up where the 115th left off after failing to find a compromise on student aid, federal loans, and data sharing in higher education legislation.

Negotiations between Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and ranking member, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) on a higher education overhaul stalled last spring. A House bill (H.R. 4508) was approved by the House Committee on Education and Labor but did not receive enough support among Republicans to move to the floor.

Incoming House Education and Labor Chair Bobby Scott (D-VA) also plans to make progress on higher education legislation. He and other committee members introduced legislation in July 2018 that would have expanded federal student aid and assisted states in providing tuition-free, two-year public college. The Aim Higher Act (H.R. 6543) also proposed offering students the option of debt-free in-state college. Scott has also signaled his intention to craft a bipartisan bill in the early days of the new Congress.

Policy Decisions

Democratic & Republican legislators do agree on some issues, such as making it easier for students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Lawmakers will try to reach an agreement over how the government collects data on students. Senators introduced two bipartisan bills in the 115th Congress that would allow collecting data at the student level, rather than the institution level, which could give students more information on potential schools such as graduation and employment rates and earnings. Alexander and Foxx both oppose student-level data.

Department of Education

Democratic legislators on the House Education and Labor Committee are also planning to begin oversight of the Education Department. Scott has said that his oversight priorities are the Department’s implementation of a K-12 law ((Public Law 114-95)  the rewriting of regulation dealing with forgiving student loans in cases where colleges misled or defrauded students. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has spent a significant portion of her tenure rolling back a number of Obama administration regulations, decisions, and guidance including student loan forgiveness.


Trump Administration Prioritizing Infrastructure in Rural, GOP-Led Areas

Infrastructure projects located in Republican-represented House districts received three times as much funding from a $1.5 billion pool of federal transportation grants as those located in Democratic-led districts, according to the list of Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or BUILD grants released for BUILD 2018.

Among the high-profile awards was $25 million toward restoring and rehabilitating the masonry arches and foundations of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, New York’s only successful project in the competition for the discretionary grants. Conspicuously overlooked was any funding for the Gateway project to build new Hudson River tunnel and bridge crossings between New York and New Jersey in one of the nation’s busiest transportation corridors.

Congress tripled the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program’s funding to $1.5 billion in the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending law (Public Law 115-141), over White House calls to instead cut the program’s funding. The Transportation Department announced April 20 it would reconfigure the program as BUILD. The program allows states to compete for grants to fund road, rail, transit and port projects that advance national objectives. The Trump administration version also values rural investment and projects with non-federal revenue.

Roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects in rural areas were much more likely to receive BUILD funds than transit projects, reflecting the administration’s priorities. Projects that did go to Democratic-held districts tended to benefit members of transportation or appropriations committees in the House or states with influential senators on similar committees.

Notable Projects

The 91 grants average $16 million per project. Twenty-three benefit Democratic-led districts, 64 went to Republican districts, and four were multidistrict awards.

The smallest award—$1.3 million—was one of the few public transit programs funded, construction of a maintenance facility for the North Central Regional Transit rural bus service in New Mexico.

Twelve projects received the maximum grants of $25 million, but the 23rd Congressional District of Texas, represented by Republican Will Hurd, was the lucky recipient of two awards and got a total of $50 million for two different road projects.

Other highlights include investments in projects that will lay the foundation for self-driving vehicle testing, including one in Las Vegas and another in Jacksonville, Fla. Colorado received $20 million to install fiber optics cables along 540 miles of interstate highway.

US Southwest Report – November 2018


Arizona’s First Female Senator

Democratic Representative Krysten Sinema pulled out to a 1.5%, 32,169-vote lead over Republican Martha McSally in the Arizona Senate race. Senator-elect Sinema replaces retiring Republican Senator Jeff Flake and is the first woman to represent Arizona in the Senate.

Doug Ducey Re-elected Governor

By a margin of 57% to 41%, Republican Doug Ducey has been re-elected as the Governor of Arizona over his Democratic challenger David Garcia.

Garcia, a longtime educator, had hoped to use widespread anger over the Republican state government’s failure to fund Arizona schools sufficiently to unseat the incumbent. However, Garcia fell behind in the polls early on and had a 1 in 80 chance of winning on Election Day.

In a victory speech at the Republican watch party in Paradise Valley, Ducey said he was “truly energized by the work that lies ahead. This victory would not have been possible without the support and work of so many all-stars, starting with my family,” “It means a lot to stand before you tonight and call all of you friends.”

Governor Ducey attempted to highlight improvements in the state’s economy and finances during his tenure, though he said that there is “still work to be done in K-12 education.”


Jared Polis is the next Governor

Representative Jared Polis (D-CO-02), from Boulder, handily beat Walker Stapleton, Colorado’s Republican treasurer, by nearly 52 percent to 44 percent, according to incomplete results.

“Colorado is a state that values diversity,” Polis said in a pre-Election Day interview. “We’re willing to elect people that are going to do a good job for our state regardless of their background. … I think it’s exciting to show how far the LGBT community has come that it doesn’t stand in the way of being elected to the highest office in the state.”

Constitutional Amendment to Prohibit Slavery Approved

For more than 100 years, the Colorado Constitution included a provision that prohibited slavery, however, contained an exception for slavery, or involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. The amendment was put on the ballot with overwhelming bipartisan support from Colorado’s lawmakers. It will change Article II, Section 26 of the state’s constitution, which has stated for more than 100 years: “Slavery prohibited. There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

The new version will shorten that second sentence to say, “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude.” The Amendment was approved 65.1% (1,235,414) to 34.9% (663,370).


Rep. Michelle Lujan-Grisham is the Next Governor

In a race that saw two New Mexico Representatives relinquish their seats to vie for the opportunity to lead the state, Michelle Lujan-Grisham is the victor. “What we did tonight is send a very clear message that this is a state that’s ready to lead in so many ways,” Lujan Grisham told cheering supporters at her election night party in Albuquerque. “Gone are the days when anyone talks about New Mexico not being in first place.”
The election results will see the Democratic Party gain as many as seven seats in the state house and raise fundamental questions about the future of the Republican Party of New Mexico. All Republican candidates challenged by Democratic women were defeated, and women may now hold 31 of the 70 state House seats, a watershed moment in state politics. The first Muslim ever elected to the state house will be engineer Abbas Akhil, who unexpectedly defeated Rep. Jim Dines (Dines, R-Albuquerque).

The state House could go from a 38 to 32 majority to as much as 45-to-46 Democratic majority. The new Democratic Governor will be in place when legislative redistricting takes place in 2021.

Reports of who will hold the powerful post of chief of staff when Governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham takes office may have an answer. Lawrence Rael is considered the front-runner. Rael is a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat who has served as Chief Administrative Officer to several ABQ mayors and who is currently Chief Operating Officer for ABQ Mayor Tim Keller.

Rael is a native New Mexican who ran for the Democrat Gubernatorial primary in 2014. The Chief of Staff position will put Rael directly in the orbit of the Governor’s office. He also has the administrative experience to run the day to day affairs of state government, a skill set not readily available.

The Governor-elect has announced former New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman will lead the transition team. The Governor-elect could begin by nominating cabinet appointees who could then lead the transition for their departments but has made no job offers. The Governor-elect announced at a press conference that Bingaman will be involved in shaping policy and identifying potential cabinet picks. “We really want to send a message that we want the best and the brightest to engage with us so we can make those decisions,” Lujan Grisham said.

PRC Election Results

Democratic candidate Stephen Fischmann is the unofficial winner in the Public Regulation Commission’s southwest District 5. Fischmann’s victory could put control of the commission into the hands of a progressive regulatory bloc through alignment with Democratic commissioners Valerie Espinoza and Cynthia Hall, possibly leading to more renewable energy development in New Mexico.

Two other commissioners will also join the PRC next year. They include Republican Jefferson Byrd, who won in eastern district 2 on Tuesday to replace current Republican Commissioner Pat Lyons, and Democratic candidate Theresa Becenti-Aguilar, who will replace Democratic Commissioner Lynda Lovejoy in northwest District 4.


Mitt Romney heading to the U.S. Senate for Utah

Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts and 2012 Republican presidential candidate, will represent Utah in the United States Senate. Romney was a leader of the ‘never Trump’ movement in 2016. Nevertheless, during his successful campaign to take over the seat of retiring Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Romney said he would be an only occasional critic of the president “when it is a matter of substantial significance.” In a clear message to the Trump Administration after the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Senator-elect tweeted “I want to thank Jeff Sessions for his service to our country as attorney general,” Romney said. “Under Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, it is imperative that the important work of the Justice Department continues, and that the Mueller investigation proceeds to its conclusion unimpeded.”

2018 Midterm Congressional Elections Summary

With few exceptions, election night on November 6, 2018 largely played out according to the topline predictions of the nation’s pollsters and forecasters. The Republican Party held on to, and increased by 3+ seats, its majority in the United States Senate. The Democratic Party flipped control of 26+ seats, enough to regain control of the House of Representatives.


Republicans flipped three seats and lost one. Republicans defeated three Democratic incumbents: Republican Mike Braun beat Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly by 10 points, Republican Josh Hawley defeated Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill by 6 points, and Republican Representative Kevin Cramer beat North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp by 10.

In Nevada, where Hillary Clinton won in 2016, Democrats got their one gain of the night when Rep. Jacky Rosen defeated Republican Sen. Dean Heller by about 4 points. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia won his race by just 4 points winning as a Democrat in the state that most supported Trump’s presidency. Republican Senator Ted Cruz defeated Democratic Representative Beto O’Rourke by less than 3 points in the Texas Senate race. In Tennessee, Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn easily dispatched Democrat Phil Bredesen by 11 points.

However, Democratic incumbents comfortably won re-election in Rust Belt states such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin where Trump won in 2016.

Senate races in Florida, Arizona, and Montana remain too close to call, but all three seem poised to deliver Republicans another three seats in the Senate.


After 2 years of a Republican House, Senate, White House, & Supreme Court, the Democratic Party will have a chance to lead at least one federal body, with its majority in the House now assured. In gaining that majority, Democratic candidates made substantial gains in races in Pennsylvania, Virginia, & New Jersey as well as in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Florida, & New York, among others.

The Democratic Party had its best results in Pennsylvania thanks in large part to the state’s new Congressional map. After the PA Supreme Court found the Republican state legislature’s 2010 map to have been unconstitutionally gerrymandered in favor of Republicans, the Court redrew the district lines in time for the 2018 general election. The end result of the new map was an even 9-9 split of the commonwealth’s 18 districts, reflecting the roughly 50-50 split of statewide voters. However, in PA-01, a toss-up race closely watched by many who thought the race could be a potential flip, Republican Representative Brian Fitzpatrick was able to prevail against his Democratic challenger.

The Democratic Party also made substantial gains in VA-02, VA-07, & VA-10 where Democratic candidates Luria, Spanberger, & Wexton beat out Republican incumbents Taylor, Bratt, & Comstock. New Jersey was the other major win for the Democratic PArty, where they not only played defense in the Senate, but flipped three districts, unseating Republican incumbents in NJ-02, NJ-07, & NJ-11.

Among the upsets of the night were NY-11, where Democratic candidate Max Rose won 53 percent to 47 percent over the favorite, Republican Rep. Dan Donovan. Democratic candidate Joe Cunningham eked out a 51 percent to 49 percent win over Republican Katie Arrington in SC-01. And in the Oklahoma 5th District, Democratic candidate Kendra Horn toppled Republican Rep. Steve Russell 51 percent to 49 percent.

As of writing, approximately 30 House seats remain undecided.

October 2018 Southwestern Update


The mood of Voters heading into Midterm Elections

In a poll by Suffolk University/Arizona Republic, 500 likely Arizona voters were asked:

  1. Approval or Disapproval of the job by Donald Trump. – 47.6% approve while 48.2% disapprove. Virtually a tie with 4.2% undecided.
  2. Do Voters aim to send a message to Trump? – 39.8% want to change Trump’s direction; 39.6% support Trump’s direction; and 15.8% do not factor this into their plans.
  3. Favorability of candidates – Gubernatorial candidates: Ducey (R) 49.6% favorable to 35.4% unfavorable; Garcia (D) 33.6% favorable to 34.6% unfavorable. Senate candidates Cinema (D) 44.2% favorable to 35.6% unfavorable; McSally (R) 40.8% favorable to 42.8% unfavorable.
  4. 43.8% think that Arizona is heading in the right direction compared to 36.6% who think Arizona is heading in the wrong direction. 19.6% were undecided.

Margin of error is + or – 4%


Gubernatorial Candidates Differ on Healthcare

The Coloradan gubernatorial candidates differ on many areas, but none as contentiously as their respective approaches to healthcare. Democrat Jared Polis is a supporter of “Medicare for all,” and has released a 100-day healthcare roadmap for the first year he is in office. Republican Walker Stapleton has three priorities for healthcare including seeking a federal waiver to allow insurance companies to sell policies that only cover “catastrophic events.” Each campaign has criticized the other for lack of details and vision.

Critics claim that Polis’ approach will create a single-payer system which could double the state’s budget. Polis’ ultimate goal is to make sure Coloradans do not have to worry about the cost of healthcare. One idea is to negotiate a multi-state consortium that will be large enough to expand coverage and keep costs low. The challenge will be to work with neighboring governors and state legislators and may not benefit Colorado as its residents are some of the healthiest in the nation. One other proposal is to allow the public to buy into the state’s employee health care program. There would be no additional cost to the state as individuals would be paying 100% of their own premiums. This is a novel approach as no other state is currently offering a public buy-in option.

Opponents of Walker’s proposals claim his plans would kick thousands of individuals off of Medicaid. Walker proposes a plan for an outcomes-based Medicaid which is intended to curb the cost of the program, thus freeing up government funds that can be redirected to education and roads. Walker is also proposing a task force to improve the administration and monitoring of Medicaid which will reduce wasteful spending, abuse, and fraud. Walker plans to seek a federal waiver to allow individuals to buy short-term or catastrophic health care plans. He says any options must include protections for pre-existing conditions and allowing young people to stay on their health care plans. This option will have high-deductibles but can offer cheaper monthly premiums. The plan will not cover routine health care costs but is instead to be there in case of a health emergency.

New Mexico

Gubernatorial Candidates – One Month to Go

A recent debate between Gubernatorial candidates Democrat Michelle Lujan-Grisham and Republican Steve Pearce showed how different they are in terms of Education, Healthcare, raising the minimum wage and other public assistance programs.

Both candidates have stated that it is their intent to overhaul the teacher evaluation system to address a lagging system that ranks New Mexico behind most states in student performance. The difference, however, as shown in a recent video of Pearce speaking to a conference of educators was released where he states that his system may very well reflect what is currently in place. Lujan-Grisham, on the other hand, seeks to revamp the evaluation system that is seen as ineffective. The current system factors in student performance into teacher evaluations which is seen to diminish teacher enthusiasm and crush student morale. The New Mexico chapter of the National Education Association is concerned that a small faction of teachers that support the current system will sway the new governor.

In other areas, the candidates disagreed on raising the minimum wage, legalizing recreational marijuana and tapping into the state’s land grant permanent fund for early childhood programs. Additionally, Pearce supports a work requirement for people who get their healthcare via Medicaid or who use other public assistance programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Lujan Grisham pointed out that Pearce has repeatedly voted against public benefit programs.

Lujan Grisham supports raising the minimum wage in three stages. First, immediately raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour and later to $12 per hour. Finally, the minimum wage would be adjusted according to inflation. Pearce states that government-mandated wages increases will hurt people and businesses that will reduce employee hours. Lujan Grisham argues that a wage increase will help small businesses by giving people more money to spend. She points out that raising the minimum wage is especially important for families and women.

There are two more televised debates scheduled before the November 6 general election – October 16 sponsored by KOB-TV and October 24 co-hosted by KOAT-TV and the Albuquerque Journal.


Prop 2 Compromise Creates First State-run Dispensaries

In a behind-the-scenes compromise deal announced in the state capitol, both sides of Proposition 2 – legalizing medical use marijuana – a deal that will create the nation’s first state-run medical marijuana dispensaries. State lawmakers, faith leaders, and advocates worked out the weeks in the making, but Gov. Hebert has vowed to call a special session after the election no matter the outcome of Prop. 2. “The good news here is that whether Prop 2 passes or fails, we end up at the same point,” Hebert said at the compromise announcement.

Qualifying patients will not have access to medical marijuana from county health departments, and up to five “medical cannabis pharmacies.” The compromise differs from the initiative in that a centralized pharmacy will be created to supply health departments with marijuana in “medicinal dosage form.” The intent of the state-run operation is to increase safeguards and lessen the likelihood of medical marijuana from reaching the black market.

Both sides of the Prop 2 debate have agreed to de-escalate the number of political ads attacking the opposing party. Advocates, however, still caution and encourage voters to turn up at the polls. There are still areas that are unsettled such as the requirement that marijuana flowers be packaged in blister packs. The intent is to send a clear signal to law enforcement that an individual is legally in possession of marijuana. Opposing concerns is that additional packaging requirements will drive up the cost.

Farm Bill Timeline Update

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee said Tuesday she agrees with Chairman Pat Roberts’ (R-Kan.) assessment that lawmakers negotiating a new farm bill face no firm deadline until December, despite the Sept. 30 expiration of current law.

“We’ve still got some pretty substantial differences in policy on a number of different titles,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said. She said House and Senate negotiators were nowhere close to reaching a compromise. The chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate committees held a phone call Tuesday to continue farm bill talks, according to two House Agriculture Committee aides.

“The good news is that the real deadline isn’t Sept. 30. It’s actually December,” Stabenow said, echoing a point made last week by Roberts. Current farm program authorizations expire Sept. 30 or the applicable crop year. The latter language is seen as giving lawmakers some leeway on timing.

The farm bill (H.R. 2) being negotiated would authorize agriculture-related programs for five years (Public Law 113-79). The largest partisan divide is over work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). House lawmakers proposed to tighten and add a mandatory work training program. Senate negotiators have balked at these changes.

Roberts told reporters Sept. 17 “some progress” has been made, but the real issue is SNAP. “As this draws to the final week here, we have to come to some agreement,” he said.

Student Loan Forgiveness Report

Nearly all student borrowers who applied for loans forgiveness under a program for public and nonprofit workers have had their applications denied, according to new data from the Education Department.

More than 28,000 borrowers applied to have their loans discharged under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which forgives loans for public and nonprofit workers who have made a decade’s worth of qualifying payments. The program first began discharging loans in November 2017. As of the end of June, only 289 application had been approved for discharge.

The other 99 percent of discharge applications were denied, either because the applicants had not met program requirements or were missing information.

The department did not provide a breakdown of what requirement applicants did not meet.

Congress set aside $350 million last year to help borrowers who thought they were in the program but were disqualified on a technicality. This week, the Senate passed spending legislation (H.R. 6157) that would set aside an additional $350 million for loan forgiveness.

As of the end of June, 96 borrowers had $5.52 million in student loans forgiven.