New Mexico Legislature races clock to fix budget shortfall
Posted March 13
SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico lawmakers were racing against the clock Monday in efforts to raise new money to sustain public school budgets and state agency services in response to a sustained slump in the state's oil and natural gas sectors and a lackluster state economy.
The 60-day legislative session ends Saturday at noon, with time also running down for approval of a minimum wage hike and a long list of policy reforms that might overhaul campaign finance disclosures, allow medically assisted suicide and respond to federal initiatives from President Donald Trump and Congress.
The Democrat-led House of Representatives on Monday was combing through a Senate-approved plan to increase tax revenues and fees by roughly $350 million to fill a budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year.
"We're in the tweak stage, we're not in the square-one stage," Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf said of negotiations on the revenue bill.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez opposes outright tax increases, calling into doubt Senate-approved plans to raise taxes on gasoline and automobile sales to shore up general fund reserves and pump money into local road and bridge repairs. The Senate voted 34-4 over the weekend to endorse a host of revenue increases designed to stabilize state spending, but the House has yet to sign off on changes to its original bill.
Spending was slashed in October at public schools and most state agencies and was followed this year by a sweep of cash from school district reserves and other government accounts to plug a stubborn deficit for the current fiscal year.
"The cuts have been brutal," said Democratic majority leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe. "I really think that the fact that we were able to collaboratively — Republicans and Democrats — put forth a budget that doesn't have more cuts is a good step."
Wirth acknowledged that the governor could veto key provisions of the Senate-approved tax plan, and a $6.1 billion spending bill for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
"It's our job as a Legislature to propose a responsible direction moving forward," Wirth said. "It's the executive's job to dispose, and so we've got to figure out where the balance is."
Democrats reclaimed control of the state House in November elections and expanded their Senate majority, shifting the direction and tenor of both chambers after a heavy emphasis last year on stiffer criminal penalties.
Proposals to legalize and tax recreational marijuana have been defeated in committee but lawmakers may still reduce penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana and expand the state's medical cannabis program to cover new health conditions and ensure adequate supplies.
As the session winds down, several hundred unapproved bills are still in play that include major ethics reforms to prevent state officials from jumping straight into new paid jobs as lobbyists, require greater disclosure of unlimited "dark money" contributions to political committees that do not coordinate directly with candidates, and create an independent ethics commission to enforce standards of conduct and campaign finance restrictions.
Electoral reforms have been voted down in committee that would have opened major party primaries to independent voters and allowed voter registration closer to election day. Automatic voter registration at Motor Vehicle Division offices was stripped from another bill.
"I'm very hopeful for these ideas to come back in the future," said newly elected Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the state's top elections and campaign finance regulator. Modest electoral reform still could consolidate local election dates to encourage participation and save money.
Democrats have introduced a long list of bills and memorials responding to President Donald Trump's plan for a border wall, executive orders on immigration and an overhaul of the Affordable Health Act — though many have languished.