SANTA FE, N.M. — Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – With an election on the horizon, New Mexico’s 112 part-time lawmakers gather at the Capitol on Tuesday for the start of a 30-day legislative session that promises debate on a host of big issues, including the popular lottery scholarship program, job creation, marijuana legalization and early childhood education.
As always, passing a balanced budget for the coming fiscal year will top the Legislature’s to-do list – and nearly $300 million in estimated “new” money could make that annual task less painful than in recent, cash-lean years.
Some legislative leaders say the budget and the state’s economy should be the almost exclusive focuses of the 30-day session.
“Unless it’s something that’s urgent and would help right away, we should just leave it alone, and do the budget and go home,” House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, told the Journal.
In New Mexico, 30-day legislative sessions – held every other year – are generally limited to budget-related issues and subjects deemed worthy of debate by the governor.
And Gov. Susana Martinez plans to again seek approval of several initiatives that have been met with fierce Democratic opposition in recent years. Those initiatives include ending “social promotions” in public schools by holding back third-graders who cannot read proficiently and repealing a 2003 law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses.
The Republican governor says the mandatory retention bill is a key part of her agenda for improving New Mexico schools and, ultimately, the state’s economy. While Democrats have called her driver’s license push an election-rooted, wedge issue, Martinez says the availability of licenses has made the state a magnet for identification fraud.
There will probably be a torrent of other issues that partisans on both sides of the political fence hope to inject into election-year debate.
Democrats are expected to push for a higher statewide minimum wage – Martinez vetoed a minimum wage measure in 2013 – and a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana use, similar to Colorado’s.
House Republican Whip Nate Gentry of Albuquerque said some of the Democratic proposals appear to be aimed at making Republican legislators take politically difficult votes in a year in which all 70 House seats will be up for election.
“It looks like it’s shaping up that way,” Gentry said.
But House speaker Martinez, who enters his second year running the chamber, said he’s trying to keep politics to a minimum.
“There is a push by some to make this a more partisan session – I don’t want to do that,” he said. “That said, I would be naive to say there will be no politics in it.”
For the 2014 session of the Legislature, Democrats retain majorities in both the House and Senate, although the House margin is just 37-33 and the Senate’s is 25-17. Martinez, a Republican, is starting the last year of the four-year term as governor she was elected to in 2010.
Elections to the House this year could be key to Martinez’s second-term agenda, if she is re-elected in November.
Scholarships and pay raises
On the budget, both the governor and a key legislative panel have rolled out $6.1 billion spending plans for the coming year. Each proposal would increase state spending for the third consecutive year, with much of the funding uptick going to K-12 education.
After several years of budget cuts in response to an economic downturn, the state is projected to take in $293 million more revenue in the coming fiscal year than it is spending this year, allowing for growth in key areas.
“It shouldn’t be quite as contentious (as previous budget-cutting sessions),” said House Republican Leader Donald Bratton of Hobbs.
But disagreements over education funding – whether such dollars should flow primarily through the state’s funding formula or increasingly be spent on Martinez-backed reforms – and state employee pay hikes loom as areas of disagreement.
Gov. Martinez has proposed giving pay raises of varying sizes to about one-third of the state’s 22,000 employees, while the Legislative Finance Committee has endorsed salary hikes of at least 1.5 percent for all state workers.
Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, a Belen Democrat, said he’ll advocate for a 5 percent salary increase for all state employees and teachers.
“We should really push to make sure our state employees and teachers are paid a living wage,” Sanchez said.
Meanwhile, the cash-strapped legislative lottery scholarship program is also expected to be a priority for both parties.
Scholarship awards for roughly 18,500 university or community college students will be trimmed during the current spring semester unless lawmakers take action to shore up the scholarship fund.
The lottery scholarship program, which pays full college tuition for qualifying New Mexico high school graduates, has been struggling to keep up with rising tuition costs and increased use. It is scheduled to pay out $67 million in scholarships this year, while taking in just $40 million in revenue via lottery ticket sales.
Lawmakers have been unable to agree on a long-term solvency fix for the scholarship during recent legislative sessions, but say there’s an added sense of urgency to resolve the issue during the coming 30 days.
“It’s a very emotional thing for people,” said Senate Minority Whip Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, who sponsored legislation last year that would have restructured the scholarship. “Every kid in college is going to be upset, no matter what we do, unless they’re about to graduate.”
Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said he’s trying to keep an open mind about ways to fix the program, adding, “I hope that we’ll all coordinate and work together.”
Dodging the governor
Aside from financial issues, a wide range of other proposals could be aired before lawmakers wrap up their work on Feb. 20.
Constitutional amendment proposals, which do not require the governor’s OK, will be used this year by Democratic lawmakers for a slew of proposals – including marijuana legalization, re-establishing a state board of education, and upping the flow of money from the state’s permanent funds for public education and early childhood programs.
A proposed amendment seeking to boost the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour or more – it’s currently set at $7.50 an hour – will also be forthcoming, House Speaker Martinez said.
“Arizona has a higher minimum wage than we do,” he said. “If a red state like Arizona can do it … then we should certainly do it.”
Republicans are also seeking constitutional changes, with Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, pre-filing a proposed amendment that, if approved, would ban same-sex marriage in New Mexico. His legislation is in response to a Dec. 19 ruling by the state Supreme Court that made New Mexico the 17th state in the nation to allow gay marriage.
But some Republicans – including the governor – appear ready to see the same-sex marriage issue end.
“The Supreme Court has decided and it’s now the law of the land,” Martinez told a news conference this month in response to a question as to whether she would back the proposed constitutional amendment.
While the governor has not yet said what nonspending bills will be open for debate during this year’s session, she has unveiled her own legislative priorities. They include a package of proposals aimed at alleviating the state’s shortage of health care workers and expanded tax breaks for businesses that hire new employees.
Martinez will open the 2014 legislative session with the annual State of the State address on Tuesday. She’s expected to cite the need to build on recent economic efforts and improve the state’s education system during the speech, which will be the fourth and final one of her first term as governor.
The governor has criticized Democratic legislative leaders for stymieing some of her education initiatives, while Democrats contend her proposals place too much emphasis on student testing.
She also criticized a legislative proposal to give all state employees a pay hike of at least 1.5 percent in the coming budget year, saying some positions in the state’s classified workforce need larger pay bumps than others.
“I don’t think giving across-the-board salary (hikes) is a thoughtful way of retaining people,” Martinez told the Journal during a recent interview.
Indian casinos and more
The lingering question of a new gambling compact for the Navajo Nation could also be acted upon by the Legislature and a panel will meet this week to discuss the issue.
Water could also be a subject of debate as the governor has proposed using $112 million in state capital outlay funding on dams and other water projects.
Meanwhile, adjustments to a massive tax package that lawmakers approved on the final day of the 2013 legislative session are expected to be considered.
For instance, the governor supports a measure that would limit the size of tax hikes cities and counties could enact while still accepting a state “hold-harmless” subsidy. Under the terms of last year’s compromise tax bill, those subsidies will be phased out over 15 years, starting in 2015.