By Sherry Robinson
During a legislative session when bipartisanship was on display, lawmakers produced a budget and broad range of bills with a minimum of fuss and hard feelings.
Rep. Patty Lundstrom, who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said she was proud of her committee’s work on HB 2, the budget bill, and wasn’t unhappy with changes made by the Senate Finance Committee. The conference committee, a handful of legislators from both committees, gave her a chance to add funding for tribal projects.
She said she worked closely with Rep. Larry Larrañaga, the committee’s ranking Republican. “We don’t always agree, but he understands the process, and we’re willing to listen to each other,” she said.
Lundstrom said legislative leaders encourage bipartisan work, but she’s also motivated by local sentiments.
“My constituents get turned off with constant fighting,” she said. “They stand up in meetings and say, ‘What’s it going to take for you guys to get something done?’”
To the governor: A $6.3 billion budget that raises general fund reserves to 10 percent. It provides 2 percent salary increases to all state employees; 6.5 percent to state police, prison guards and parole officers; 4.5 percent to judges and district attorney staff; 2.5 percent to court personnel, social workers, nurses and teachers.
For economic development, the Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) received $5 million in new money and retains $6.9 million; the Job Training Incentive Program (JTIP) received $9 million; the Tourism Department got $1 million for marketing.
Signed: A joint memorial to form a criminal justice task force to develop a plan for fighting crime in New Mexico.
To the governor: A bill to define strangulation as a serious violent crime and another to train police on strangulation and suffocation; a bill that gives the Superintendent of Insurance authority to provide vehicle information to law enforcement agencies and prosecutors; a bill that requires auto recyclers to check the Taxation and Revenue Department’s electronic system to see if a vehicle has been reported stolen before taking possession of it.
The governor also has an omnibus crime bill that increases penalties for violent offenders in possession of firearms; provides retention bonuses for law enforcement officers; requires corrections facilities to screen inmates for health issues, get them treatment, and enroll them in Medicaid on release; increases requirements to remove ignition interlock devices before reinstating driver’s licenses to DWI offenders; and sets realistic penalties for nonviolent crimes.
Died: An expansion of the “Baby Brianna’s Law” to impose a life sentence for the intentional abuse of a child aged 12 to 17 resulting in death (the law already covers younger children); a bill to increase the penalty for second degree murder from 15 to 18 years, making it consistent with other major felonies; a bill to make possession of cell phones by prisoners a fourth degree felony; a bill to make it a felony to assault a social worker.
Died: A bill that would have allowed police to obtain warrants for blood tests of people suspected of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol; a bill that would have increased DWI penalties by raising fines, adding DWI to the habitual offender statute, making it a fourth degree felony to be using a suspended license while under the influence, making it a second degree felony to cause great bodily harm, increasing community service time ordered by judges, and increasing jail time for four-time and above DWI convictions.
Signed: A House memorial asking the state Public Education Department for a task force on reducing teachers’ required paperwork and considering a moratorium on unfunded mandates in schools.
To the governor: A bill allowing the Public School Capital Outlay Council to spend up to $10 million over four years for school security; a bill to increase minimum salaries for all teachers; a bill to improve broadband in schools and libraries across the state.
Died: A joint resolution to use 1 percent of the $16 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood education and services; the Reading Success Act, which replaced previous bills aimed at holding back third graders who weren’t reading at grade level; a truancy bill that would have replaced a court process with family meetings and possible help from the Children Youth and Families Department; a bill requiring a background check for all school personnel having unsupervised contact with children; a bill to set minimums for spending on classroom instruction and set targets for reducing school overhead ( administration); Michael’s Law which would have forbidden schools from using physical restraints and seclusion.
To the governor: A bill to empower small unincorporated communities to revitalize and redevelop areas that are deteriorated, blighted or underutilized.
Died: A bill to establish Enhanced Enterprise Zones; and a bill seeking $1.5 million to continue and expand the Solo Worker Program.
To the governor: A bill to reinstate an income tax credit for homes and businesses that install solar panels.
Died: Bills that would have allowed Public Service Company of New Mexico to sell bonds to recover losses from closing San Juan Generating Station and to require a utility closing a coal power plant to build a new energy-generating facility within the same school district without imposing a 10 percent or more cost on customers; a bill to reduce various taxes on coal production and processing.
Signed: A bill to provide multi-state licensure reciprocity for registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and vocational nurses; nurses certified in other states can continue working in New Mexico; two memorials asking the interim Legislative Health and Human Services Committee to study Medicaid buy-in programs that allow people who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid to buy into program like Medicaid that aren’t subsidized by the state.
To the governor: A bill to reform “step therapy,” in which insurance companies control costs by requiring patients to try affordable treatments first; a bill to allow crisis triage centers to be operated at the same location as hospitals to help people with mental illness or addiction.
Died: A bill to fund statewide health information interconnections and help small physician practices and rural hospitals participate.
Signed: A memorial to convene a task force to come up with a strategy to promote the state’s dual-credit program.
To the governor: A bill that decouples lottery scholarships from tuition and sets flat awards of $1,500 per semester for students at UNM, NMSU and New Mexico Tech, $1,020 for other four-year institutions, and $350 for community colleges.
Died: A bill to eliminate the requirement that 30 percent of gross revenue from the lottery go for college scholarships; a bill that would to shift regent nominations from the governor to nominating committees at each institution; a bill that would have allowed regents to be removed for conflict of interest.
Signed: A joint memorial asking the state to convene a task force to conduct listening sessions around the state to consider what else can be done to prevent veteran suicides in the state.
To the governor: A bill to help Native American veterans recover state income taxes withheld improperly while they were serving on active duty; a bill that allows the adjutant general to use state income tax credit contributions to the New Mexico National Guard to help members here and when they’re deployed; a bill that makes it a crime to misrepresent your military service.
By Sherry Robinson
With the clock ticking on this year’s legislative session, lawmakers took care of the main order of business, the budget bill. On Tuesday it passed the Senate on a 40-2 vote and now heads to the governor.
The 30-day session ends at noon on Thursday.
The Senate Finance Committee amended the $6.3 billion budget it received from the House and added $2 million more for Albuquerque’s district attorney. State employees still get a 2 percent increase and teachers, a 2.5 percent increase. The committee bumped State Police raises from 6.5 percent to 8.5 percent; judges, from 4.5 percent to 6.5 percent. It also provides $54 million in non-recurring funding for roads, $10 million to improve highway rest areas, and $10 million towards restoring the money swept from school district cash balances last year to balance the budget. It increased funding for tourism marketing to $250,000.
“We were able to assist with a lot of needs in the state,” like crime and education, as well as adding money to reserves, said Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa and vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith “has taken the brunt of criticism coming forth about the bill. It was done in a fair and equitable manner. No one was truly injured, and in some cases we exceeded demands.”
Commenting on complaints that they had just received the bill, Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, said: “I take the initiative to pick up the (draft) bill and look at it. I also attended when the finance committee went over amendments.” He said he thought the process works.
Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, said, referring to the need to beef up reserves: “We’re one year from the toughest times we’ve had in New Mexico. We’re not far from that each and every year. We need to be ready when oil and gas doesn’t keep up.”
Smith said he tried to include everyone in the discussions and draw on the members’ expertise. “We know that district attorney funding is the tip of the iceberg,” he said and acknowledged problems around the state. “We have to pull together,” he said.
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup and a member of the Senate Finance Committee said he thought some media reports were unfair to Smith and the committee. “Driving a political wedge between rural and urban” isn’t helpful, he said. “We did the right thing.”
Two measures to protect Chaco Canyon are making headway.
On Tuesday, the Senate Indian and Cultural Affairs Committee passed Senate Memorial 43, by Muñoz, which asks that the federal Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs to not lease or permit oil and gas activities in the greater Chaco area without consulting with tribes until the resource management plan amendment is complete. It also asks that hydraulic fracturing not occur within a ten-mile radius of Chaco Culture National Historic Park.
“Acoma Pueblo has a direct link to Chaco Canyon,” said pueblo lobbyist Conroy Chino. “It’s under threat by the oil and gas technology being used, particularly fracking.”
House Memorial 85, by Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, has the same language and also seeks an ethnographic study of the region in cooperation with tribes. Lente said HM 85 is similar to his memorial of last year, but the consultation with tribes hasn’t taken place.
During a crowded Sunday hearing before the House State Government, Indian and Veterans Affairs Committees, HM 85 drew support from tribes, environmental groups and individuals.
Mark Freeland, representing the Navajo Nation chairman and vice chairman, said: “This is one of three fronts the Navajo Nation is facing – Chaco, uranium mine clean-up, and Bears Ears. We stand in solid support with our brother and sister tribes.”
Historian Hilario Romero said, “I witnessed trucks, noise and contamination during 30 years of work in Eastern Navajo.”
Rep. Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup, said: “I’m reminded every day of the similarities between uranium extraction (in the area) and drilling at Chaco. It’s the reason we need to protect Chaco Canyon.”
The memorial passed on a 5-2 vote.
The committee also passed House Memorial 92, which seeks the transfer 495 acres from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to the National Park Service for a national monument devoted to Fort Wingate and its history.
The sponsors are Reps. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup, and Harry Garcia, D-Grants.
A planned demolition of several buildings on the site would destroy Navajo historical artifacts, according to the memorial, so the transfer is important.
The Senate on Tuesday passed SB 231 by Muñoz that encourages employers to hire foster kids by offering them a tax credit.
According to the Kids Count Data Center, New Mexico had 408 kids aged 11 to 15 in foster care, 150 kids aged 16 to 20, and 50 young people who aged out of foster care that year.
“This is one of the most critical pieces of legislation we’ll pass this year,” said Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque. “At 18 the floor falls out from under them. We really should be standing behind them.”
Said Muñoz: “Foster kids don’t really have a voice. Sen. Padilla has lived it. He knows this will help.”
The bill passed 38-0.
(seed pre-emption law, uranium cleanup)
By Sherry Robinson
Tribal representatives and small growers packed a committee room Thursday for one of the most emotional hearings of the legislative session.
The issue was not crime, children or education – it was seeds. HB 161 became the latest scuffle in the war over genetically altered plants.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what this bill does,” said Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, before the House State Government, Indian and Veterans Affairs Committee.
The law specifies that the state will regulate seeds. “Some companies are selling contaminated seeds,” Rehm said. “We want to keep them out of New Mexico. Some have weeds in them that we don’t have here. If you’re a farmer and you keep your seeds, it allows you to do that.”
Lobbyist T. J. Trujillo said: “The easy thing would have been to implement this by administrative rule, but I don’t like to bypass the Legislature. It’s important to have dialogue.” Regulation of agriculture is a patchwork in New Mexico, he said. “All we’re trying to do is have consistency for an agricultural business to thrive in New Mexico.”
HB 161 says the state Department of Agriculture will regulate seeds and all aspects of their production; local governments would be prohibited from adopting seed ordinances. At least 29 states have adopted so-called seed preemption laws to keep local governments from enacting their own rules, including bans on GMOs, according to a legislative analysis.
Supporters include the New Mexico Dairy Producers and the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.
Charlie Marquez, of the New Mexico Chile Association, said: “We don’t want local governments to pre-empt seed. We need new and innovative seed to be available.”
The opposition included virtually all the state’s tribes, along with traditional Hispanic growers in northern New Mexico, Native American groups, and organic growers. Many people spoke with feeling about the seeds passed from generation to generation and the need to protect them.
One elephant in the room was the agri-business Monsanto and its history of bankrupting individual farmers with lawsuits after they saved seeds from their own crops that were inadvertently pollinated by crops from a neighbor’s patented seeds. The other elephant in the room is organic growers’ fear of contamination by GMO seeds.
Many pueblos have agricultural enterprises that rely on the purity of their seeds. Gov. Richard Bernal, of Sandia Pueblo, said he’d spoken to a Kansas farmer about the effects of genetically modified seeds and called the bill “another attack on tribal sovereignty.”
Rehm tried to assure opponents that his bill wouldn’t keep people from saving seeds. He said the Agriculture Department would treat GMO seeds like other seeds.
Rep. Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup, said she opposed the bill.
“Last night I stayed up late reading letters and taking phone messages from constituents from the entire state,” Johnson said. “The framework of the bill is not compatible with indigenous New Mexico. I planted along with my maternal and paternal grandparents… This has to do with food, herbs and medicine. Our seeds are fragile, they’re alive, and we have protected our seeds for generations.”
Rep. Andres Romero, D-Albuquerque, said his district included small farmers in the South Valley. “Small farmers should be involved in the discussion,” he said. “The bill would take them out of the public discussion.”
On a 5-4, party-line vote the committee tabled the bill.
Now that the state has money for uranium site cleanup, area legislators want to make sure locals get the technical jobs the projects will create.
The Senate Conservation Committee passed SB 251, by Sen. John Pinto, D-Gallup, would appropriate $250,000 to the UNM Bureau of Business and Economic Research to analyze the clean-up’s economic impact and determine what training and education might be needed.
“We want to be sure that New Mexico students and Navajo students are able to get those technical jobs,” said Susan Gordon, of the Multi-Cultural Alliance for a Safe Environment Now, during a Senate Conservation Committee hearing on Thursday. “These are career jobs.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recovered almost $1 billion from lawsuits to clean up more than 200 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation and Laguna Pueblo. The University of New Mexico sees an opportunity for jobs and new businesses.
The state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and the Environment Department are working with federal agencies to use federal funds and money from the Tronox bankruptcy for reclamation. The EPA’s proposal to place an area in McKinley and Cibola counties on the Superfund National Priorities List will involve detailed study and eventual reclamation.
(Early childhood education, school security, school spending)
By Sherry Robinson
Independent correspondent 2-6
After three hours of animated debate on Tuesday, the House narrowly passed one of the most controversial measures of the legislative session.
House Joint Resolution 1would amend the state Constitution, with voter approval, to direct an additional 1 percent a year from the $17.29 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to early childhood educational services and education.
If the resolution passes both chambers, voters would have to approve the change in the November 2018 election.
Reps. Javier Martinez and Moe Maestas, Albuquerque Democrats, took turns defending their measure during lengthy criticism from House Republicans, who traditionally object to “raids” on permanent funds for any reason.
Proponents maintain that increasing early childhood education and services would assure that kids enter school ready to learn. The investment, they say, would pay for itself in improved job prospects and lower crime rates.
Opponents have argued at each hearing that the permanent fund is intended to provide revenues when the state’s oil, gas and mineral resources are depleted.
“This is an investment in our children,” Martinez said. “It will yield a 7 to 13 percent return every year.”
Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, said: “Ultimately the resources will be depleted. When the last drop of oil, the last nugget of copper, the last lump of coal are gone, we better have a fund to replace them. Spending it now and stealing from our children is unconscionable.”
Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said: “I watched my mother give her all to an early childhood program. It was never for herself but always for the kids. She knew then what I know now. Our kids, our Native American kids, our minority kids, are failing and failing at a disturbing rate. What we’re here to do today is to allow the people of the state to use their money” to improve the future for children.
The measure passed on a 36-31 party-line vote. It now moves to the Senate.
The day a school shooter killed two students in Aztec, Sen. George Muñoz had a conversation with Tommy Turner, superintendent of the Mosquero School District.
“It’s a shame we have to make a choice between roof leaks and security upgrades,” Turner said before the Senate Education Committee on Monday.
Muñoz has introduced SB 124, which would allow the Public School Capital Outlay Council to spend up to $10 million a year for four years on school security. The council would prioritize requests from districts.
Turner explained security costs: A card-swipe system is $65,000, a camera, $25,000. To slow down a perpetrator, the school should have special window film that would cost $200,000 in his district alone and $17 million statewide.
The committee passed Muñoz’s bill, along with Senate Joint Memorial 4, about the dangers posed to children by carrying heavy backpacks, also passed the committee.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, was hearing complaints from kids about back and neck pain and observed that the impacts are worrisome because their muscles and ligaments aren’t fully developed. Her memorial asks the state Public Education to educate students, parents and teachers about the issues and work toward homework solutions that don’t require taking heavy textbooks home every day.
Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said his district looked into using ebooks and tablets and found “it’s almost impossible.” He added that because schools had removed lockers over security issues, the backpack issue has gotten worse.
Stewart said the memorial is seeking ideas and information.
Assuring that more education dollars are spent in the classroom and less on administrative overhead is the goal of HB 180, which originated with the nonpartisan Think New Mexico.
Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, signed onto the bill, along with Reps. Larry Larranaga, R-Albuquerque, Bobby Gonzales, D-Taos, and others.
“I’m concerned about the discrepancy among districts regarding what’s going into the classroom,” Lundstrom said in an interview. “Everybody wants more money in the classroom. This bill tries to ensure that money goes to the classroom as much as possible. I want to see what the districts do with the money. We’ll track this closely.”
New Mexico spends an average of 57 percent of its education dollars on instruction, 13 percent on student and instructional support, and 30 percent on administrative costs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
HB 180 would set voluntary targets for districts and charters. As incentive, the bill would allow districts and charters that hit their targets to keep their cash reserves, even in times of shortage (like last year, when reserves were swept to balance the state’s budget). It would also reduce the bureaucratic load by requiring the Public Education Department to develop an electronic reporting system that would relieve schools from submitting some 140 reports.
The House Education Committee held the bill after testimony Monday showed opposition from the state Association of School Superintendents and school boards in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Their objection is that the bill would jeopardize district and board autonomy.
Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, said, “The intent of the bill is noble, but the sponsors may not have intimate knowledge of school budgeting. I’m reluctant to push something through that’s not supported by the people who have to live with it.”
She advised sponsors to work on the sticking points.
The committee also held SB 234 to require a criminal background check for school employees with 18 years of service or more who have unsupervised contact with children.
Proponents see it as a loophole that needs to be closed, but educators on the committee objected to demanding that school employees with no history of problems be required to get the background check. The checks cost about $75.
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, hopes to amend the bill on Wednesday.
The committee passed HB 151 by Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, to improve education for Native American students.
“The Indian Education Act of 2003 helped push Indian education to the forefront, but not a whole lot has changed,” Lente said. “Native students are still far behind their peers.”
He said HB 151 calls for a needs assessment, which could be used for budget priorities. Last year, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the same bill, calling it an unfunded mandate.
Lente explained: “Native American kids receive federal impact aid, but we don’t know how it’s used in schools. We’re asking districts to look at how they spend impact aid.”
By Sherry Robinson
Independent correspondent 2-2-18
Rep. Harry Garcia joined the House Appropriations and Finance Committee last year when oil and gas revenues had plunged.
“We were cutting everything,” said the Grants Democrat. “It was really hard. It would tear your heart apart to take away from people who needed it. Now we can give teachers and judges a raise. We can put more into education. It's 180 degrees from what it was.”
Serving on the HAFC has been eye opening. “You see exactly how government works,” he said. “Everything centers around money.”
This year’s budget is notable for the spirit of compromise that made it possible.
“It's a great piece of bipartisan work,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. “We've been able to stay away from the toxic Washington, D. C., atmosphere.”
The $6.32 billion budget that passed the House by 65-3 on Wednesday is 4.1 percent higher than the fiscal 2018 budget. The high points:
Lundstrom said the committee agreed from the beginning to cache at least 10 percent in reserves.
“That's what drove the budget and set the boundaries,” she said.
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, sits on the Senate Finance Committee, which will hear the bill next. He said he wants to be reassured about the 10 percent reserve and doesn’t want to see new programs until lawmakers restore funding to existing programs. He likes the additional money for road projects, which he said means a lot in rural New Mexico.
“Higher ed is still short and UNM-Gallup is even shorter,” he said. Higher ed is asking for another 2 percent, he said.
Muñoz would like to see a long-term plan and predictable funding for education instead of lurching from year to year through upturns and downturns. And he’d like to see higher raises for teachers this year.
“They haven't had raises in years,” he said. “This (2.5 percent) doesn't keep up with the cost of living.”
Garcia said he has reservations about bonuses for exemplary teachers.
“Teachers in small communities like Thoreau, Alamo, Pueblo Pintado, if there's a storm kids can't get to school,” he said. “That teacher doesn't have the same opportunity as the teacher at Albuquerque High. She'll never qualify for it. Teachers with special needs kids will never qualify for it. I don't think it's a fair process.”
Gov. Susana Martinez wanted more funding for the district attorney in the 2nd Judicial District (Bernalillo County) and, through a spokeswoman, criticized “pork projects” in the bill – namely, the road work.
“We provided funding for all of the DAs, not just 2nd Judicial District,” Lundstrom said in an interview. “It's about fairness and not creating unintended consequences within the judicial system. You can put 800 cops on the street, but if you don't have the DAs, the jailers, the public defenders, and the courts, it's for naught.”
On the House floor Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, defended the road projects, saying they will address deficiencies around the state.
Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, has complained that money swept from school districts wasn’t fully restored. He also complained that he wasn’t invited to participate in a subcommittee that was hammering out details and asked the Legislative Council Service to investigate.
Lundstrom has multiple subcommittees focus on different aspects of the budget because there isn’t time for the full committee to meet on every aspect. Because of the compressed schedule of the short session, she had subcommittees meeting concurrently, she said, but all meetings are open.
Townsend introduced HB 141 to return $40.8 million to school districts, but the HAFC tabled it on a party-line vote. Lundstrom said it was too late in the process, and she wanted to protect the 10 percent reserve.
On the economic development front, business groups want more money for the Job Training Incentive Program and the Local Economic Development Act (LEDA), also called the closing fund, which is used to help local governments with necessary infrastructure. The Tourism Department got $750,000 more for marketing, but business groups wanted more.
The same bipartisan spirit is moving a package of crime bills along.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, joined to combine five bills into one bipartisan bill, which has garnered support from such diverse groups as the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the ACLU.
It passed the House Judiciary Committee 10-1 on Wednesday. Chairman Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, was opposed.
The bills are: HB 271 to make small, nonviolent offenses misdemeanors, HB 215 to make 20-year police patrol officers eligible for $15,000 retention bonuses. HB 19 to increase the penalty for firearm possession for convicted felons, HB 217 to require mental health and substance abuse screening of inmates within 30 days of incarceration and expand Medicaid enrollment assistance for eligible inmates, HB 266 to stipulate conditions for removing DWI ignition interlock devices.
n Friday the Senate Rules Committee passed Senate Joint Resolution 13, which would amend the state Constitution to allow removal of university regents for violations of conflict-of-interest rules. Voters would have to approve the change.
“We’ve had regents with conflicts of interest,” said Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque. “In their positions they’re responsible for a lot of money and programmatic issues. The people who come before us will be handling the business of the state. This adds value to the work we do.”
Earlier in the week, the committee passed the bipartisan Senate Resolution 1, which would shift regent nominations from the governor to nominating committees at each institution who would interview and recommend candidates to the governor. This too would be a change to the constitution.
Reform is long overdue, said the resolution’s sponsor, Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces.
Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said, “This is not about politics. This is about putting our institutions of higher education in the best hands.”
By Sherry Robinson
Independent correspondent 1-26-18
New Mexico’s courts have been scraping the bottom so long that judges and staff must have splinters in their fingers.
Budget hearings in the last two weeks reveal a threadbare judiciary with high vacancy rates, sketchy security and trouble keeping or replacing experienced employees, including judges. District attorney and public defender offices are also strained.
In response, both the executive and legislative branches have offered tiny budget increases, but courts, district attorneys and public defenders say they need more.
“It’s been like a Greek chorus today,” said McKinley County Deputy District Attorney Dave Pederson during one hearing. “The overwhelming issue for the public is crime. There’s as much crime in the hinterlands as the major metropolitan areas. Money is always scarce. We need to devote enough money to make our entire system work.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura summed up judiciary realities for the Senate Finance Committee. Cases have proliferated, and they’re more complex, but staffing is down; vacancies are 14 percent statewide, turnover is 35 percent. While criminal filings are up somewhat, “there’s been a surge in civil cases – an additional 7,000 statewide,” Nakamura said, adding that 74 percent of cases are now civil.
“They’re complicated and time consuming,” she said.
The courts reflect hard times in New Mexico. Many civil cases are collections and foreclosures. Because litigants can’t afford a lawyer, 51 percent of all civil cases are pro se, meaning people representing themselves, and these cases bog down the system because litigants don’t know what they’re doing.
“We can’t process cases without personnel – staff and judges,” Nakamura said. “We save money by keeping positions open. Our employees are leaving us. They can’t afford to work for what we’re paying them.”
Judicial employees make an average of $16.66 an hour, less than other government branches. Judges’ salaries are the lowest in the nation, according to the Judicial Compensation Commission.
“We’ve gotta do better for our judges,” she said. “The Court of Appeals has two positions open and only three applicants. The average lawyer makes 40 percent more than Supreme Court judges. People aren’t coming to these jobs any more. A quality judiciary depends on the diversity of experience in people applying for jobs. It’s not right what’s happening to your judiciary.”
The judiciary wants a 9.6 percent increase, or $15.63 million. The legislative recommendation was 1.5 percent. At this writing the state budget was still being crafted.
The 11th District Court (San Juan and McKinley counties) and 13th District Courts (Sandoval, Cibola and Valencia) reflect Nakamura’s complaints. Both have seen the rise of civil cases and the trend toward self-representation.
“We’ve been seeing the self-representation trend for 10 or15 years, and it’s gradually increasing,” said 11th District Court executive officer Weldon Neff in an interview. “The challenge we face in court is to provide service but not legal advice.”
He said the state’s economic downturn is behind the trend, along with a more recent do-it-yourself bent (and maybe TV courtroom dramas), “but people don’t realize the complexities” of the court.
Even though both districts offer self-help clinics, the increase in civil cases and the explosion of self-litigants are “a greater burden on the judge to explain things because people don’t understand the rules and obligations,” said Chief Judge Louis McDonald, of the 13th District. In a collections or foreclosure case, the defense is often, “I lost my job.”
Both districts have high vacancy rates – 15.3 percent in the 11th and 12 percent in the 13th.
Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, asked during a House Appropriations and Finance Committee hearing what effect high vacancies have on the court system.
“It hurts to have this many jobs vacant,” McDonald said. “Many people are pulling double duty. The courts don’t open until later to allow the clerks to catch up.”
Low salaries are obstacles in hiring and retention, judges said.
Chief Judge Karen Townsend, of the 11th district, has three positions opening up but just three applications. “We may have to take what we can get,” she said.
The 11th District has asked for an 11.6 percent increase; the Legislative Finance Committee recommended 1.5 percent. The 13th wants a 9.3 percent increase; the LFC recommended 0.6 percent.
District attorneys’ offices are in the same boat. The 2nd Judicial District (Bernalillo County) has the spotlight and the governor’s ear, but DAs around the state are struggling.
“We have a higher crime rate than anybody else, and nobody is screaming about that,” said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, during a Senate Finance Committee hearing.
In an interview, McKinley County District Attorney Paula Pakkala said: “District attorneys in our rural areas are understaffed, and we have issues with competitive salaries.” Gallup has the additional complications of a high crime rate, fluctuating population, and large number of DWIs.
District attorneys asked for a $10.1 million, or 16.1 percent, increase. The Second Judicial District Attorney asked for $5.4 million more, or 29.5 percent; the 13 other district attorneys asked for $4.7 million, or 10.7 percent, more. The LFC recommended just $2.3 million, or 3.6 percent.
During a hearing, Muñoz asked, “Why do we have a 48 percent dismissal rate for DWIs?” He referred to a MADD report in December that said McKinley County had the state’s highest rate of dismissals.
District Attorney Paula Pakkala responded: “It’s a mix of issues – courts, jurisdiction, time, working with police officers. I’ve proposed adding funding for paralegals to help us prepare cases. If I have a blood draw, there’s only one (expert) in the state who can come testify. If you get your subpoena there first, you’re the one who gets testimony.”
She said the checkerboard area close to the city complicates jurisdictional issues. “There are many close calls on jurisdiction,” she said. “It’s something that’s argued a lot.”
In an interview, Pakkala said: “Sen. Muñoz is right. We have a high crime rate here. The only way to fight it is I need people. My attorneys are all carrying a high caseload.” She said that after her appointment in October, she had to stabilize the staff.
“People were demoralized here,” she said. “People were discouraged. People were worried. The D. A. sets the tone of the office. I think that people will say things are getting better here.”
Pakkala said she’s down four attorneys, but low salary is an obstacle.
Muñoz said in an interview that the district attorneys are creating some of their own problems by holding entry-level lawyers’ salaries below $50,000 so they don’t have to pay higher health insurance premiums.
“The issue we have is, it’s really crucial for us to be able to recruit and retain assistant DAs,” said Pederson. He told the Senate Finance Committee that the McKinley County office loses attorneys to other government entities that can pay higher salaries.
Pakkala still has four attorney positions open, and she’s trying to fill the jobs with more experienced people. She said the budget, prepared by her predecessor, asked for only $70,000 more than the current year. Next year, she will ask for more money. “Next year, the crime rate and what goes on in Gallup will get talked about.”
By Sherry Robinson
State lawmakers are heading into a less painful legislative session this year, but it won’t be without serious conflicts.
Tuesday is the start of a 30-day session. Short sessions are usually devoted to the budget, but Gov. Susana Martinez has rolled out a busy agenda of crime and education bills.
With $199 million in “new money,” (funds in excess of the current $6.1 billion budget) budget cutting won’t be necessary, but legislators have a lot of backfilling to do because they drained the state’s reserves and many accounts last year to keep state government solvent.
“It’s a good feeling to be able to go in and not have to cut programs,” said Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup. She chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, which has been meeting for the past week to craft the budget for fiscal 2019.
“We’ve got new money, but we haven’t recovered like the states around us,” said Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup and a member of the Senate Finance Committee. “We’re barely to the level we were going into the recession.”
Both note that the governor’s budget proposal is about $100 million over because she’s counting on money from a proposed overhaul of the gross receipts tax.
“We can’t get our arms around the executive revenue package,” Lundstrom said.
The tax reform might deliver more revenue, but the governor’s proposal is vague, Lundstrom said. She asked the Department of Finance Administration for specifics and five days later got a response that “it could include things like the following…” On that list was making nonprofit hospitals pay the same tax rate as other hospitals and taking “hold harmless” (a provision protecting local governments).
“I want to see exactly what they’re proposing. I want to see a bill,” Lundstrom said. “I’m concerned about taxing the public when we have positive revenue projections.”
The tax measure failed last year because legislators wanted more time to study its impacts and hired an accounting firm to create a model.
“I don’t think we can do it in a 30-day session,” said Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, who chairs the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee. “It’ll come to my committee, and I’ll give it a fair shake, but we have to have some good numbers and make sure it doesn’t hurt the state.”
Legislators aren’t ready to put on their rosy-colored glasses.
“Signs of economic recovery offered tepid optimism the state is on a path toward recovery,” said a report from the interim Legislative Finance Committee, also chaired by Lundstrom. With improvements in oil and gas revenues, the LFC sees “a mild but steady improvement in the economy.” However, they’re worried about the impact s of the federal budget, changes to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and the recently passed federal tax bill.
“Any loss of federal revenue could wipe out any projected increase in the state’s reserves,” the report said.
In other respects, the governor and the LFC are fairly close in their proposed budgets.
Martinez’s $6.23 billion budget includes: $70 million for classroom spending, increased teacher pay, and rewards for high-performing teachers; an additional $38 million for Medicaid; $25 million to improve access to child care; $12 million for the state’s job training program and $10 million for the closing fund (economic development incentives); more than $7 million for State Police salaries; $6.8 million for corrections, probation and parole officers’ raises; and a 2 percent increase for teachers and instructional staff.
The LFC’s $6.26 billion budget is up 2.9 percent increase. About one-third of the increase repays accounts swept in the last few years, Lundstrom wrote in the LFC report.
The LFC budget includes: a $35.3 million increase for Medicaid; an additional $27 million for early childhood programs (mostly child care and prekindergarten); $22.5 million more to serve at-risk students; $16.6 million to raise minimum pay levels for teachers; $3.6 million more for the courts; $4.4 million more for public safety and the Corrections Department.
Higher education would get no increase but colleges and universities that perform well might see more money.
The LFC would give state employees a 1.5 percent raise; the governor’s raise would be 1 percent.
Another difference is the governor’s willingness to spend $5 million more on the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office; the LFC suggests $900,000.
“You have to look at criminal justice as a system,” Lundstrom said. “If you pump money into one piece, what unintended consequences are there for everything else?”
Munoz, however, sees the need.
“We depend on Albuquerque for so much, we’ve got to help fix Albuquerque’s crime problem. It affects everything,” he said. Munoz offered the example of a Magdalena family that had to take their daughter to the hospital in Albuquerque. While she was being treated, their truck was stolen.
This will be the governor’s last regular session. Her proposals include increasing criminal penalties for felons in possession of a firearm, drunken drivers with more than four convictions, carjacking, and battery of a Children, Youth and Families Department worker. Her “three strikes” bill would impose a life sentence for those convicted of three violent offenses.
Her “Protect New Mexico Kids Act” would increase penalties for child abuse resulting in the death of a youth younger than 18 and for enticing a child into a secluded area. It would also clarify that it’s a crime for an adult to text images of “intimate” body parts to children.
Martinez would allow officers to testify by video conference at certain hearings. She would allow retired officers to return to work while still drawing a pension.
Last year, Democrats objected to the governor’s “all crime all the time” agenda, saying increased penalties don’t deter crime but do increase the workload for the state’s underfunded judiciary and Corrections Department.
“We have a Corrections Department we can’t pay for,” said Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Grants. “We need to start at the bottom with treatment.”
For education, Martinez would strengthen background check requirements for school employees. She would make it easier to hire adjunct teachers with professional experience to fill classroom vacancies in science, math, engineering or technology. She would limit school administrative spending and direct more money to classrooms. She proposes a 2 percent pay increase for teachers, plus a $5,000 pay increase for teachers rated “exemplary” and a $10,000 increase for exemplary high school science, math and technology teachers. She supports a $250 tax credit for teachers to help with their out-of-pocket expenses for school supplies.
Instead of her annual push against “social promotion” (passing students who don’t read at grade level), the governor supports a “Reading Success Act” to provide extra support as early as kindergarten. She supports a policy to bring teachers and parents together to determine the best course for struggling students.
In the hopper
Area lawmakers say they’re not planning to introduce many bills in the short session.
Pre-introduced bills include:
HB 47, by Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, would change the eligibility requirements for National Guard members to receive help from income tax refund contributions.
SB 27, by Sanchez, provides that if a vehicle is the subject of a do-not-drive or stop-sale order, manufacturers must provide car dealers with parts necessary for repair and can’t deny payment to dealers for performing repairs covered by warranty or required under the orders.
HB 99, by Lundstrom, authorizes the New Mexico Finance Authority to make loans for public projects, including Cibola General Hospital, Grants-Cibola County School District, Navajo Nation, Northwest New Mexico Regional Solid Waste Authority, and Zuni Public School District.
Because #MeToo has arrived at the Roundhouse, legislators start today with mandatory instruction on the Legislature’s new sexual harassment policy.
It calls for three legislative leaders and an outside expert to review complaints that can then be forwarded to an internal ethics subcommittee.
Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, was a member of the working group that wrote the policy.
“It was a lot of work, but the group worked well together,” he said.
“It turned out well. There is a process to provide confidentiality in case someone is innocent. And if any one of a group of legislative leaders or outside counsel think (a complaint) should move forward, it moves forward.”
“We are the first in the country to do that,” Sanchez said, adding that the rest of the country is watching New Mexico.
By Sherry Robinson
The state has a new, balanced budget when the fiscal year begins on July 1 but not much money left in the jar for emergencies.
“We’re eight months away from being at a zero balance in the treasury,” said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup.
During the recent special legislative session, legislators restored funding to higher education and the Legislature itself, vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez after the regular session. In four bills, they passed a new budget and provided multiple ways to pay for it and restore depleted cash reserves. Martinez signed three, vetoed one and line-item vetoed many options.
Lingering problems all but guarantee another special session in the fall, said Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup.
Legislators say the governor denied hospitals a major opportunity with her line-item vetoes in HB 1, the appropriations bill, and HB 2.
Lundstrom’s HB 1 restored funding vetoed for higher education and legislative operations. HB 2 would have raised revenue by imposing the gross receipts tax on Internet sales and requiring hospitals, including non-profits, to pay gross receipts taxes on 40 percent (35 percent in subsequent years) of non-Medicaid patient revenues.
Line-item vetoes left half the bill standing. The governor line-item vetoed the tax on internet sales, saying it was poorly crafted, and the hospital tax, which she said was bad policy because it wasn’t part of a broad-based reform.
The hospital tax veto will cost both hospitals and the state. That’s because HB 1 appropriated $26.4 million for hospital provider rate increases in Medicaid from the County Supported Medicaid Fund. That appropriation, which the governor also vetoed, would have generated federal matching funds, which is why the New Mexico Hospital Association supported it.
“It’s a four-to-one match,” Muñoz said. “Any time you can take $25 million and turn it into $100 million, we should jump at it.”
“This was something the hospital association asked for and negotiated with us,” said Lundstrom. “There are no guarantees for them now.”
On the session’s final day, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said: “This bill closed two loopholes.” We did not create new taxes in New Mexico. As small business owners, we want that internet loophole closed.”
Borrowing from Peter
SB 1, originally called the “sweeps and swaps” bill, ended up being mostly about swaps – namely the swap of capital outlay funding used for public projects for cash.
Using money with a long-term interest rate was a proposal by the governor and House Republicans and adds about $81 million to the general fund. But it was repugnant to Democrats and some Republicans.
Lundstrom said she didn’t like it, but the money is readily available. “We don’t have any other choice,” she said.
Muñoz said it was the worst thing lawmakers did during the special session. He spoke against it but voted for it, he said, because the alternative was, “Where do you want to cut?”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said it wasn’t the Legislature’s choice because it’s not responsible and provides reserves of a scant 0.4 percent. “She’ll be back next year with the same request,” he predicted.
The sweeps portion of the bill involved sweeping unused balances from state agencies, and the governor line-item vetoed a number of those.
“This bill attempts to sweep some fund balances that do not exist,” the governor wrote in her veto message. “We cannot balance a budget with funny money.”
However, the Legislative Finance Committee staff relied on agency information and tried to identify fund balances that wouldn’t affect agency operations, according to legislative analysis.
HB 1 has $400,000 for a study to pave the way for reform of the state’s gross receipts taxes. Martinez had pushed a complex tax reform plan by Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, and complained that the study could just be one of many on a shelf.
The plan proposed to close most loopholes and reduce the overall rate.
“We need to study the exemptions and deductions and see if they're beneficial and how they affect the revenues to the state, plus or minus,” said Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants. “The business community needs to understand how this thing would work. They're not loopholes. They're exemptions and deductions this body gave to them. We don't need to study it to death but let's get the professionals to look at it.”
Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, said we need tax reform. “We have to have a planned approach. It's something that could have serious unintended consequences if we don't understand what a repeal means.”
Lundstrom believes that tax reform will be a reality and said the Legislative Council meets this weekend to decide whose committee will shoulder the study. She said it could well come to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee that she chairs.
Muñoz said he gives Harper “a triple A-plus for trying,” said Muñoz. “He said his system was flawless, but nobody could score it,” meaning legislative analysts were having trouble figuring out the impacts of Harper’s 430-page bill.
One estimate predicted a $450 million tax increase, but House Republicans said that was in error. The confusion underscored the need for a study.
“The Legislature has to figure out a way to get rid of all the carve-outs and broaden the base,” Muñoz said, but tax reform won’t be without pain.
Lundstrom said she expects another special session in the fall when new revenue estimates are available.
Sen. John Arthur Smith has said, “There’s a 50-50 chance that reserves will go south again” and that the state’s credit rating will be downgraded again, which increases the costs of borrowing.
Said Lundstrom, “It would have been a lot easier to just allow the internet and hospital taxes.”
By Sherry Robinson
Without an agreement in place and with a court challenge of her vetoes coming up, Gov. Susana Martinez issued a proclamation calling for a special legislative session to begin May 24.
“I’ve been there 17 years, and I’ve been through three governors,” said Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup. “You never call a special session unless you have an agreement. Then everyone’s in and out in one day. We’re starting from square one. That’s not a good thing to do.”
While the governor claims to have an agreement, it’s only with the House Republicans.
“I don’t know who she’s talking to besides (Rep.) Jason Harper and (House Minority Leader) Nate Gentry,” said Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants. “She hasn’t talked to Democrats.”
The special session will have to resolve differences between legislators and the governor over how to fill the gap between sagging revenues and spending for the fiscal year that begins July 1. During the regular session, Martinez proposed to reduce take-home pay of state employees and teachers by increasing their pension contributions. Democrats countered with a tax package. Martinez vetoed the Democrats’ revenue-generating bills and line-item vetoed funding for all of higher education and the Legislature.
The Legislative Council filed a lawsuit against the governor, to be heard by the Supreme Court on May 15.
“Because of the higher ed veto and the legislative veto, she’s caught between a rock and a hard place,” Lundstrom said. “There is no just reason for vetoing higher ed. That’s coming back to haunt the governor.”
Lundstrom sees the special session announcement as a way “to influence what happens in court on the 15th. The vetoes could be overturned, which means a lot of stuff in the proclamation is moot.”
The proclamation defines the governor’s plans for the special session: Revise the spending and solvency bills, reform the gross receipts tax, confirm 18 regent nominees, pass a bill to create a rainy day fund, spend severance tax bonds for school instructional materials instead of public works projects, take money from the legislative retirement fund, and provide money to the courts to pay for magistrate court leases.
“For a special session, there’s too much on the agenda,” said Sanchez.
In her proclamation Martinez repeatedly calls her own proposals “responsible”; Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, uses the same word to describe the Legislature’s measures that were passed and vetoed.
“Now she wants to cut her way out of the mess she created,” Wirth said in a statement.
Democrats, who control both houses, are maintain they have done as much cutting as the state can stand. In recent weeks they’ve asked for updated revenue assessments, which the governor has denied.
Martinez apparently sees the unsuccessful tax reform bill by Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, as the key to solvency, but while the bill found support during the regular session, many legislators thought the bill was too complex to tackle during the regular session when they had a month remaining.
“It’s way too massive a thing to undertake in a special session,” said Sanchez. “It stalled in my committee because there were too many unknowns.” Sanchez, who chairs the Senate Corporations Committee, said the reform didn’t have the support of Democrats or Republicans on the committee.
Democrats have said that tax reform must be done carefully.
“I’m all for comprehensive tax reform,” Lundstrom said, “but it’s unknown how much the reform bill will raise or how much it will cost. It would take several years to see the impact of a reform bill, and we need money now.”
The revenue piece of the governor’s proposals – the most important piece – is still a mystery to the chair of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee. “I have no idea what that revenue piece is,” Lundstrom said.
Lundstrom said she would rather formulate a revenue bill after Sept. 1. “Currently the budget is fine,” she said
By Sherry Robinson
In a tumultuous two-day period, Gov. Susana Martinez signed dozens of bills and vetoed more. Unsigned bills died in pocket vetoes. Here are some of them:
Signed: Small, rural school districts can use SUVs for transportation to and from school; public school children may eat even if their parents owe money to the cafeteria; K-3 Plus eligibility to elementary schools that serve specific grade levels between kindergarten and third grade are eligible for K-3 Plus; students in foster care or the juvenile justice system will have ongoing support to help them succeed; schools and athletic leagues must provide brain injury training and information to student athletes; the treatment of impact aid for school districts and charter schools is equalized; schools will be limited in how they use restraint and seclusion.
Vetoed: The state-local match formula for public school capital outlay would have been recalculated to provide more help to districts with the greatest need; computer science would have counted toward high school graduation; the Public Education Department would have been required to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, which adds technology and engineering to math and science; a council of top educators would have developed a new system to evaluate teachers and principals.
Signed: College students can easily transfer credits among the state’s institutions; the state Higher Education Department can go after state income tax refunds if students participating in loan-forgiveness programs don’t fulfill their requirements to work in designated areas; students can take time off before starting college and still qualify for the lottery scholarship.
Vetoed: The HED would have selected New Mexico students for scholarships to New Mexico medical schools if they promised to practice in medically underserved areas.
Crime and punishment
Signed: Law enforcement can serve warrants issued by municipal courts outside city limits and in neighboring counties; tourniquet training and trauma kits will be provided to graduating law enforcement cadets and officers; prison products can be sold on prison property but not on the internet or by mail order.
Vetoed: Corrections facilities would have had new restrictions on the use of isolated confinement for pregnant women, minors, and the mentally ill; more nonviolent criminals with mental health issues would have been connected to services such as housing, public assistance, therapy and employment training; domestic abusers under permanent restraining orders will have to give up their guns.
Pocket veto: Names of victims and witness in rape, stalking and similar cases would have been withheld until criminal charges are filed; judges would have considered an inmate’s pregnancy or need to nurse a child in sentencing or release decisions.
DWI and liquor
Signed: Gallup and McKinley County can delay sales of packaged liquor from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m.; people with only one DWI conviction in another jurisdiction could obtain a New Mexico driver’s license if they’ve completed their sentencing conditions; in years when December 31 falls on a Sunday, liquor sales hours are 11 a.m. until 2 a.m.
Pocket vetoed: Gallup and McKinley County could have raised their liquor excise tax, with voter approval, to fund substance abuse treatment;
Signed: Pharmacy benefit managers are forbidden to charge fees to pharmacies related to the adjudication of claims.
Vetoed: Additional medical conditions would have been recognized for eligibility in the medical marijuana program; PTSD would have been added to a list of diseases already presumed to be caused by employment as firefighters; the 911 Good Samaritan Law immunity would have been expanded to cover individuals on probation or parole; the Department of Health would have coordinated with local and regional emergency medical to develop triage and transport plans for STEMI (a kind of heart attack) patients.
Pocket vetoed: A new pharmaceuticals purchasing council would have pursued money-saving strategies for statewide procurement of drugs.
Signed: A mother can get a father’s parental rights terminated if the father has been convicted of criminal sexual penetration, which resulted in the conception and birth of the affected child; additional measures are available to prevent the financial exploitation of adults 65 and over or incapacitated people over 18.
Vetoed: The state's home visiting program would have been expanded under Medicaid; businesses would have had to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers; employees could have used accrued sick leave to care for family members; and the Children, Youth and Families Department would have given preference to relatives when placing children.
Signed: Local governments can place conduits for broadband when opening trenches for other public works; all telecommunications companies are now under the same regulations, which frees them to make new investments; the Biosciences Authority is created as an agency of the UNM Health Sciences Center and will use public-private partnerships to develop bioscience industries and facilities; the residency requirement for trainees in the Workforce Development Training Program is reduced from one year to one day.
Vetoed: Current statutes would have been streamlined to allow local government investment in broadband.
Signed: Storefront lending reform caps interest at 175 percent, eliminates certain fees, and bans payday loans; businesses engaged in check cashing by can cash $2,500 in 30 days without a license; injured workers are not necessarily entitled to benefits if they refuse to accept a reasonable return-to-work offer from an employer or they return to work but are fired for misconduct or if they resign.
Vetoed: Two bills would have raised the minimum wage; owners or operators of self-storage facilities could have sold insurance to cover the loss of property in the space; insurance agents could have given prospective customers gifts up to $100 in value during a year; consumers would have been informed in writing about costs and details of installing a solar system or other distributed generation system before they purchase; lodgings operated through Airbnb would have to pay taxes, as would online sellers of products.
Signed: It’s a misdemeanor to willfully allow your livestock to run on somebody else’s land.
Vetoed: Value-added agricultural businesses (makers of food products) would have been eligible for funding from the state Economic Development Department; when cattle are sold, the producers could have opted out of the New Mexico Beef Council assessment.
By Sherry Robinson
Higher education, gone. The Legislature, gone.
With the stroke of her pen, Gov. Susana Martinez line-item vetoed funding for one branch of government and a significant chunk of the state's education system in the budget bill. She also vetoed the $350 million revenue package.
And the governor acted on dozens of bills late Thursday night and early Friday morning, ahead of her noon deadline. They included the payday lending bill and the minimum wage bill.
"The Legislature has disappointed me in the past. But I cannot recall another time where I’ve ever felt that their reckless decisions had left New Mexico hanging in the balance," the governor said in a statement. "They wasted 60 days in Santa Fe on bills like official state songs and dances. And, sadly for the people of New Mexico, they left little to show – except for an unbalanced budget and one of the largest tax increases in state history."
Martinez said there would be time in an upcoming special session "to fix the higher education budget and the rest of the flawed budget that they sent to us."
In the recently concluded 60-day session, the Legislature heard nearly 1,000 bills and passed more than 200, which included major reforms and a painfully crafted budget to reflect falling revenues. The Democratic-controlled House and Senate, unwilling to slash any more funding, especially from education, cobbled together a package of tax increases. One goal is to avoid another bond downgrade, which would increase the cost of public projects to taxpayers.
"It's incredibly irresponsible," said Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup and chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, of the vetoes. "For somebody like me in economic development who's out there trying to say, 'Come to my state,' it sends the wrong message."
Said Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, "I think she wants to cut government to the bone, and we're there."
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, called the governor's actions "beyond the pale." He said the governor should "put her cards on the table and tell the people how she will prevent a disastrous downgraded bond rating for our state.”
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said: “This is no way to run a government ... Governor Martinez has chosen to play extreme political games rather than act responsibly. Her attempt to use line-item vetoes to eliminate an entire branch of government and every higher education institution is outrageous.”
Wirth added that Martinez sends a clear signal to national bond agencies that she is in denial about the serious financial problems facing our state."
One bit of good news is that the governor signed Lundstrom's HB 347 to rein in payday lending and cap interest rates.
"That is quite a big deal," Lundstrom said.
Also signed was SB 374 to allow public school children to eat even if their parents owe money to the cafeteria.
Martinez, as promised, vetoed both minimum wage bills. SB 386, by Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, had broad support from chambers of commerce and unions. The bill would have raised the minimum in phases to $9 an hour, with an $8 training wage.
The governor said in her veto message that SB 386 would have a disproportionate impact on rural small business without any corresponding protection for business owners.
Said Sanchez: “This session the business and labor communities came together to support a modest raise for families who too often struggle to make ends meet. Even then, Gov. Martinez seems to disagree that anyone working a full-time job should be able to afford to put food on the table and clothes on their children’s back." The minimum wage hasn't been increased since 2009, he added.
Martinez vetoed SB 175 to expand the state's home visiting program under Medicaid. In her veto message she said it was unknown how much Medicaid would pay for, and in the current budget crisis, it would be difficult to expand the program.
Brian Etheridge, president of the New Mexico Pediatric Society, said he was extremely disappointed.
“Home visiting is one of the best child abuse prevention programs we have," Etheridge said. "The voluntary visits with first-time parents help them understand the different stages of child development, give them positive parenting tools for dealing with typical child-rearing frustrations, and connect them with services and supports in their communities.
“It is particularly frustrating that this veto comes from a former prosecutor who campaigned for her current position, in part, on the issue of child abuse."
By Sherry Robinson
In one massive sweep, Gov. Susana Martinez acted on 94 bills Thursday, just ahead of her Friday noon deadline.
She vetoed 28 bills.
Signed bills included HB 147, which reduces the residency requirement for trainees in the Workforce Development Training Program from one year to one day, so long as high-wage jobs are guaranteed after the training ends.
“This change allows New Mexico companies to have more flexibility in hiring the high wage workers that they need to make local economies succeed,” said Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces.
The bill was a priority for the Association of Commerce and Industry and the New Mexico Technology Council.
The governor signed a second bill that ACI and NMTC wanted, SB 53, which modernizes telecommunication regulation by placing them all under the same set of regulations. This measure, business groups believe, will encourage telecom companies to make new investments in broadband.
Law enforcement officers will have tourniquet kits and training to use them under HB 9, which the governor signed.
“Law enforcement officials are the guardians of our community and this equipment and training will save lives across the state," said Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, D-Albuquerque, who is a police officer.
The governor vetoed several education bills: HB 105, the Innovations in Teaching Act, which encouraged teachers to delve into innovative methods by allowing them to apply for a waiver from standards-based assessments. It required teachers to apply to the Public Education Department to participate in the program.
In her executive message, Martinez wrote that the bill created obstacles for teachers to use innovation to reach students and failed to consider student achievement in their evaluations.
HB 124 would have provided a three-tier framework for teachers to advance to level II and level III licensure.
Martinez wrote, "Our teachers' responsibility is to our students and any attempt to decouple student performance from teacher evaluation or advancement sets us up to fail our students and the teachers who need feedback to serve them best."
HB 125 would have replaced the current New Mexico Teach standards with a council that would develop a teacher and principal evaluation system.
The governor wrote that the council would have duplicated "years of work the PED has done with the collaboration of teachers, legislators and policymakers." It was redundant legislation with unknown costs, she said.
"We are facing a crisis when it comes to education in this state, due to years of cuts and actions by our governor that undermine the ability of our educators to perform at their best," said Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored HB 124 and 125. "Both of these vetoes are just the latest in a long list of slights against our teachers from the executive..."
In the corrections arena, Martinez vetoed HB 175 restricting the use of solitary confinement.
The governor wrote that the bill oversimplified and misconstrued isolated confinement in a way that eliminated flexibility and endangered the lives of inmates and staff.
"The governor’s veto of this compromise legislation will mean that New Mexican taxpayers will continue to pay millions of dollars in settlements for over-utilizing an outdated and inhumane jail management tool," said Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque. “HB 175 was the result of the hard work of many stakeholders, including county jail officials and criminal justice experts."
Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, was a co-signer on the bill.
Another veto was of SB 19, which required the Children Youth and Family Department to place children only with relatives who had passed a background check. The governor wrote that this is current practice and a law is unnecessary.
“Governor Martinez is failing to see the challenges these children are facing and recognize this common sense approach to ensuring no child is left without a place to go home to,” said Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque. The bill passed both the Senate and House unanimously.
By Sherry Robinson
On Monday Gov. Susana Martinez signed two bills – one in high demand by parents and the other a high priority of business groups.
HB 75 was the subject of emotional testimony, as kids with autism and parents described their treatment in public schools.
The bill limits and regulates a school’s use of restraint or isolation to manage a child’s behavior or restrict movement and requires documentation when the techniques are used.
Teachers and aides at times have used what they call a therapeutic hold to restrain children who might injure themselves or someone else, but the technique was terrifying to the restrained child. Experts say the restraints are not only ineffective but cause long-term psychological damage.
According to a legislative analysis, 25 states have laws protecting children from both restraint and seclusion, and 35 states have laws protecting children with disabilities. Until now, New Mexico had only voluntary guidance.
SB 155 clarifies worker’s compensation laws that were muddied by court decisions.
Injured workers are not necessarily entitled to benefits if they refuse to accept a reasonable return-to-work offer from an employer or they return to work but are fired for misconduct or if they resign. The bill provides for penalties for bad faith, unfair claims practices, and terminating a worker to avoid payment of benefits or as retaliation.
Supporters say it offers incentives for employers to offer a return to work and incentives for injured workers to accept reasonable offers. Worker’s comp judges would decide what’s reasonable and could penalize unscrupulous employers or employees trying to game the system.
The bill had support from business groups, two labor unions and the New Mexico Municipal League. The New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association was opposed.
By Sherry Robinson
In the battle over diversions on the Gila River, Norm Gaume, former director of the Interstate Stream Commission, asked for a copy of a spreadsheet so he could fully understand the current commission’s support of diversions. Gaume opposes diversion and believes the state’s argument is flawed. He was told he had to sign an agreement that would prohibit him from using the data for “political purposes.”
Data bases are considered public information, but wording in the law allows state agencies to deny public access to information if it might be used for advocacy. The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government has said the restriction hampers access to public information and violates civil rights.
Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, introduced HB 227 to remedy that. Gov. Susana Martinez on Friday vetoed the bill.
In her executive message, the governor wrote: “I cannot support a bill that would allow political organizations to take personal information – such as addresses and phone numbers – from private citizens in an attempt to push their political agendas. Implementation of HB 227 may result in several unintended consequences and would likely prove to be extremely costly.”
The governor signed HB 218, which abolishes the cumbersome 32-member Litter Control Council and replaces it with a streamlined, seven-member New Mexico Clean and Beautiful Advisory Committee. The committee is no longer required to distribute Dusty Roadrunner litter bags, which will save the Tourism Department $30,000 a year.
She also signed HB 257 to update licensing requirements for crane operators by correcting flaws in the current law and providing a license path for operators to seek an upgrade. The bill brings state law into compliance with the new federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.
Martinez vetoed a second bill, HB 307, which would have required the Public Education Department to develop guidelines for professional development for career and technical education teachers and educational assistants.
The governor wrote that state law already provides professional development for all teachers, so the bill is unnecessary.
By Sherry Robinson
ov. Susana Martinez vetoed seven bills and signed six on Wednesday and Thursday.
One vetoed bill would have supported financial management expertise in the State Treasurer’s Office. Another called for schools to assess the needs of Native American students. She signed three bills related to state trust lands, state employee retirement, and National Guard service.
SB 382, by Sen. George Muñoz, passed both houses unanimously. Because of budget
cuts, the State Treasurer’s Office has been unable to hire a chief investment officer and a financial chief risk officer, which the treasurer believes are critical to safely management some $661 million, according to a legislative analysis. The bill would have allowed the treasurer to spend more of the management fees it collects from the local government investment pool.
In her veto message, Martinez said that the bill would have diverted $178,000 a year from the general fund to fill two vacant positions. “In a time when state government is experiencing a hiring freeze, taking money from the general fund is inappropriate,” she said.
Said Muñoz: “We have to have someone to manage investments. We’ve cut his budget 30 percent in the last two years. You want someone to manage money and you want to have the best person. We did something similar last year, and she vetoed that too.”
Muñoz said he was carrying the bill for Treasurer Tim Eichenberg. In order to hire the expertise he needs, Eichenberg will have to eliminate other positions in the office, Muñoz said.
Muñoz also questioned the need for a hiring freeze and the governor’s threat to furlough state employees. “There’s no reason for anybody to be laid off in 2017,” he said.
After Martinez’s statements on Monday, Muñoz contacted the Legislative Finance Committee staff. “The ’17 budget is fine,” he said. “The governor is running on scare tactics. I wasn’t elected to scare people.”
The 2018 budget is up in the air because Martinez hasn’t acted on the budget and revenue bills, but she’s threatened to veto both. Muñoz said the 2018 budget isn’t an issue but the state’s reserves, which are paper thin, are bound to draw unwanted attention from bond rating agencies.
The governor also vetoed HB 484, by Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo. It would have required schools to assess the needs of Indian students in consultation with tribes and used the information to prioritize budgets and develop programs to improve outcomes. Because the bill didn’t appropriate money, schools would have borne the costs.
In her veto message, Martinez called the bill an unfunded mandate.
“While I support the bill’s attempt to assist districts in tailoring our state’s Indian Education Act to serve their individual needs, it would be irresponsible to require that they do so at such a high cost to themselves,” she wrote.
She vetoed five other bills.
HB 306 would have required the Behavioral Health Services Division of the Human Services Department to create, implement, and evaluate a framework for targeted, individualized interventions for nonviolent adult and juvenile offenders with mental illness or substance abuse problems.
The bill is unnecessary, the governor wrote in her executive message. The division already provides the types of services described in the bill, and the requirement to create a statewide framework would be unnecessarily costly, she said.
SB 269 would have required state agencies and entities receiving state funding to develop and implement policies to decrease institutional racism and report to the Legislature yearly.
The governor wrote that she “cannot support a bill that would place such a tremendous burden on our state agencies without any assurance that the bill would actually identify or reduce institutional racism in the workplace.” She also said the sponsor had “blocked several Hispanics from serving in the highest levels of state governance by refusing to hold confirmation hearings for Regents.”
SB 86 would have required the State Engineer’s Office to post pending permit applications on its website. The agency has been doing this for a decade without being required by law, Martinez wrote, and is unnecessary.
SB 390 would have reduced the size of film production facilities eligible for tax credits from 50 acres to 45 acres. The governor wrote that 50 acres was an appropriate size, and she hadn’t seen data indicating a need to expand the credit.
HB 251 would have allowed the Educational Retirement Board, Public Employees Retirement Association and State Investment Council to invest in the Local Government Investment Pool.
In her executive message, Martinez said the ERB already participates in the pool, and the other two entities aren’t likely to participate. “It is not in the best interest of New Mexicans to put unnecessary laws on the books,” she wrote.
The governor signed six bills:
HB 24 directs 1 percent of state trust land revenues not required to be sent to the Land Grant Permanent Fund to the newly created State Trust Lands Restoration and Remediation Fund to address surface damage, watershed restoration and remediation projects.
HB 34 directs the state’s two retirement systems to pay their portion of a retirement benefit directly to the retiree with eligible reciprocal service credit instead of one system paying the retiree and getting reimbursed by the other system.
HB 83 extends employment rights to members of the military on active duty or in the reserves or National Guard outside New Mexico but who have jobs in the state.
HB 110 allows municipal bench warrants to be served from the municipality of origin to the county of origin, plus adjacent counties.
HB 229, a horse racing bill with a Republican sponsor, focused on denial or revocation of licenses, equine health, and testing. It’s the duplicate of a Democratic sponsored SB 184, which the governor vetoed.
HB 256 appropriates $1.8 million for drinking water projects.By Sherry Robinson 3-20-17
Legislative sessions are mostly about the budget, and this year’s budget hangs in the air after adjournment because Democrats in the House and Senate don’t see eye to eye with the Republican governor. A special session is assured.
However, in a particularly difficult year, legislators during the 60-day session tackled some big issues and made headway:
An independent ethics commission will be decided by voters in November 2018.
Storefront lending reform will cap interest at 175 percent, eliminate certain fees, and ban payday loans.
Two minimum wage bills passed, one with business support, but the governor has promised to veto them both.
Two other big issues -- tax reform and capital outlay reform – died but are bound to return.
Bills headed to the governor: Small, rural school districts can use SUVs for transportation to and from school; the state-local match formula for public school capital outlay will be recalculated so that districts in the greatest need would get the most help while wealthier districts would take less; impact aid will be treated the same for school districts and charter schools; schools will be limited in how they use restraint and seclusion; a council of top educators will develop a new system to evaluate teachers and principals.
The Legislative Finance Committee and the Legislative Education Study Committee will study the funding formula calculations for rural isolation program units. Gallup-McKinley Schools lost the units because of fluctuations in student population. A similar bill to restore the units died after House Education Committee Chair Stephanie Garcia Richard voted with Republicans.
Vetoed: Bills to allow computer science to count toward high school graduation; to allow teachers to take more than three sick days without penalty on their evaluation; and to allow schools to buy textbooks and other media from more sources.
Died: Measures to repeal and replace the A-B-C-D-F Schools Rating Act, use the Land Grant Permanent Fund to expand early childhood education, set a moratorium on new charter schools, and direct more interventions at truancy.
Signed: Transferring college credits between New Mexico institutions will be much easier.
To the governor: Students can take time off before starting college and still qualify for the lottery scholarship; the state Higher Education Department can offset people’s student debts against their state income tax refund if they’ve taken student loans but failed to fulfill requirements to work in designated areas of the state; and the New Mexico Lottery is no longer required to reserve 30 percent of proceeds for scholarships.
Vetoed: A bill to let the Department of Higher Education select New Mexico students for scholarships to New Mexico medical schools if they promised to practice in medically underserved areas.
Died: A bill to require higher education institutions to share physical facilities “whenever it’s reasonably feasible to do so.”
Crime and punishment
To the governor: Corrections facilities have new restrictions on the use of isolated confinement for pregnant women, minors, and the mentally ill; tourniquet training and trauma kits will be provided to graduating law enforcement cadets and officers; names of victims and witness in rape, stalking and similar cases can be withheld until criminal charges are filed; judges must consider an inmate’s pregnancy or need to nurse a child in sentencing or release decisions; and domestic abusers under permanent restraining orders will have to give up their guns.
Died: Bills to legalize marijuana and decrease penalties for marijuana possession.
DWI and liquor
Signed: Gallup and McKinley County can delay sales of packaged liquor from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m.
To the governor: Gallup and McKinley County can raise their liquor excise tax, with voter approval, to fund substance abuse treatment; people with only one DWI conviction in another jurisdiction could obtain a New Mexico driver’s license if they’ve completed their sentencing conditions.
Died: Bills to allow law enforcement officers to obtain warrants for blood tests in all instances of DWI if necessary and to add a sobriety monitoring program for DWI offenders who don’t install ignition interlocks.
Signed: Pharmacy benefit managers are forbidden to charge fees to pharmacies related to the adjudication of claims.
To the governor: Additional medical conditions are recognized for eligibility in the medical marijuana program, and there is interstate reciprocity; workers can use sick leave already provided by employers to care for sick and aging relatives; women have access to free contraceptives under the federal Affordable Care Act; the state will vigorously negotiate with pharmaceutical drug manufacturers for lower prices; PTSD will be added to a list of diseases already presumed to be proximately caused by employment as firefighters.
Died: Bills to establish dental therapist practices in rural areas, to cap reimbursements to air ambulance services and relieve consumers stuck with balances not covered by their healthcare plans, and to permit doctors aid terminally ill patients who want to die.
Signed: Local governments can place conduits for broadband when opening trenches for other public works, and all telecommunications companies are now under the same regulations, which frees them to make new investments.
To the governor: The Biosciences Authority is created as an agency of the UNM Health Sciences Center and would use public-private partnerships to develop bioscience industries and facilities, such as medicine and medical equipment.
Vetoed: A bill to streamline current statutes to allow local government investment in broadband.
Died: Bills to allow local governments to establish enterprise zones and to offer rural communities more flexibility to use vacant buildings.
To the governor: A new industry could be created in the state – tiny houses – by allowing assessors to review them and treat them, tax-wise, the same as a manufactured home; and a worker who is responsible for his job loss but suffers a job-related injury is not entitled to certain workers’ compensation benefits.
Died: Bills to prohibit local governments and state institutions from regulating the hours, schedules or leave of private-sector employers; to encourage public-private partnerships; to license home inspectors; and to allow check-cashing services to cash $2,500 in checks in a 30-day period.
To the governor: The state’s farms will be inspected by the state Department of Agriculture, which is more familiar with New Mexico’s rural issues, rather than the federal FDA; value-added agricultural businesses (makers of food products) will be eligible for funding from the state Economic Development Department; it will be a misdemeanor to willfully allow your livestock to run on somebody else’s land.
Vetoed: Two bills would have allowed New Mexico to enter the $600 million industrial hemp industry.
By Sherry Robinson 3-19-17
Roundhouse watchers have come to expect a firefight on the last day of the legislative session as festering disagreements and sleep deprivation take their toll. This year anybody looking forward to the annual train wreck would have been disappointed.
On Saturday, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate clipped through a large number of bills without rancor and adjourned at noon, with party leaders thanking each other for cooperation.
The governor made up for it by lashing out over the budget package and promising vetoes and a special session.
On Friday, Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, asked for and got House concurrence with Senate amendments to HB 2, the budget her committee crafted.
The $6.1 billion budget increases funding for public schools by 0.5 percent but cuts higher education by 1 percent. The budget is $22.6 million larger than the year before, Lundstrom said. Spending exceeds revenue by $128 million, and a companion bill, HB 202, would raise revenues by about $350 million by raising taxes on hospitals, gasoline, diesel fuel, vehicle sales and internet sales. The bill also would delay a corporate income tax cut and increase weight-distance fees on truckers. The alternative, Democrats have said, is more cuts to schools and services.
“I feel good about the budget bill,” Lundstrom said in an interview. “Nothing of major significance changed. They moved a little money below the line and also put more money into corrections. We were working very closely with the Senate Finance staff.” (Below-the-line funding is controlled by the Public Education Department rather than districts.)
Another bill, SB 462, sends $72 million in capital outlay funding to both the general fund and the school districts to restore their cash reserves.
The budget bill and HB 202 haven’t reached the governor’s desk, but they’re probably DOA.
Good-government reformers were elated to finally get an ethics measure across the finish line.
Late Friday night, the House and Senate, which had differed, reached a middle ground on the ethics measure, House Joint Resolution 8. The thumbs-up by both chambers means voters in November 2018 will decide if the state is to have a constitutional amendment creating an independent ethics commission. Supporters of all political persuasions call it historic.
The commission, which would have subpoena power, could investigate and prosecute ethics complaints against public officials, state contractors and lobbyists. New Mexico is one of just eight states without such a commission.
However, reformers were disappointed that SB 262, the capital outlay reform bill, died on the House floor. New Mexico’s process for divvying up money for public projects has been repeatedly called one of the nation’s worst. The bill would have established a committee to study the process and make recommendations.
Payday loan reform is headed for the governor’s desk. Late Friday night, the Senate passed HB 347, by Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup.
It remained controversial to the end, with Republicans resisting new regulation of the lending industry and some Democrats arguing that the 175 percent interest rate cap was still too high.
HB 347 eliminates processing and handling fees, caps APR at 175 percent, exempt refund anticipation loans, and bans payday loans, loans for less than four months, single payment loans, and balloon payments. However, delinquent fees would rise from 5 cents to 10 cents per dollar loaned, and the charge for insufficient-fund checks would be $35.
In an interview, Lundstrom said she put 175 percent into her bill ten years ago. “It's easy to calculate and it standardizes the rate,” she said. “We don't run everyone out of business. If they're out of business, they can't be taxed and regulated, and people will go to the internet. There are no other fees. That's what's good about this. They get only (the interest). No rollovers. The 120-day minimum is a big deal.”
The bill passed on a 27-14 vote.
The governor signed four bills and vetoed one on Saturday. Signed bills were:
SB 103 to allow college students to easily transfer credits among the state’s institutions. The Higher Education Department will also develop a lower-division general education core curriculum and meta-majors (15 credits of lower division courses that apply to multiple degree programs).
SB 32 expands K-3 Plus eligibility to elementary schools that serve specific grade levels between kindergarten and third grade and requires the Public Education Department to prioritize funding to schools that keep K-3 kids with the same teacher.
SB 28 cleans up language in the educational retirement law.
SB 75 allows the Public Employees Retirement Association to use electronic transactions to increase plan participation, improve account management and improve retirement savings.
The governor vetoed SB 297 that would have allowed qualified disabled veterans to have two free specialty license plates instead of one. Cost to the state would have been $511,000, Martinez wrote in her executive message.By Sherry Robinson 3-17-17
An attempted veto override failed in the House on Friday.
House Democrats attempted to follow the Senate’s Tuesday override but couldn’t muster support from Republicans.
HB 241, a bipartisan bill, would have allowed teachers to use up to 10 sick days, compared with three currently, before being penalized in performance evaluations. It had solid support in both chambers but was vetoed by the governor.
“Many teachers have spoken out about how this policy was punitive,” said Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard. “If a teacher comes to work sick, who does that affect?” The veto, she said, “felt like a slap in the face.”
The override failed on a vote of 36 to 31.
The governor has her choice of two minimum wage bills.
Late Thursday night, the House passed SB 386, by Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, on a 41-27 vote. It would raise the state’s minimum wage to $9 an hour but allows employers to pay trainees $8 an hour for their first 60 days. And it raises the wage for tipped employees from $2.13 to $2.63 per hour. It has no cost-of-living adjustment and no index.
“We put a minimum wage increase on Gov. Martinez’s desk that is line with neighboring states, is supported by both the labor and business communities, and gives New Mexico families a meaningful raise,” Sanchez said in a statement. “When hardworking New Mexicans who work full time have to choose between buying groceries or buying medicine, it’s clear we have got to do better.”
HB 442, which passed the Senate on Friday, would raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.25 an hour from the current minimum of $7.50 per hour and increase the minimum for tipped employees from $2.13 an hour to 40 percent of the new minimum wage. Municipalities could increase their local minimum wage but not reduce it below $9.25.
SB 386 has the support of business groups; HB 442 doesn’t.
Headed to the governor’s desk are several bills of local interest.
SB 420 allows students to take time off before starting college and still qualify for the lottery scholarship.
“Many students may not be ready mentally and academically to start college right after graduating high school, and we should not push them into school,” said Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces.
The bill also extends the scholarship to students who enlist in the military and begin service within 4 months of graduation.
HB 92 is intended to crack down on trophy hunters by making it a fourth-degree felony to wastefully take or kill bighorn sheep, ibex, oryx, Barbary sheep, elk, deer, or pronghorn antelope out of hunting season or without a license. The offense would be punishable by imprisonment for up to 18 months and a fine of up to $5,000.
HB 342, by Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, establishes a new fund to provide financing and technical assistance to community development financial institutions that make loans to underserved populations, including housing loans for affordable housing projects. The fund could be an alternative to payday lenders.
HB 31 allows a person with only one DWI conviction in another jurisdiction to obtain a New Mexico driver’s license if they’ve completed conditions of sentencing. The Senate on Friday passed a duplicate bill, SB 136, by Sen. George Munoz.
Gov. Susana Martinez on Friday signed four bills and vetoed one.
She vetoed HB 42 to let schools to buy textbooks and other media from more sources.
“HB 42 would allow school districts to use their entire annual distribution of funds to purchase instructional materials that have not been vetted for current, quality content that aligns with our state’s standards and assessments,” she said in her veto message.
She signed HB 122, which prohibits pharmacy benefit managers from charging fees to pharmacies related to the adjudication of claims.
“By removing unnecessary fees on pharmacists, this bill helps small mom and pop pharmacies in all New Mexico communities – large and small – stay in business,” the governor said in an executive message.
She also signed HB 77 to exempt drivers of senior services providers from the Transportation Network Services Act; HB 97, to allow municipalities to establish an irrevocable post-employment life insurance benefits trust; and HB 127, which allows reimbursable insurance claims to be settled by electronic funds transfer.
Two more measures don’t need the governor’s signature.
The House on Friday passed House Memorial 114, which asks the Legislative Finance Committee and the Legislative Education Study Committee to study the funding formula calculations for rural isolation program units and report back.
The sponsors are Reps. Wonda Johnson and Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, and Reps. Eliseo Alcon and Harry Garcia, D-Grants.
Both chambers approved Senate Joint Memorial 23, by Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo. It urges New Mexico’s congressional delegation to protect the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which might be affected by the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
By Sherry Robinson 3-16-17
In a surprise move on Thursday night, Senate Majority Floor Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, announced that the governor’s veto of three bills was beyond the deadline for signing. Legally, the three bills are now law, he said.
The three are SB 6, which allows research and development of industrial hemp in the state; SB 67, which requires the county treasurer to be notified of the formation of any tax increment development district (TIDD) within the county; and SB 134 which allows schools to count computer science as either a math or science credit toward high school graduation.
The latter was probably the most controversial veto. The bill had broad bipartisan support that included the state Public Education Department, teachers’ unions and business.
Wirth’s announcement followed an executive message from Gov. Susana Martinez who was apparently responding to criticism of her string of unexplained vetoes. She blamed House and Senate Democrats for not negotiating a balanced budget and for proposals to raise taxes. The bills vetoed were not necessary for the health, safety and welfare of citizens. She took issue with the Senate for not confirming her regent nominees. Until legislators fulfilled their obligations, she said, she would continue to veto unnecessary legislation.
Senate Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said lawmakers had come together in a bipartisan fashion to solve problems. The governor’s message, he said, contradicts the values of New Mexicans.
The Senate on Thursday approved two major bills – capital outlay reform and an independent ethics commission.
Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said the state has nearly $1 billion committed to public works projects but not spent. The money could be used to create jobs, he said.
Originally, SB 262 would have created a new legislative interim committee to review and rank projects and submit a plan. But the sponsors, Cervantes and Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, scaled back.
“It doesn’t rank or score projects, but it does allow an interim committee to study capital outlay and find out why projects aren’t moving,” he said.
Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said that a lot of the roadblocks are in the Department of Finance and Administration.
In committee discussions, legislators have argued that the change could make the process more partisan and political, but Cervantes countered that politicians are managing the process now, and it doesn’t work. Fajardo said she signed on to the bill to be part of the process and assure fairness.
The bill passed on a 29-to-10 vote.
Supporters of ethics reforms have tried for ten years to get an independent ethics commission, and this year they’re tantalizingly close.
House Joint Resolution 8 would amend the state Constitution to include a permanent ethics commission to investigate alleged violations or misconduct by elected officials, candidates, lobbyists and some government employees. Voters would decide on the amendment in November 2018. The commission would have subpoena power. Sen. Rules Committee Chair Linda Lopez, D, Albuquerque, amended the resolution with powers and duties prescribed by the Legislature.
“An ethics commission has been decades in the making,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces. “This is a very important step for us, and we have more big steps ahead.
A number of senators opposed the bill, fearing it could be used for political witch hunts.
Supporters included Common Cause, the Secretary of State, Conservation Voters of New Mexico, the League of Women Voters and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
The floor vote was 30 to 9.
The Senate also passed a memorial in honor of Navajo Nation Officer Houston James Largo who was killed in the line of duty. Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, presented the memorial for Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, who was attending the funeral.
On a party-line vote, the House passed Senate Joint Memorial 20, recognizing the support of New Mexico’s tribes and pueblos for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, thanked the water protectors in the Dakota Access Pipeline protest and said it was vital to protect Mother Earth.
Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, opposed the measure, saying, “Tribes can express their support directly. To me, what this bill does is put the state in the middle.”
The vote was 34 to 30.
On their way to the governor are three education bills and one business bill.
SB 381 allows small, rural school districts to use SUVs for transportation to and from school. The Gallup-McKinley County area has 117 bridges with a 10-ton limit, which prohibits their use by school buses. The state Public Education Department supports the bill.
SB 147 recalculates the state-local match formula for public school capital outlay so that districts in the greatest need get the most help while wealthier districts take less. The new formula would be phased in over five years.
SB 135, by Sen. George Muñoz, equalizes the treatment of impact aid for school districts and charter schools. Both would be subject to the same 75 percent local and federal revenue credits now taken from school districts.
SB 79, by Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, allows insurance agents to give prospective customers gifts up to $100 in value during a year.
“It’s for marketing,” Sanchez said in an interview. “All the states around us, companies are allowed to give a prospective customer (small) gifts. They can’t do it in the state of New Mexico. It’s not a big thing. A lot of them do it anyway, but this way it would be legal.”
Gov. Susana Martinez signed two bills on Thursday.
HB 29 creates an advisory authority and a fund for the state to use to remediate a brine well in Carlsbad at risk of collapse.
HB 197 allows nonresident accountants to renew continuing education requirement certificates in New Mexico if they have met the requirement in states where their principal place of business is located.
New Mexico must become more business friendly, says Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup. To that end he sponsored SB 415, which had the support of business groups and the legislative Jobs Council.
The bill would prohibit local governments and state institutions from regulating the hours, schedules or leave of private-sector employers. The Senate Judiciary Committee tabled it this week on a 5-to-4 vote.
Business groups have to contend with what chambers of commerce call a patchwork of local regulations. The construction industry, which moves crews around the state, is most affected.
Such organizations as Voices for Children, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, and Working Families Party were opposed because they support local control.
Said Munoz: "How can you have one labor law in Albuquerque and another in Santa Fe and another in Las Cruces. How can a business serving the state recognize all the different wage and labor laws and how they apply?"
By Sherry Robinson 3-15-17
Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed five Senate bills and one House bill on Wednesday, and although she gave no explanations, her vetoes of Senate bills appear to be warnings related to the Senate’s failure to quickly confirm her slate of appointees.
In the process of building a fire under Democrats, however, she’s burned fellow Republicans and their allies.
SB 24, a bipartisan bill, would have allowed local governments to build or acquire broadband services. Business groups supported the bill.
“As long as internet speed across New Mexico trails the rest of the nation, we will continue to miss out on high-paying jobs for our state,” said the sponsor, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque. “Helping local governments provide their communities with the connectivity needed to compete must continue to be a priority.”
SB 184 was a racing industry bill, sponsored by Senate President Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces.
Although Martinez had previously signed a horse racing bill and made a point of saying she “supported the adoption of stricter and more consistent sanctions against doping and cheating” and other steps toward cleaning up horse racing, she vetoed Papen’s bill. SB 184 focused on denial or revocation of licenses, equine health, and testing.
After that veto was announced on the Senate floor, Papen asked for the veto message to be read, but there was none.
“I was hoping for some kind of message so we’d know which way to jump,” Papen said.
SB 64, which passed both houses unanimously, would have allowed the Public School Capital Outlay Council to continue budgeting up to $10 million of the public school capital outlay fund for education technology initiatives by removing a sunset clause.
“Because of this veto, schools will be left without state and local funding necessary to secure federal dollars that have led to a significant expansion of broadband infrastructure needed for our students to compete for jobs,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque. “Governor Martinez should come to the table and work with us to expand access to high-speed internet and help us understand why she has rejected this legislation.”
SB 222, which also passed unanimously in both chambers, would have exempted small public groups like acequias and community ditches from reporting budgets to the Department of Finance Administration. It would have reduced the agency’s caseload and relieved the groups, which are usually led by volunteers.
The New Mexico Acequia Association supported the bill.
“If Gov. Martinez wants to continue to tie the hands of our rural communities, she at least owes them an explanation— anything less is a disservice to the lifelong New Mexico families these bodies serve,” said Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Santa Fe.
SB 356 required the county treasurer to be notified if a public improvement district was formed in the county.
HB 126 would have allowed the Department of Higher Education to select New Mexico students for scholarships to New Mexico medical schools if they promised to practice in medically underserved areas. The state has medically underserved areas in 32 of its 33 counties.
Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, tweeted, “If overriding a veto is disrespectful then why isn't vetoing a bill disrespectful to the sponsors?”
A measure to make more money available to early childhood programs died Wednesday.
The Senate Rules Committee tabled House Joint Resolution 1 to increase the distribution rate from the land grant permanent fund from 5 percent to 6 percent for early childhood programs on a vote of 6 to 5 with Sens. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, joining Republicans in a vote against.
Papen and Sanchez said they supported early childhood education but not use of the permanent funds to do it.
The State Investment Council has said that increasing the distribution rate more than 5 percent wouldn’t be prudent.
Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said he was disappointed but pleased to get so far along in the process. “It is a moral imperative that we invest in early childhood education now," he said in a statement.
The Senate on Wednesday passed Senate Memorial 140, by Sen. John Pinto, D-Gallup, to recognize the bison for its historical, cultural and spiritual value and for being a sustainable food source. Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, presented the measure for Pinto.
Picuris Pueblo manages a herd that once lived at Fort Wingate. They’re one of 58 tribes in 19 states with bison herds.
Pinto presented a second memorial without help before the Senate Rules Committee but struggled through the reading and often couldn’t be understood. The committee passed the memorial.
By Sherry Robinson 3-14
The Senate on Monday voted to override the governor's veto of a popular, bipartisan bill for teachers.
Sen. Craig Brandt led the override. The Rio Rancho Republican sponsored HB 241, which would have allowed teachers to use up to 10 sick days, up from three currently, before being penalized in performance evaluations.
It was the first time either chamber has attempted to override a Martinez veto.
Brandt said he respected the office of the governor and her constitutional authority to veto legislation, but he also respected the Legislature’s constitutional authority and its responsibility to override a veto when it's in the best interests of the state.
“This bill is important to every teacher in our state and to every family,” he said.
A successful override required a two-thirds vote of at least 28, in the Senate. With no debate, the override passed 34 to 7. The Senate had voted unanimously for HB 241.
In an interview, Brandt said his Facebook page and email had exploded after the veto and his comments about seeking an override. "Nobody said don't do it," he said.
House Republicans, less independent and more in step with the governor, are not expected to sustain an override, although the House voted 64 to 3 for the bill.
In her executive message with the veto, Gov. Susana Martinez said, “I believe in the importance of having our full-time teachers, not short-term or long-term substitutes, in our classrooms with the students who depend on their expertise.”
She added that the bill would increase the costs for substitutes.
Later in the floor session, during debate on another education bill, Brandt said, "I can't speak to the (public education) secretary because, as we know, she probably won't speak to me."
Gov. Susana Martinez on Tuesday signed HB 162, with Reps. Wonda Johnson and Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, and Mayor Jackie McKinney on hand.
The bill allows Gallup and McKinley County to delay sales of packaged liquor from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Its co-sponsors are Johnson, Lundstrom, and Eliseo Alcon and Harry Garcia, D-Grants.
“This common-sense legislation addresses both a community health and public safety issue in Gallup,” said Johnson.
The governor, wearing a knee brace from a recent ski injury, signed a second bill and vetoed two bills.
She signed HB 230, allowing racinos the flexibility to reduce the number of race days from four to three live race days per week. Tracks are held accountable if they don’t meet the mandated number of races required.
The governor vetoed, without explanation, SB 134. It would have allowed schools to count computer science as either a math or science credit toward high school graduation. The state has more than 1,500 unfilled computing jobs, and the demand for computer science professions is triple that of other professions, according to Senate Democrats.
The bill had broad bipartisan support that included the state Public Education Department, teachers’ unions and business.
She also vetoed, without explanation, SB 67, which would have required the county treasurer to be notified of the formation of any tax increment development district (TIDD) within the county.
Four bills are heading for the governor's desk.
SB 247, by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, passed the House unanimously on Tuesday. It allows Gallup and McKinley County to raise their liquor excise tax, with voter approval, to fund substance abuse treatment. It can be imposed for eight years and provides for the city and county to enter a joint-powers agreement that specifies how proceeds will be used, allows the detox center to receive funding, and directs some funding to prevention and treatment programs. The new rate could collect between $800,000 and $900,000.
HB 185 limits class time administering tests to 25 hours, and no student can be tested for more than 3 hours a day. PED has said that state-mandated testing time declined b 2.5 hours between 2010 and 2015 and that the 2016 PARCC testing time was further reduced by 90 minutes.
“This bill puts teaching ahead of testing,” said Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces.
SB 181, by Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Springs, allows the state Higher Education Department to go after state income tax refunds if students participating in loan-forgiveness programs don’t fulfill their requirement to work in designated areas.
HB 484, by Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, would require schools to assess the needs of Indian students in consultation with tribes and use the information to prioritize budgets and develop programs to improve outcomes.
The House on Tuesday passed HB 424, which requires higher education institutions to share physical facilities “whenever it’s reasonably feasible to do so.” The bill, by Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, now goes to the Senate.
The Senate Conservation Committee on Tuesday acted on three bills with local sponsors.
The committee passed Senate Memorial 102, by Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo. It asks the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to report the volumes of vented and flared natural gas and the gas capture plans submitted by producers and makes the information available on the Oil Conservation Division website.
It also passed Senate Memorial 85, by Sen. John Pinto, D-Gallup, which asks the New Mexico congressional delegation to continue supporting expanded compensation under the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). The act, passed in 1990 compensates only people in parts of Arizona and Utah and doesn't compensate workers employed before 1972. In January, Udall and Heinrich co-sponsored a bill to amend RECA to improve compensation.
The committee tabled a memorial by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup. SM 117 asked the State Engineer to not issue a permit to Augustin Plains Ranch, near Datil, which plans to appropriate thousands of acre-feet of water, until concerns of numerous institutions and individuals have been considered.
The ranch filed its application in 2016 and is now in the hearing process.
"There were 1,150 protests filed, and the State Engineer responded to 600," Muñoz said in an interview. "What happened to the other 500?"
By Sherry Robinson 3-13-17
The school grading system has gotten a lot of scrutiny in this legislative session.
On Monday, the Senate passed SB 40, which would repeal the A-B-C-D-F Schools Rating Act and create a school grades council that would develop a new school grading system.
Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, said the grading system that passed in 2013 is confusing to the public, and he would like a State School Grades Council, under the wing of the Public Education Department, to develop a new system and make recommendations.
Morales noted that 86 percent of a school’s grade is based on one standardized test, and with so much reliance on one measure, “we don’t see the complete picture of what a school is doing.”
Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said that accountability, once based entirely on proficiency, has evolved to a measure incorporating growth. “I’d feel more comfortable if you let the council make its study rather than dictating to PED.”
Morales responded, “All this does is make sure we get it right.”
SB 40 passed the Senate 23 to 15 on a party-line vote. If it passes the House, it’s headed for a veto. PED is opposed, and Republicans have voted against it in every committee.
The Senate also passed SB 377, by Sen. George Muñoz, on Monday, to fix a problem for check-cashing services that was created in a banking bill last year.
Under SB 377, check-cashing services could cash $2,500 in checks, up from $500, in a 30-day period before they have to be licensed.
The Senate passed the bill unanimously. It now goes to the House.
Area House members are taking another crack at funding for the Gallup-McKinley County School District.
House Memorial 114 asks the Legislative Finance Committee and the Legislative Education Study Committee to study the funding formula calculations for rural isolation
program units and report back.
The sponsors are Reps. Wonda Johnson and Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, and Reps. Eliseo Alcon and Harry Garcia, D-Grants.
Johnson told the House Education Committee Monday that the district, at 4,950 square miles and 11,500 students, is one of the state’s largest, and 80 percent of students are Native American.
Beginning in 1976, the state had a formula for calculating funding to compensate schools for the added expenses of rural isolation, and Gallup-McKinley was the only system to qualify. But since 2011 no school district has generated rural isolation program units.
Superintendent Mike Hyatt told the committee that the district is large and sparsely populated with far-flung schools. “There is no other district with that makeup,” he said.
Previously, the committee tabled a bill by Lundstrom to restore rural isolation program units, but members agreed interim study would be useful and passed the memorial.
Land grant organizations would have access to legal services under a bill that’s passed both chambers.
SB 12 would establish a program in which a third-year law student at UNM would provide services to land grants for two years in return for a tuition waiver. The Senate concurred Monday with House amendments to the bill.
Cibola County has three land grants: Marquez, Sebolleta and Cubero.
The illegal sale of sacred items taken from Native American communities is the subject of a bill by Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque.
HB 492 called for a study by the Attorney General’s Office and the Cultural Affairs Division to identify ways to prevent the theft, wrongful sale and alienation of cultural property and cultural patrimony from the state and to develop legislation and strengthen state laws.
“We’re seeing a lot of sacred artifacts auctioned off,” Louis said during a House State Government, Indian and Veterans Affairs Committee. “We’d like to have legislation to prevent the theft and sale.”
Conroy Chino, representing Acoma Pueblo, said illegal sales in the underground and internet markets are ongoing. Acoma is still negotiating for the return of a shield stolen from a home at the pueblo that ended up in a European auction.
“New Mexico has become a hub of this illegal activity,” he said. “It’s an issue in Hispanic communities as well.”
The bill died in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee because a request for $200,000 to fund the study just wasn’t doable this year.
Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, told Louis he’d support her bill if it comes up again next year.
The committee did pass Louis’s HM 98, which asks the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to report the volumes of vented and flared natural gas and the gas capture plans submitted by producers. The Oil Conservation Division already collects that information.
In previous hearings, industry representatives suggested that producers be asked why they’re flaring. The answer, they said, would be a shortage of gathering lines.3-12-17
By Sherry Robinson
Sen. George Muñoz knows a thing or two about property leasing, and last week a deal between the state and a property owner didn’t meet the sniff test.
On the Senate floor last Tuesday, the Gallup Democrat picked his way through a proposed contract and described some of its elements as fishy. He told fellow senators it was a sweetheart deal favoring the property owner and voted against it.
The measure passed the Senate, but on Saturday the bill’s sponsor took the highly unusual step of pulling it back from the House on a unanimous vote.
Sen. Steve Neville, R-Farmington, said he had become aware of “some inaccuracies” in SB 430 and apologized to the Senate.
SB 430 would allow the state General Services Department to waive rules governing state leases of private property to extend and expand a lease for the Children, Youth and Families Department.
CYFD wants a children’s wellness center in Albuquerque to provide temporary housing for children in its custody. The property owner offered to add a new 20,000-square-foot facility to the building in return for an extended lease.
“It’s a great deal for the state,” Neville said last week during the floor hearing. In response to questions, he said there were no significant donations of any kind from the property owners to state officials.
Muñoz didn’t think it was a great deal.
“They’re rolling numbers around to make the deal work for them,” he said on March 7. “They’re asking us to do something that’s pretty good for one person. They want us to bear some of the burden. It’s not the role of the Legislature to make sweetheart deals. Any guy in the real estate business would take this deal.”
On Saturday, after Neville got a vote to recover the bill, Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, announced that the property owners and developers had made two substantial contributions to the governor and her PAC in the last two years.
“There were opportunities for the owners and developers to come forward, but they didn’t come forward,” Cervantes said. “Sen. Neville was misled. I can’t believe for a moment the governor and her staff didn’t know it was important for the Senate to know this. There was no disclosure.” He called it a “lie by omission” and said the governor had a duty to disclose the contributions.
Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said senators asked the cabinet secretaries if there were any political connections, and they said there were none. He said contributions total $53,000.
“This is a very serious matter,” Padilla said. “It stinks. It stinks badly.”
Neville said the two cabinet secretaries had apologized.
Muñoz said: “I voted against the bill in (Senate) Finance and on the floor. It didn’t feel right. The numbers weren’t right. The whole thing never added up.”
The governor’s spokesman Mike Lonergan said in an email: “The idea that we would try to hide information that the governor has publicly reported and disclosed and is readily available to the public on a government website is absurd. The state has had this lease since the Johnson Administration and, in fact, one of the same donors has given to Democrats, including former state senator and current State Auditor Tim Keller. If Democrat Senators want to have a debate on ethics and conflicts of interest in state government, we are more than happy to have that debate, though they probably want to wait until after their latest indicted colleague finishes his pending trial.”
He referred to former Sen. Phil Griego, who resigned over a real estate deal. Muñoz said Griego’s transaction was small compared with the one in question, which he called pay to play.
Muñoz predicted an ethics investigation. “They said it’s for the children. It’s not for the children.”
By Sherry Robinson
The state budget, approved by the Senate on Saturday, inches up to $6.093 billion, with slight raises for public schools and the courts. But it relies on a funding package the governor could veto.
The fiscal 2018 budget, said Sen. Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, is just 0.4 percent over 2017. “It’s pretty durn flat,” he said.
In a nutshell, public schools would get $2.69 billion, but higher education took another 1 percent hit, reducing it to $79 million. Medicaid is $916 million, and public safety is $299 million. Judiciary funding would increase by 2.5 percent, which includes more money for the public defender. Cash reserves, which are 1.3 percent, would reach 3.1 percent.
“We’re not going to make everybody happy,” said Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, “but we have to have a budget. The Constitution requires it. We’ve done the best we can do. We haven’t cut employees or laid off teachers.”
He said New Mexico has to become more business friendly. “Every state around us is growing. New Mexico is shrinking,” he said.
Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, questioned “giving more money to the courts so they can give raises to their staff.”
Smith said the court clerks have a 30 percent vacancy rate. “The reason it’s so high is low pay. I’m not sure we’ve done much to rectify that,” he said.
HB 2 passed 33 to 8.
A second measure, HB 202, raises $363 million in revenue to pay for the budget.
That bill would add $156 million to the general fund, give $26.4 million to counties, and send $55 million to state and local road funds.
It imposes gross receipts taxes on internet sales, taxes hospitals but not healthcare practitioners, levies a new weight distribution fee on commercial trucks, and increases the vehicle excise tax by 1 percent. A new gasoline tax would be divided between reserves and roads.
Supporting the measure, said Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, is “not the easiest thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do.”
It passed 34 to 4.
The House has passed three bills of local interest.
HB 347, by Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, would eliminate processing and handling fees, cap APR at 175 percent, exempt refund anticipation loans, and ban payday loans, loans for less than four months, single payment loans, and balloon payments. Delinquent fees would rise from 5 cents to 10 cents per dollar loaned, and the charge for insufficient-fund checks would be $35.
The vote was 64 to 2.
House Memorial 70, by Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, asks the U. S. Bureau of Land Management to consult with tribes on any hydraulic fracking operations around Chaco Cultural Historical National Park before deciding on a management plan.
“Protecting our tribal lands from unwelcome exploitation has a renewed sense of importance in the face of the many violations we are witnessing across this country,” Lente said.
On Saturday the bill passed on a party-line vote of 31 to 28, with Democrats in favor.
HB 357, by Lente, calls for a task force to make recommendations to the Secretary of State with the goal of increasing voter turnout in Indian Country. The task force would include members from the Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, the Mescalero Apache Tribe, a pueblo and an urban area.
The bill passed unanimously on Friday.
On Saturday, Gov. Susana Martinez signed one bill and vetoed two.
She signed HB 12 to close magistrate circuit courts in Quemado and Questa.
The governor vetoed SB 200, which would have made such school professionals as counselors and administrators eligible for a one-time salary increase if they completed certification.
In her executive message, Martinez said “it would be irresponsible to take money away from classrooms to pay” non-teaching staff. The cost could be $137,297 a year.
The veto shows her disrespect for these education professionals, said Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, who sponsored the bill. It passed unanimously in the Senate and by 68-1 in the House.
The governor vetoed SB 6, which would have allowed research and development of industrial hemp in New Mexico. She gave no reason. It was her second veto of a hemp bill.
SB 6 had the support of such groups as the New Mexico Cattle Growers and the Farm Bureau.
By Sherry Robinson
If Grandpa breaks the front fork on his wheelchair, he could be waiting weeks or months for a replacement part. If you need a back brace after surgery, good luck with that.
Suppliers testified Thursday about a trend among managed care organizations (MCOs) that’s fallen particularly hard on rural areas. MCOs like Molina Healthcare and Blue Cross Blue Shield, under pressure from Medicaid and the state to save money, stopped using smaller suppliers of medical equipment and opted instead for a sole source provider.
That provider, HME Specialists, isn’t keeping up with demand, according to testimony. Individuals, therapists, and care givers complained at length about poor service, overcharges, and long delays.
Albuquerque-based HME has 13 locations around the state, including one in Gallup. Dozens of small suppliers who serve the rural areas say they were shut out of the bidding process and without state intervention will be out of business within the year.
Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, and Rep. Rudy Martinez, D-Bayard, said they sponsored the bill because they were hearing from consumers who weren’t getting adequate services.
“It seems like HSD directed one MCO to do this change and exclude other providers,” Martinez told the House State, Indian and Veterans Affairs Committee.
“Sole source for 860,000 New Mexicans is a disaster,” said Abe Gonzales, of Doña Ana Medical Supplies. “It’s a daunting task for one provider to supply all the equipment. Fatalities will happen because we’re going from 50 providers to one with 13 locations. The Blue Cross Blue Shield contract isn’t yet in effect, and HME is struggling now to provide services.”
The independents, he said, provide a lot of service, education and monitoring that the bigger provider doesn’t.
Jesus Martinez, of A&R Medical Supply in Santa Fe, said, “If this bill isn’t passed, we won’t exist anymore.” He added that the independents were willing to accept lower reimbursement rates.
The bipartisan HB 389 requires the secretary of the state Human Services Department to ban sole-source contracting for medical equipment like wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, walkers, lifts and other devices.
Physical therapist Carlos Rodriguez questioned whether the MCOs are saving money with a sole source contract. He cited instances of sending patients by taxi from Silver City or Ruidoso to Las Cruces because there were no local equipment suppliers.
On the other side of the fence, MCO officials said the state is struggling to pay for Medicaid, and they’re under pressure from the state to reduce costs, which is why they went to a sole-source contract. They oppose the bill.
Regina Chavez, of Molina Healthcare, said they’ve heard the concerns about HME and will be meeting with the company.
Janet Flores, of Blue Cross Blue Shield, said MCOs nationwide are moving to a model of “the right services in the right setting,” and withholding care isn’t in anybody’s best interests.
Stacy Johnson Davis, of HME, said her company has 400 employees in 13 locations. “We hear their concerns about wait times,” she said.
HSD opposes the bill and has argued it would increases costs. The federal government has determined that equipment providers are at a higher risk for fraud. Providers argued that they’re accredited and Medicaid audits them. “The state doesn’t police the industry,” said Gonzales.
Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, said that because HSD is opposed, the governor probably wouldn’t sign the bill if it passes. He suggested that the issue be studied between legislative sessions.
Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo, questioned whether the state can interfere in business-to-business contracting.
“This is anything but a free market process when you have only one provider,” said Rep. Andres Romero, D-Albuquerque. “If we wait for the interim and hem and haw for the next two years, we’ll have a monopoly on services.”
Rep. Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup, tried to table to bill so it could be studied in the interim, but the motion failed. The vote to pass was tied, so that motion also failed.
The committee also passed SB 124 to allow Gallup and McKinley County to restrict sales of packaged liquor between 7 and 11 a.m. Its sponsors are Sens. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, and George Muñoz, D-Gallup.
“We gave this bill a thorough hearing” in the House Business and Industry Committee, said Herrell.
By Sherry Robinson
Legislators shot down another local school funding bill on Saturday, but a bill promoting savings in school transportation passed.
HB 541, by Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, would have changed the school funding
formula to allow the Gallup-McKinley County School District to generate size adjustment units based on the number of high school students located at least 20 miles away from the central office.
It would have restored an old measure of rural isolation program units that began in 1976 and ended five years ago with declining enrollment in remote schools.
“Gallup-McKinley faces significant challenges,” Lundstrom said during a House Education Committee meeting. “Eighty percent of students are Native American, 90 percent are economically disadvantaged, and 20 percent don’t have running water or electricity. The district is 5,000 square miles. It receives less funding than other high-poverty districts, she said.
Superintendent Mike Hyatt said the bill would only restore the units but not increase them.
Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, said, “You have to be careful about adjusting the funding formula.” He said the bill’s advocates argued that it would affect only one district, but he maintained it would affect all the districts. He was also concerned that the bill wasn’t heard by any interim (between-session) committees.
The committee tabled the bill.
Just the day before, the Senate Education Committee tabled a bill by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, to study the education capital outlay funding formula.
The House committee did bless SB 381, which allows small, rural school districts to use SUVs for transportation to and from school.
Jay Santillanes, a lobbyist for the district and for the Navajo Nation Speaker’s Office, said that the Gallup-McKinley County area had 117 bridges with a 10-ton limit, which prohibits their use by school buses. An alternative vehicle would be far more efficient.
The state Public Education Department supports the bill.
The committee approved the bill provided its sponsors improve language regarding safety.
By Sherry Robinson
Sen. George Muñoz must be feeling a little like Sisyphus, a character of Greek mythology condemned to roll a heavy rock uphill only to reach the top and see it roll back down.
Muñoz and other area legislators have for years been rolling the rock of local school funding uphill at the Legislature only to meet objections from their fellow lawmakers.
On Friday the Senate Education Committee tabled Muñoz’s Senate Joint Memorial 27, which asked for a study of the capital outlay funding formula.
Muñoz told the committee that some counties have more taxable land than others.
Mike Hyatt, superintendent of the Gallup McKinley School District, said they would like to have the study completed that was begun in 2015. He described “significant disparity across New Mexico” in property-rich districts and property-poor districts.
“This is what we just finished doing,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, and it was the subject of a bill by Stewart to recalculate the state-local match formula for public school capital outlay. The bill passed, but Muñoz opposed it.
“We took into account the rural districts,” she said. “We made sure ability to pay was part of the process. Everything you’re asking for has already been done. It reduced significantly the state match to property-rich districts.”
Hyatt pointed out that his district would get a zero match from the state, even though it’s a property-poor district.
Stewart said, “We’ve spent $280 million on Gallup-McKinley. It’s the number one in funding. That money no longer exists.”
Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said the memorial “is like you’re relitigating the case. There’s a lot of work you’re asking to be done. It’s almost a complete re-do.”
The committee tabled the bill.
Three broadband bills sailed through the Senate on Friday.
SB 308 increases the flexibility of the state Public Regulation Commission to make changes to the New Mexico State Rural Universal Service Fund, created from carrier surcharges, and to create a broadband fund of at least $5 million a year to award funding in rural areas.
HB 113 would require the state Chief Information Officer to coordinate the development of a statewide broadband network by pooling demand of educational institutions and government agencies that want to be included in the network. The CIO would apply for federal reimbursement of services from providers, and participants would pay administrative costs. Tribes and pueblos may connect to the network in exchange for right of way.
HB 60 establishes a “dig once” policy that allows local governments to use open trenches to run fiberoptic broadband cable and makes the projects eligible for LEDA (Local Economic Development Act ) funding.
The state’s economic developers and business groups have long supported these projects as a cornerstone of job creation, especially in rural areas.
HB 113 and HB 60 now go to the governor, and SB 308 moves to the House.
Future prospects for the Escalante Generating Station in Prewitt is the subject of House Memorial 72, by Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, and Reps. Eliseo Alcon and Harry Garcia, D-Grants.
It directs the Economic Development Department, Workforce Solutions Department,
and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to study the potential for job growth and report to legislators by Nov. 1.
“We want to work with them closely in advancing job creation,” Lundstrom told the House Labor and Economic Development Committee on Friday. Because the operator has invested millions in the site and it’s located near rail and highway corridors, she believes the assets would be attractive to other industries.
Rhonda Mitchell, of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, said her organization hopes to keep the plant operating as long as possible, especially since it’s a newer plant. The plant has more than 100 employees and pays $1.4 million in property tax.
The memorial passed the committee and now goes to the floor.
Tribal educators lined up Friday to support a bill focusing on Native American students.
HB 484, by Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, would require schools to assess the needs of Indian students in consultation with tribes and use the information to prioritize budgets and develop programs to improve outcomes. Because the bill doesn’t appropriate money, schools would bear the costs. The bill would apply to 23 school districts and six charters.
“We have not looked seriously at changes to the Indian Education Act since 2003,” said former Rep. Rick Miera, who appeared before the House Education Committee as Lente’s expert witness. “This is a big bite at the apple. Let’s take a look at what is missing.”
He said the bill offered communities a chance to be involved and said the most important piece was evaluation.
The only opposition came from Zuni Public Schools. Jerome Haskie said the bill was an unfunded mandate. At Zuni, the activities required in the bill are ongoing, he said. Additional duties, he said, “will tax our system.”
Stanley Holder, director of education at Acoma Pueblo, said Acoma supports the bill. “Zuni operates its own system, but Acoma doesn’t,” he said, and has to rely on nearby public schools that don’t always share data. “I agree it’s an unfunded mandate, but it’s a start.”
A roomful of tribal leaders and educators agreed with Holder. The state Public Education Department also supports the measure.
The committee approved the bill unanimously.
The Senate passed Senate Joint Memorial 20 by Sens. John Pinto, D-Gallup, and Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Springs.
Shendo said the memorial acknowledges the support of New Mexico’s tribes and pueblos for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in its opposition to the 1,200-mile pipeline, slated to pass under the Standing Rock water supply.
“Throughout the course of history, a lot of land has been lost at the stroke of a pen,” Shendo said. “Those are still ancestral homelands.”
The Senate voted 29-8 for the memorial.
By Sherry Robinson
Gasoline and special fuels taxes would rise for the first time in many years under the combined bills SB 95 and 131, which the Senate passed on Thursday.
The bills not only raise revenue to avoid more cuts to the state’s budget, but also direct funding to bolster state reserves and improve road maintenance.
The $180 million package would raise the state gasoline tax to 27 cents a gallon from 17 cents. The tax on diesel and special fuels would rise to 26 cents a gallon from 21 cents a gallon; the vehicle excise tax would rise to 4 percent from 3 percent; the petroleum products loading fee would be $150 per load until state reserves reach 5 percent.
“We are in desperate need of revenue,” said Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, the original sponsor of SB 95.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said about two-thirds of new revenues would rebuild the state’s cash reserves, and the rest would go to roads. “With no new revenues, we will be forced to cut,” said Smith, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. “We hope this gets us halfway there.”
New Mexico hasn’t raised its gas tax since 1993 and hasn’t raised its special fuels tax since 2003. Local governments get only 3 percent to maintain local roads. “There’s not a local road that doesn’t need some road work,” Smith said. The bill would provide about $26 million for counties and cities and $26 million to the state for roads.
Sen. George Muñoz said, “If we don’t fix this, the (cost of a tax increase) will be nothing compared with the cost to borrow money. Year over year, the state treasury balance dropped $495 million. That’s how much we’re losing. The fiscally responsible thing to do is to save our bond rating and make sure we’re creating jobs.”
Smith pointed out that even at 27 cents, New Mexico would still be middling among state gas taxes. “The real pain will happen when we have to cut education, higher education, healthcare, law enforcement and corrections,” he said.
Minority Floor Leader Stewart Ingle, R-Portales, said he agreed with some things in the bills and disagreed with some things. He wanted a better picture of the situation before acting on the bills.
Muñoz, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said that without action, the treasury balance in a year would be zero. “Sometimes we have to make decisions nobody likes,” he said.
The vote was 29-13 in favor. SB 95 and 131 now go to the House.
One bill would base the lottery scholarship on financial need. Two others would make the lottery itself more competitive.
HB 344 would require students to demonstrate that their families’ expected contribution is less than 150 percent of the cost. Students receiving the scholarship for three semesters before the end of fiscal 2017 would be grandfathered in.
The University of New Mexico estimates the change would eliminate 3,400 of 6,400 students who received a lottery scholarship in fall 2016. UNM’s estimates of ineligible students are higher than estimates of the Higher Education Department.
According to a legislative analysis, the number of lottery recipients at UNM-Gallup in 2016 was 81; the number eligible under the threshold would be 72. At NMSU Grants, there were 58 recipients in 2016; under the new threshold 54 would be eligible.
Former Secretary of Higher Education Jose Garcia told the House State, Indian and Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday that 60 percent of scholarships go to students whose parents earn $90,000 or more a year.
“We have a very high dropout rate and a high poverty rate,” he said. “We need more students going through the system. It makes a lot of sense to have an income cap.”
Several representatives from the state’s universities predicted unintended consequences and said 30 percent of students could lose their lottery scholarship.
Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, said that several years earlier Garcia himself convened a task force that rejected a needs-based lottery scholarship.
Garcia said he now supports the concept because “New Mexico desperately needs to increase the total number of people who have a degree. For the first time in history, the older generation is better educated than the younger generation.”
The bill passed the committee on a 4-3 party-line vote with Democrats in favor. It goes to the House Education Committee.
Earlier in the week, the House Business and Industry Committee passed HB 250, which would require the state lottery to transfer money from unclaimed cash prizes, about $2 million to $4 million a year, to the lottery scholarships fund. It would also tie financial bonuses for lottery officials and contractors to increases in scholarship money available, and stop selling lottery tickets at self-serve gasoline pumps.
Also this week, the Senate passed SB 192, which would repeal the requirement that 30 percent of lottery revenues be held for scholarships, the idea being that spending money to make the lottery more competitive would increase revenues and the scholarship fund.
Increasing voter turnout in Indian Country is the goal of HB 357, by Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo.
HB 357 asks for $20,000 for the Secretary of State to convene a Native American
voting information task force to make recommendations on education and information. The task force would include members from the Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, the Mescalero Apache Tribe, a pueblo and an urban area.
Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, said voter turnout in Native communities is chronically low – in places, as low as 12 percent.
The bill passed the House State, Indian and Veterans Affairs Committee. It now goes to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
By Sherry Robinson
Sen. Clemente Sanchez’s minimum wage bill passed the Senate on Wednesday on a 30-6 vote.
SB 386 would raise the state’s minimum wage to $9 an hour but allows employers to pay trainees $8 an hour for their first 60 days. The bill also raises the wage for tipped employees from $2.13 to $2.63 per hour. It has no cost-of-living adjustment and no index.
Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, complimented Sanchez, a Grants Democrat, for assembling a bipartisan coalition of supporters. Many business organizations support the bill, as well as unions and Voices for Children.
Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, said: “The minimum wage is tough to discuss. There is a need for people to make a fair wage, and a need to remember the impact on employers.”
Sen. James White, R-Albuquerque, said he appreciated the stepped increase and would support the bill. “Most people pay above the minimum wage now,” he said.
In the House, the Business and Industry Committee on Tuesday passed HB 442, which would raise the minimum to $7.50 an hour until January 1, 2018, when it would then rise to $9.25 an hour. The bill wouldn’t replace or preempt local ordinances requiring a higher minimum bit would prevent local governments from regulating work schedules.
Business groups say $9.25 is too high, especially in rural areas, and would be a hardship for small businesses.
With the enthusiastic support of virtually all elements of the higher education community, the House Education Committee on Wednesday unanimously passed HB 108, to ease the process of transferring college credits.
HB 108 and SB 103, which is moving through the Senate, instruct the Higher Education Department to work with faculty to accomplish the seamless transfer of lower-division credits between the state’s institutions.
Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron led the effort to develop the bill and got high praise from the bill’s supporters for her inclusive, transparent process. Supporters emphasized that easing the credit-transfer process will help students, most of whom pay their own way. Having to re-take courses after a transfer is money out of their pockets, they said.
The bill also requires HED to develop a statewide lower-division general education core curriculum for all categories of associate and bachelor degrees.
“This has been a long time coming in getting all the stakeholders involved in the process,” said Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque.
Two financial services bills by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, had different outcomes.
The Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee on Wednesday tabled a bill to regulate tax refund anticipation loans.
SB 414 failed on a 5-3 vote. A House version of the bill, HB 438, is still on the move.
Both would require disclosure of fees and interest on these loans. SB 414 would have capped interest at $18 for every $100 loaned and capped loans at 85 percent of the anticipated tax return. The loans would be due within 15 to 45 days. It would also have outlawed rollovers and late fees.
Expert witness Tony Tanner, of Gallup, said his family has been lending since 1989. Because of the controversy over payday lending, he and other small lenders wanted to clarify their operating rules. Committee members didn’t see a problem that needed solving.
A second bill got a thumbs-up.
Check-cashing services could cash $2,500 in checks, up from $500, in a 30-day period before it has to be licensed under SB 377.
The Senate Public Affairs Committee passed the bill on Tuesday.
The bill fixes a problem created by a law passed in 2016, which called for licensing a variety of financial services, including money transmitters, money exchangers and check cashing, beginning this year. But questions arose from owners of convenience stores, grocery stores and pawn shops who cashed checks as a convenience to customers and local residents. Others said many people don’t have bank accounts and routinely cashed checks with local businesses. They all said $500 was too low, when the application fee was $2,000 and licensing fee was $2,000.
By Sherry Robinson
A budget and yet another solvency bill are headed to the House floor. While Democrats and Republicans are in agreement about some elements, they're far apart on others.
The House Appropriations and Finance Committee passed HB 2, a $6.087 billion general appropriations bill, on Monday to pay for state government in fiscal 2018. But it's short $218 million, said Committee Chair Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup.
That's where a second measure, HB 202, comes in, but it drew objections from the state's hospitals, including RMCH.
HB 2 provides an extra $25 million for schools, $17 million more for two important economic development programs and more money for the Public Defender’s Office. It sends $60 million to reserves.
"Everybody realizes we have a revenue issue," Lundstrom said. Committee members are concerned about taking money from the vehicle excise tax, which normally goes to the road fund, and they worry about healthcare.
"Democrats felt we did the best we could with what we had," she said. Lawmakers spent the session's first eight days on solvency and then jumped into the 2018 budget. It relies on HB 202, she said. "If we don't get $218 million, we'll have to cut."
HB 202 would raise as much as $265 million by closing the gross receipts tax loophole for internet sales, removing the tax exemption for nonprofit hospitals, reducing distributions to the legislative retirement fund, increasing the weight-distance tax, increasing the motor vehicle excise tax from 3 to 4 percent, and ending hold-harmless payments to local governments. (The latter compensates for the loss of revenues when the food tax ended.)
Hospitals would get a deduction of 60 percent on net patient revenues.
"I don't want to hit schools again," Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, sponsor of HB 202, told the House Taxation and Revenue Committee, referring to education cuts last year and this year to balance the budget.
Of the estimated $265 million promised by HB 202, $125 million would be absorbed immediately, leaving $140 million to plump up the state's reserves to 3 or 4 percent and preserve the bond rating.
Trujillo's bill morphed quickly from simply making internet vendors pay tax to a larger measure rivaling a reform bill by Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, and appeared to catch some lobbyists and even Harper himself by surprise.
Harper's bill, Trujillo said, "is a big, grand idea," but the less grand HB 202 "will plug up those holes in a smaller amount so we can lower the (tax) rate."
Dan Weeks, a lobbyist with the New Mexico Hospital Association, said the proposed taxes could result in layoffs and closures at rural hospitals. Jeff Dye, the association's executive director, said, "Cuts in Medicaid reimbursements to physicians and hospitals last summer had considerable impact already."
David Conejo, of CEO of RMCH, said: "Our case epitomizes many of the rural hospitals."
He described RMCH's financial struggles and its hard-earned turnaround. Other industries aren't required to be open 24/7 or maintain the kind of safety standards as hospitals. RMCH applied for and received funding from the state safety net care pool, but the state took it back.
"That was $3 million," he said. "We had a Medicaid adjustment and took another hit. We're not in favor of another tax. It would put us in dire straits. I believe this is true for other rural hospitals."
Lobbyist Scott Scanlon said San Juan Regional Medical Center takes care of the Four Corners area and often must helicopter patients in and out. "Reimbursement is very little or not at all," he said. "The tax would be burdensome."
Pablo Sedillo, with Christus St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe, said it could cost more than 300 jobs in Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico.
Todd Sandman, of Presbyterian, said, "The level of new taxes is simply too high. It would erode margins for hospitals and physicians. This is the money we use to build new facilities. The healthcare industry can't pass a tax like this along to consumers."
Recruiting physicians is difficult now and would be even more difficult, said Sandra Podley, of the Hospital Association.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, announced that the House Appropriations and Finance Committee passed a budget bill 15 minutes earlier with a 1.1 percent increase for public schools and other features "for trying to steer the ship in the right direction."
UNM's Bureau of Business and Economic Research "has said that healthcare is one of the fastest growing sectors in the economy, and it's almost entirely outside the tax base," Egolf said. "This is a step toward correcting that disparity. I think all parts of the economy should have fair treatment. Healthcare has so many deductions and exemptions that other sectors don't have."
Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, pointed out that without the bill Medicaid would be cut $100 million. "It feels like we're hemorrhaging,” she said. “If we don't do something, we'll continue to spiral."
Trujillo said he would work with the healthcare industry.
Harper questioned the increased fee charged to truckers, which has failed in one court test. John Clark, of the Legislative Finance Committee, said New Mexico's fee is structured differently and might not be a problem.
"What I love about your bill is it's very similar in approach" to his own massive HB 412, Harper said. "We impose a gross receipts tax on internet sales. We do virtually the same things with the healthcare industry. We reduce money to the legislative retirement fund."
However, he hadn't increased the motor vehicle tax and the weight distance tax.
"I'm not one of those Republicans who signed one of those zombie no-new-taxes pledges," Harper said, but he had a problem with appropriating more than was needed. In the last two decades, New Mexico had overspent by $12 billion, mostly on Medicaid and higher education.
"We have 33 campuses. Arizona has three," he said. He said his bill would generate $206 million without raising taxes. The difference between our bills is that mine is revenue neutral, and yours generates more money. I don't think we need to do that. It could be perceived as using this crisis to raise taxes. I'm trying to use the crisis to reform taxes.”
Harper predicted Trujillo’s bill wouldn’t get bipartisan support and the governor would veto it.
Harper also chided Trujillo a bit for his stealth bill. "I just saw this bill yesterday," he said. Harper has spent a year on his bill and solicited input from Democrats, Republicans and the Senate. He said it was time to meet and, presumably, hammer out a compromise.
The committee passed Trujillo's bill by an 8-7 party-line vote. It and the budget bill now go to the floor.2-14
By Sherry Robinson
Tribes and pueblos could have their own medical marijuana programs under SB 345, by Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Springs.
Shendo told the Senate Indian and Cultural Affairs Committee on Tuesday that it’s a simple bill that makes sure tribes are complying with the law in setting up their programs. It also gives tribes parity with existing programs in the state.
State law allows qualified patients to use medical cannabis, but Native American patients may have to travel to find a dispensary. Tribes could run their own programs, but there’s a lot of uncertainty about how they can participate, said attorney T. J. Trujillo. The bill gives tribes some certainty that the state of New Mexico recognizes their right to participate.
SB 345 requires the state Department of Health to enter into intergovernmental agreements with tribes or pueblos desiring to implement medical cannabis programs within their boundaries. The department must help them implement programs and provide guidance about departmental rules.
The state Indian Affairs Department has said the law allows qualified patients to use medical marijuana. SB 345 incentivizes production of cannabis on tribal land in New Mexico but doesn’t address regulation of marijuana growing or use within tribal communities and increase access in neighboring communities, the department said.
Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, indulged in a lengthy and sometimes condescending lecture to the Native American sponsor and attendees of the meeting against the bill as he told them what they should be promoting instead of marijuana. He touched on alcoholism, logging, the economy, oil and gas, tourism, construction, the narrow gauge railroad to Silverton, parachuting and Afghanistan.
“This is a terrible plan that’s not well thought out,” he said. “I understand why you want to do it – money – but that doesn’t make it right, and it won’t help our children.”
The committee approved the bill by a 4-to-1 vote. It now goes to the Senate Public Affairs Committee.
On Monday, the Senate passed a bill to reform the state’s medical cannabis laws. SB 177 allows patients to have 5 ounces of medical cannabis, producers can grow up to 450 plants, and lists all qualifying medical conditions.
New Mexico has about 30,000 patients using medical cannabis. Based on other states’ statutes and experiences, New Mexico probably should have twice as many, supporters say.
By Sherry Robinson
Last year, someone found a headless carcass near Lindrith in Rio Arriba County. A few months later the state Department of Game and Fish got a tip, followed by another tip a few months later.
“It took six months,” said Robert Griego, a department enforcement officer. Surveillance revealed that a suspect moved the head six different times. After the man got spooked and threw the head into the Rio Grande, officers spent two weeks recovering it. “It was one of the largest mule deer ever killed in New Mexico.”
The poacher, according to Ammoland.com, was Cody Davis, who lives in North Dakota but used to live in Lindrith. It was his third offense, Griego said.
For possessing a deer out of season and wasting game, a magistrate judge in December ordered him to pay $432 in court fees and donate $3,000 to Operation Game. The discarded head might have sold for $10,000 on the black market.
Closer to home, one of the department’s cold cases involves shooting a cow elk last March near Forest Road 402 in the Page Flat area. The poacher left the carcass to rot. And someone shot a bull elk during the youth antlerless hunt off NM 400 and left it after driving out to the site and circling.
The department gets 80 to 100 of these cases a year.
On Tuesday, the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee unanimously passed HB 92, which makes it a fourth-degree felony to wastefully take or kill bighorn sheep, ibex, oryx, Barbary sheep, elk, deer, or pronghorn antelope out of hunting season or without a license. The offense would be punishable by imprisonment for up to 18 months and a fine of up to $5,000.
The bill defines waste as removing only the head, antlers, or horns or leaving any of the four quarters, backstraps or tenderloins. The bill makes it a misdemeanor to hunt or fish any game mammal, bird, or fish and not take it home to eat or to wound an animal and not make a reasonable attempt to track it.
“There’s a whole class of poachers who take big game who are after the antlers,” said Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas. “We want new ways to prosecute them.”
Robert Griego, a department enforcement officer, said existing laws are a deterrent to those who have or seek a license. “There’s another group who don’t have licenses and benefit financially from their poaching,” he said. “Some put a lot of effort into finding a specific animal. They do it late at night and want to get away quickly.”
John Crenshaw, of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said, “It’s egregious. It’s black market trophy hunting. It’s an affront to land owners. This would extend the statute of limitations and provide extradition.”
Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell, said: “We had an instance on our place where parties shot from public land into our property and left it lying there. Game and Fish caught them.”
Currently, the unlawful taking of state game or fish is a felony in seven western states (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Texas, Utah and Washington). In New Mexico, this trophy poaching is only a misdemeanor, and department officers have just two years to investigate and prosecute.
If the poacher lives in or runs to another state, there is no extradition.
Another hunting measure, by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, would amend the state Constitution to protect the right to hunt and fish. Senate Joint Resolution 15 provides that
“wildlife belongs to this state and is held in trust for the benefit of the residents of this state.”
The Legislature has “exclusive authority to enact laws to regulate the manner, methods or seasons for hunting, fishing and harvesting wildlife” but may delegate rulemaking authority to the state Game Commission, the resolution states. “No law shall be enacted and no rule shall be adopted that unreasonably restricts hunting, fishing and harvesting wildlife or the use of traditional means and methods… Lawful public wildlife harvesting and fishing shall be a preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife.”
By Sherry Robinson
Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, was the face and the voice last week of the Democrats’ jobs package, called “New Mexico Jobs Now!”
He said he was chosen to lead the news conference announcing the package because he’s a businessman and a lot of the legislation will pass through his Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee.
Sanchez “did a very good job of explaining the six-bill legislative package and the reasoning behind it,” said the newsletter of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. He spoke of addressing the needs of those in economic distress and vowing the Legislature will, “take action to restore their hopes and dreams.”
The package has six parts:
Last week the Senate Public Affairs Committee passed SB 36, which would raise the minimum wage to $8.45 an hour for employers with 10 or more employees and $7.50 an hour for employers with 10 or fewer employees. Both categories would have annual cost-of-living adjustments. Trainees could be paid $7.50 an hour for six months.
The committee removed the small business differential and the training wage on a party-line vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against and passed the bill also on a party-line vote. The bill now goes before the corporations committee.
Also last week, the House Labor and Economic Development Committee passed HB 67, to raise the minimum wage to $8.40 an hour in 2018, $9.20 in 2019, and $10.10 by 2020.
According to Voices for Children, 248,400 workers would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage. More than 90 percent are over 20, and 57 percent are women.
Broadband, which also appears on the legislative Jobs Council wish list, is the subject of several bills.
HB 60 would make broadband a LEDA project and clarify existing law so that local governments could obtain right of way and run fiber-optic broadband cable.
The Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee unanimously passed SB 53 to modernize the 1985 Telecommunications Act, passed in the age of wired telephone service, by placing all telecommunications under the same regulatory net, which could encourage investment in broadband.
HB 144 and SB 6 would require the state Department of Agriculture to issue licenses to grow industrial hemp for research and development. And it requires New Mexico State University to establish a hemp research and development fund.
“Expanding into the vast industrial hemp market is a win-win. Not only is it a sustainable crop that is good for our environment, but the economic opportunities are endless, from cultivation to product development to marketing to manufacturing. This industry is a major job-creator,” said Rep. Bealquin Gomez, D-La Mesa.
In 2014, the federal Farm Bill allowed states to grow hemp in partnership with their Departments of Agriculture or licensed universities. Since then, at least 30 states have passed laws creating hemp pilot studies and/or hemp production.
Hemp can be used in a variety of products including cloth, paper, construction materials, carpet, foods/beverages, body care products, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and bio-fuel.
In 2015, the governor vetoed another popular hemp bill that had bipartisan support. In her veto message, Martinez said the bill would set up contradictions between state and federal law. Hemp is related to marijuana but doesn’t have the properties that produce a high.
LEDA and JTIP
These two economic development incentives have been the subject of much debate, as finance committees decide where to cut. Last week they settled on taking $4 million, instead of $11.6 million from LEDA, which is shorthand for a closing fund that offsets a company’s costs for roads and utility lines. Economic developers say it’s important to keep the fund at $50 million. It’s now at about $34 million.
“A very small portion was cut,” Sanchez said. “Everybody needs to feel the pain.”
JTIP supports training costs for expanding companies. It has a balance of about $15.5 million, all of which has been spent or committed, and we’re just halfway through the fiscal year, according to the New Mexico Coalition for Jobs.
The coalition recently wrote legislators seeking full funding for both programs. Signing onto the letter were Bill Lee, president and CEO of the Gallup McKinley County Chamber of Commerce, and Michael Sage, deputy director of the Greater Gallup Economic Development Corp.
By Sherry Robinson
School reserves and an economic development closing fund will take smaller hits than originally proposed after House and Senate number crunchers conferred Wednesday and agreed to changes in two solvency bills.
The Senate agreed to changes in SB 113 in which the Local Economic Development Act fund appropriation from a previous year was reduced from $11.6 million to $7.6 million, with $2 million earmarked for the Roswell Air Industrial Park.
The committee also struck wording that would have suspended water trust board funding for two years.
Sen. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, objected to striking $4 million from the fund, used to help new and existing employers with infrastructure costs when they build or expand. “It’s important in this climate to keep that money in,” he said.
The Senate also agreed to changes in SB 114.
“SB 114 was a heavily debated bill,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming. “We don’t have time for new revenues in 2017, and we’re $69 million short. We can’t start on 2018 until we resolve 2017. It’s been extremely painful on all categories.”
The governor proposed taking $120 million from school cash balances, but the Senate and Legislative Finance Committee proposed taking $50 million.
“Starting at $50 million is painful,” Smith said. “We’ve had debates and disagreements. We’ve tried to solve it as best we can. The executive said it won’t impact classrooms. It will definitely impact the classroom.”
House Appropriations and Finance Committee Chair Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said a House floor amendment took school balances to 4 percent, and the conference committee reduced it to 3 percent.”
Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, said 4 percent was a good threshold. “Dropping it to 3 percent does some damage,” he said. For example, Zuni schools would lose $100,000, which is one-fourth of their cash balance. “And we still expect schools to do the same job.”
Lundstrom said schools will be within 3 percent. Cash-strapped schools are exempt.
The total raised in SB 114 to help plug a fiscal 2017 deficit will be $216 million, instead of $250 million. “It makes it a steeper hill to climb for 2018,” said Smith.
After a floor vote supporting the changes, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, noted that lawmakers avoided asking state employees and teachers to take pay cuts. He commended the Senate for a collaborative approach.
By Sherry Robinson
Proposed new restrictions on local package liquor sales ran into objections in the House Business and Industry Committee on Monday.
But a bill supporting the Local DWI grant fund got support in another committee.
Rep. D. Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup, introduced HB 162, which would allow Gallup and McKinley County to restrict sale of packaged liquor between 7 and 11 a.m. Sens. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, and George Muñoz, D-Gallup, are carrying an identical bill, SB 124.
“I represent a unique and complicated area,” Johnson said. The bill reflects health and safety concerns for people who come to town from the reservation. They’re not homeless. They may need to stay one or two days but end up staying one to two weeks and begin binge drinking. It’s not intended as a cure-all for substance abuse, but it is a piece of the puzzle. We know that in addition to alcohol, they can also buy hair spray, mouthwash and hand sanitizer when there’s no money to buy liquor.”
Gallup Police Chief Phillip Hart explained that the city’s population of 22,000 balloons to 40,000 or more every day because Gallup is an economic center. The biggest issue is abuse of alcohol, he said.
“Last year, 26,000 people were admitted to detox,” Hart said. “I challenge any city in the state to match those numbers. Any relief from the sale of package liquor would help law enforcement.”
He said half the calls made to the department involve liquor, and delaying the sale of package liquor would give his officers a chance to catch up on other work and also give certain people four hours to sober up and possibly catch a ride home.
The Navajo Nation Council and president support the bill.
Ruben Baca, a lobbyist for convenience stores, said he attempted to work with the city, and complained that the bill was different from the one he first saw.
“I don’t think it will help them very much,” he said. “The black market will find a way around it.” He also objected to singling out one type of business.
Nancy King, a lobbyist for Western Refining and its Giant convenience stores, said Giant does most of its business over lunch, between 1 a.m. and 2 p.m. She agreed that Gallup has a terrible problem and said her client would support the bill if hours of sale began at 10 a.m. instead of 11 a.m.
Committee members asked what public input there was. Gallup lobbyist Mark Fleisher said an advisory vote got 72.8 percent support.
Committee members questioned the bill’s impact on local business, whether the bill could affect other counties and why it limited only package liquor sales. It was temporarily tabled so that Johnson could resolve those questions.
Also on Monday, the House Taxation and Revenue Committee gave a sympathetic hearing to a bill that would increase money flowing to the Local DWI grant fund.
HB 55 would increase distributions of liquor excise tax revenues to 46 percent from 41.5 percent beginning in fiscal 2019.
The DWI Grant Fund is used by all 33 counties, said Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, the bill’s sponsor.
“Many of us can’t afford any more cuts or we’ll have to end our programs,” said Kelly Ford, of the New Mexico Association of DWI Coordinators.
DWI coordinators provide a range of services, including prevention, treatment, tracking, screening, law enforcement, domestic violence treatment, and Safe Ride. Ford said one program director in a small county is already running the program out of her own pocket. Others have curtailed prevention programs and law enforcement.
Tasia Young, of the New Mexico Association of Counties, said that when funds are cut and swept from these programs to balance the budget, the effect is that some counties will raise their gross receipts taxes. The New Mexico Municipal League also supports the bill.
Jeff Dye, of the New Mexico Hospital Association, said the funding had been whittled away over the years. “We need to put it back to where it’s working.”
The committee voted to temporarily table the bill and assure funding would be available from the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
By Sherry Robinson
State economists see a faint glimmer of good news for the state, but nobody is calling it the light at the end of a tunnel.
The House Appropriations and Finance Committee, with new Chairwoman Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, at the helm, heard testimony on Thursday.
Economists made it clear that recent years were an unusual downturn. In a short period of time, a number of trends and events converged:
The downward slide of oil and natural gas prices took other sectors down with them.
High-paying jobs were replaced with lower-paying jobs; at the same time New Mexicans were working fewer hours than at any time in the last 10 years. The trend continues.
People had less to spend and companies were spending less, so the state’s gross receipts tax revenues took a big hit.
“New Mexico has a lost decade in wage and salary employment growth,” said Jon Clark, chief economist with the Legislative Finance Committee.
Clinton Turner said that in looking at multi-decade patterns, “we’re experiencing some things we haven’t experienced in my lifetime.”
Turner, who is chief economist for the Department of Finance Administration, added two more developments: A lightning-fast rise in the value of the dollar, which made a Chinese-made shirt cheaper to buy but increased prices of the state’s exports by one-third, and a drop not just in oil and gas prices but prices for coal, potash and agriculture products.
“This is a tougher place than we’ve been,” he said.
As a result, state economists shrank their revenue growth forecasts from a scant 1.3 percent in August to a minuscule 0.4 percent in December.
“Alaska and Oklahoma fared worse in some measures, but we’re down there with them,” Turner said.
When legislators left Santa Fe after a special budget-fixing session in October, the black ink soon turned red.
However, one big contribution of the special session was closing up loopholes in the high-wage job tax credit and a healthcare tax credit. Those steps will mean $40 million to the fiscal 2018 budget.
“We have so many tax expenditures (credits) on the books, they create the risk that companies can find new ways to exploit them,” said Clark.
And what’s the good news?
General fund balances, which were the worst in tracking history, improved a bit in December. Although there’s still a lot of uncertainty, Clark said, “maybe we’ve hit bottom.”
And the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research sees a slight increase in gross domestic product.
Thursday’s testimony followed an unusually busy first week for lawmakers. They made quick work of bailing out fiscal 2017, and will now turn to bailing out fiscal 2018.
The Senate quickly passed four bills that would fill a $262 million hole in the fiscal 2017 budget and restoring $180 million, about 3 percent, to state reserves. Legislators would take $50 million from school districts; the governor’s proposal would take $120 million. And legislators reduced the state’s Local Economic Development Act closing fund, an economic development incentive used to help with infrastructure costs, by $11.6 million.
During her State of the State address on Tuesday, Gov. Susana Martinez asked the Legislature to preserve the LEDA fund. Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, floated an amendment to protect the fund, which failed, but Lundstrom did reduce the cut from $18.6 million to $11.6 million.
Lundstrom said that as an economic developer, she understood the need to fund LEDA, “but we have a problem to be solved.”
Legislators also refused the governor’s proposal to reduce take-home pay of state employees and teachers by increasing their pension contributions.
Turning their attention to fiscal 2018, LFC Director David Abbey noted that legislative and executive proposals are similar.
The most contentious item in the LFC budget is an item labeled “to be determined.” That means either more cuts or new revenues.
“The LFC sort of punted,” said Abbey. “Part of that was making sure the cuts are needed.” With new revenue estimates by mid-February, it may be that the picture looks better.
Possible sources of new revenue are internet sales taxes, vehicle excise taxes or gasoline sales taxes, Abbey said, but his staff is also looking at deeper cuts within individual agencies.
Abbey discouraged looking at state employees as a possible target. State employment is down 3,000 jobs in the last seven years, he said.
“This is not the overweight bureaucracy of years past,” he said. And raises have become so small and infrequent that it’s become difficult to recruit and retain employees.
By Sherry Robinson
Independent correspondent, 1-17-17
SANTA FE -- Gov. Susana Martinez, facing large Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, called repeatedly for bipartisan action during her annual State of the State speech on Tuesday, the first day of a 60-day legislative session.
Legislators must bridge a $69 million budget deficit, and the fixes are somewhat different between the executive and legislative branches and between the two parties.
In a cheery speech that glossed over the stark partisan differences that roiled the recent special session, not to mention scar tissue from recent elections, the Republican governor credited Republicans and Democrats with making tough decisions and resisting easy fixes.
In the last six years, deficits, a federal government shutdown and sequestration, and the plunge in oil and gas prices were "outside of our control," Martinez said. "Some want to use these challenges as an excuse to take the easy way out, or to devolve into partisan fighting. But we’re better than that."
To relieve the state's dependence on the federal government and the energy sector, "we must continue diversifying our economy and restraining the size of government... When we fall on hard times, government should not expect a taxpayer-funded bailout. Instead, it’s on us to work together and find solutions."
She said they could "do what politicians have done for decades -- grow government and raise taxes when times are tough. Or we can be leaders: protect taxpayers, reduce the size of government and continue to build the foundation of a lasting, vibrant economy. Right-sizing government means reducing the size of government and developing efficiencies."
For all her calls to bipartisan effort, shrinking government is a sacred cow of Republicans, as is ending social promotion of third graders. The reference to a "taxpayer-funded bailout" referred to the possibility of a small gasoline tax increase rather than chop any more out of the budget.
Curiously, the governor proposed consolidating government agencies, saying it would save millions. It was a cause she championed her first year as governor, but when big savings didn’t materialize, the governor backed away and the Legislature lost its enthusiasm.
Martinez cautioned lawmakers to leave economic development incentives intact.
"We’ve trained over 8,000 workers through the Job Training Incentive Program. Through LEDA (the Local Economic Development Act), we have added over 7,000 jobs and brought billions in investment with nearly 40 percent of those projects in rural New Mexico," she said. "Now is not the time to gut those reforms."
The governor argued once again for crime bills, saying that education, the economy and crime fighting are interconnected. It begins with protecting children. "We will not tolerate the abuse and murder of our children," she said. "The hardest days as a governor are when a child is tragically killed."
Martinez wants a three strikes bill, increased penalties for child abuse, an expansion of Katy's Law, tougher DWI laws, and reinstatement of the death penalty.
Education reform, which includes holding back third graders who can't read, is still a priority. "Cutting classroom dollars would be irresponsible," she said. She would also withhold driver's licenses to students who are habitually truant.
"We've made great strides on the education, economic development and fighting crime. And we have done it not as Republicans and not as Democrats but as New Mexicans... I urge this body to put aside partisan differences and put our financial house in order."
Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said, "I'm a little surprised (at the speech) because I've seen the DFA (Department of Finance Administration) recommend cutting school cash balances. She seemed to be talking about things that were clearly Democratic initiatives."
Lundstrom said she liked the governor's comments about the Route 66 initiative to raise the number of New Mexicans with degrees or certificates from 31 percent to 66 percent.
Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Grants, is a retired magistrate judge. "We're not funding our courts, but she wants to pass legislation that makes more work for the courts. There are time constraints on criminal cases. What will happen is no civil cases will be heard. The business community won't get anything done (in court)."
Earlier, after Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, was elected House Speaker by acclamation, he said, "We can't ignore the realities of the state economy. We want to make sure we're doing everything we can." He too called for bipartisanship.
In the Senate, newly elected Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said, "We've got an immediate budget crisis -- a deficit of $69 million and no reserves. We need to get right to work. We've got a lot ahead of us."
Both chambers continued to work into the evening with the goal of sending solvency bills to the governor within a week.
By Sherry Robinson
Independent correspondent, 1-16-17
Legislators on Tuesday will roll into a 60-day session. All eyes are on the budget, also the focus of last year’s regular and special sessions, and the challenge is to match spending with reduced revenues – all at a time when the state remains mired in the recession.
Adding to the drama, the chambers have new leadership; Democrats return to power in the House and expanded their majority in the Senate. One of the new leaders is Rep. Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup, who was recently voted Majority Caucus Chair.
Lawmakers expect to move quickly to close up the $69 million deficit.
“I think it’s going to be a tougher session than we’ve ever seen before because of the deficit,” said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee. “We can’t keep doing the same things we did for 20 years any more.”
Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, couldn’t be reached for comment.
The governor and her executive branch have proposed a $6.09 billion budget that continues cuts made by the Legislature in the special session and proposes to trim funding to certain state agencies, consolidate other agencies, simplify the tax code and eliminates subsidies to counties that raised their taxes. The governor would also sweep cash balances, including “$12.5 million of lawmakers’ vastly overfunded personal retirement accounts,” “$120 million in administrative slush funds within our school districts that are not being used in the classrooms,” reduce the gross receipts tax hold-harmless distribution to local governments that raised taxes, a 3.5 percent retirement swap from state employer contributions.
“Had legislators adopted these and other proposals during the special session, we would not be facing a $67 million shortfall,” the governor said. “Lawmakers avoided making tough choices, but we have some time now to work together on a budget that restrains spending, doesn’t raise taxes, and protects the progress we’ve made on education, economic development, and public safety,” Martinez said.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, took issue with dipping into school districts’ reserve funds and with calling them slush funds. And Legislative Finance Committee members take a dim view of reducing take-home pay of state employees and teachers by requiring them to pay more into their retirement accounts to decrease the state’s contributions.
The LFC’s $6.1 billion proposal would also extend 5.5 percent cuts for most agencies made during the special session and take even more from universities and colleges, increase funding slightly to the judiciary, generate another $123 million from additional cuts or tax increases. While the committee didn’t say how exactly it might raise taxes, the most frequently mentioned possibility is raising gasoline taxes, which have been untouched since 1995. There is also a proposal to reinstate taxes on groceries.
Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, has pre-introduced SB 95 to raise the gasoline tax by 10 cents and the special fuel excise tax by 5 cents and distributing the proceeds to state and local road funds and to reserves.
“I hope it gets some traction,” he said, explaining that the bill would help rebuild the state’s reserves and beef up road maintenance. “I’m concerned about our reserves. It affects our bond ratings.”
The governor has said she won’t raise taxes. She also criticized the LFC proposal to cut funding for the Public Education Department’s initiatives.
Muñoz wasn’t rosy about compromise between the executive and legislative branches. “We tried to find a middle ground in October during the special session. We agreed to stuff, but they got changed and vetoed. Now we have five months left of (fiscal) 2017.
Muñoz is also concerned about increasing reserves so the state doesn’t take another hit on bond ratings from credit agencies.
In November, Economic Development Department Secretary Designate Matt Geisel told the Economic and Rural Development Committee that the New Mexico Partnership had recruited 10 companies this year and helped 80 businesses expand. He’s hoping legislators fund the Job Training Incentive Program at $12 million, maintain the Local Economic Development Act at $50 million, restore the MainStreet Frontier Communities initiative, and fund seven business incubators, including Navajo Tech Innovation Center, with $180,000.
JTIP, which trained 2,238 people last year, has just $100,000 of its allotted $14.2 million. The MainStreet program, which leveraged more than $10 million in private spending with its $1.265 million in state money. One of those projects was the Rio San Jose Riverwalk Legacy Trail in Grants.
As a legislator and board member of the New Mexico Partnership, Sanchez was involved in bringing Facebook to Los Lunas, he said. Programs like LEDA and JTIP helped. “I don’t see it as corporate welfare,” he said.
Muñoz said he’d like to see LEDA become less political so that projects outside the Rio Grande corridor get funding. “Rural job creation will be key in the next five to ten years,” he said.
Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, says he’d like to focus on job creation. “We need to make New Mexico friendlier to small business,” he said. He questions the need for such stringent permitting.
Sanchez said, “I think our tax structure is a hindrance to job creation,” but a current proposal tries to do too much in one bill. “Getting rid of (economic development) incentives is not a good idea. We need to be competitive with the states around us.”
It’s probably a long shot, but the Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments asked for $167,500 to diversify the region’s economy and ease impacts from sagging employment at power plants and coal mines. The funding would be used in recruitment, training for economic developers and small businesses, and developing tourism and recreation, among other things.
Several pre-introduced bills call for a set-aside for New Mexico companies desiring state contracts. And two bills would legalize marijuana use in the state, which some see as a source of jobs and revenue.
Muñoz said he’d like to reduce the number of liquor licenses in McKinley County, “but there are too many moving parts.”
Rep. Wonda Johnson said she and Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, would carry legislation for McKinley County asking to restrict package liquor sales from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. It wouldn’t affect restaurants, she said.
“For our community, it’s the right thing to do for health and safety considerations,” she said.
Muñoz said the county needs a permanent fix through good policy. He also said he would try to raise the liquor excise tax so that the county could fix its own problems.
Garcia said that as a freshman legislator he’s still learning what’s possible in the Roundhouse, but he wants to address complications of the new Real ID drivers licenses.
“A lot of my constituents are older people without birth certificates,” he said. “They were born on ranches. One man said he can’t even buy a pack of cigarettes because he doesn’t have ID. He has to get 16 people to verify he was born there. He served in the military, but he doesn’t have a birth certificate. Once your ID is expired, you have to have a birth certificate. The law is hurting a lot of elderly people.”