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Sunday, January 18, 2009
2009 New Mexico Legislature: Long Haul
By Dan Boyd
Journal Capitol Bureau
SANTA FE — Short on money, a bunch of new members and a governor who's presence is almost a surprise: The session of the New Mexico Legislature that starts Tuesday won't be an easy one to predict.
It's a 60-day session with a wide-open agenda to boot.
This means that, even though the state's 112 part-time legislators will do most of their head-scratching over a $450 million budget shortfall in this year's budget, and a dim economic outlook for the coming year, they're likely to push plenty of other issues into the ring.
So, in addition to the belt-tightening, you can probably expect debate on subjects ranging from public employee retirement plans to domestic partnership laws, ethics reforms to ATV safety and health care coverage to ranchers' rights to shoot crop-eating elk and antelope.
But what will happen on these topics and others might not be known until adjournment on March 21.
Focus on budget
The first problem is bridging this year's budget gap, which legislative leaders say needs to be done within the first two weeks of the session.
"Obviously, the big challenge is our economy and how we deal with it," said Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, whom Senate Democrats nominated in November to be the new Senate president pro tem. "We're not in a crisis yet, but we have to be concerned."
Top budget hawks, such as Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, have warned the state's budget shortfall for the current fiscal year, which extends to June 30, could end up reaching $600 million.
Proposals to balance the budget so far call for: increasing public school classroom sizes; eliminating a school day statewide; targeted cuts at state agencies; revising the corporate income tax schedule; and canceling millions of dollars worth of construction projects.
Other ideas likely to be floated include tapping the state's reserves and enacting a cap on spending based on an average of recent budgets.
House Republicans like the idea of cutting spending, saying it's long been out of hand.
"We really do have to strip down the size of our government," said House Minority Leader Tom Taylor, R-Farmington. And Minority Whip Keith Garnder, R-Roswell, said, "We're borrowing to pay our credit card bills."
But Republicans are in the minority, and Democrats won't want to cut deeply.
"It's really hard to tell overall what kind of a session it's going to be," said Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen. "I would imagine it's going to be a session where we look very thoughtfully and carefully at how not to make cuts that would hurt New Mexicans."
Lawmakers will start work on a budget for the coming fiscal year, starting July 1, once they agree to a solvency plan for the current year. And given the rocky economic forecasts, hammering out the new budget won't be easy, either.
Democrats are in even firmer control of both chambers of the Legislature since the 2008 elections.
With a net of six additional seats, Democrats now have a 45-25 majority in the House and a 27-15 advantage in the Senate.
"This is probably the most liberal Legislature that's ever been elected," said Senate Minority Whip William Payne, R-Albuquerque.
Democratic observers have called their new lot of lawmakers more progressive, but no one has seen them in action yet — especially in a bare-bones budget year with the people who elected them hurting back home.
A total of 18 new lawmakers will descend on Santa Fe — seven in the Senate and 11 in the House of Representatives — including Zachary Cook, a recently named replacement for Rep. W.C. "Dub" Williams, R-Glencoe, who retired for family health reasons last week.
And the newcomers don't intend to sit on the sidelines. They plan to introduce legislation ranging from ethics laws to a requirement that ski rental operators offer a helmet option to those under age 18.
Another dynamic that could be at work in the legislative session is the relationship between lawmakers and Gov. Bill Richardson.
Richardson spent much of 2007 campaigning around the nation for the Democratic presidential nomination. He dropped out of the running in January 2008 and returned to New Mexico. But soon he was on the campaign trail for Barack Obama, who later nominated Richardson to be secretary of commerce in his Cabinet.
Richardson withdrew from the nomination a little more than two weeks before the start of the legislative session, citing a grand jury investigation involving some of his subordinates and a California company that contributed to two of his political committees and was awarded state contracts.
Lawmakers had expected Richardson to be in Washington as a member of Obama's Cabinet for most of the legislative session and thought they would be dealing mostly with his successor, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish. But Richardson called Denish on Jan. 4 to say he wasn't leaving.
Top lawmakers disagree on what impact the turn of events might have on the Democratic governor's relationship with the Legislature.
"He was leaving on a high note — now he's coming back on a low note," Payne said. "It can't help but hurt what ability he has to drive his agenda."
But Democrats Cisneros and Sanchez said they don't expect to see a big change.
"I think he's still strong, and he's willing and capable of going through a bumpy road," Cisneros said. "The governor still has federal connections, and we need those today more so than ever."
Richardson, who has just two years left in his second term, bristled at the suggestion that he would enter the session in a weakened state.
"I think we are in very good shape to have a very good legislative session," he said during a news conference last week.
He's already outlined proposals for public safety, education and balancing the budget.
Also on the agenda
In other areas, legislative leaders expect the progressive faction of the Democratic Party, which counts many of the new lawmakers among its members, to push for new ethics laws and incentives for creating "green" jobs in areas such as solar and wind power.
"The environment is going to play a big part," Sanchez predicted.
A bill that would grant legal rights and benefits to domestic partnerships, both homosexual and heterosexual, could be another hot-button topic.
Similar proposals have failed during the past three legislative sessions, but the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, feels this year might be different.
"It should be easier this time around," said Stewart, alluding to a more liberal makeup of the Legislature. "It's a justice and equality issue."
The bill is being introduced in the Senate by Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque.
The 2009 Legislature at a glance:
The Legislature convenes at noon Tuesday. It's formally called the first session of the 49th Legislature.
The session adjourns after 60 calendar days — at noon on Saturday, March 21. The governor has 20 days after adjournment to sign bills passed during the last three days of the session. That deadline is April 10.
The Senate has 42 members: 27 Democrats, 15 Republicans. The House has 70 members: 45 Democrats, 24 Republicans and one vacancy.
Members work part time and are sometimes called "citizen legislators," meaning they have regular occupations back home. They meet for 60-day sessions in odd-numbered years and 30 days in even-numbered years. They also attend "interim committee" meetings between sessions to study issues and prepare legislative recommendations.
The New Mexico Legislature is not salaried, but members receive a $145 per day during the session to reimburse them for expenses.
Contact lawmakers by calling the legislative switchboard: (505) 986-4300. Read bills, committee schedules and lists of members on the Legislature's Web site: http://nmlegis.gov.
The Associated Press
State revenues are hurting from national recession and declining energy prices. New Mexico is a large oil and gas producer, and taxes on those resources aren't filling up state coffers as much as usual. The first task for legislators will be to figure out how to deal with a $450 million shortfall in the $6 billion budget for the current fiscal year. Then, as they work on a new budget, they'll have to figure out how to reckon with a bleak revenue outlook for the coming year. Already proposed are the cancellation of public works projects, increasing classroom sizes and trimming state agency budgets. Neither the governor nor legislators seem to want to raise taxes in a tough economic climate.
Some education advocates want to revise the state's public school funding equalization formula to pump more money into schools needing extra help. A study found New Mexico schools are underfunded by as much as 15 percent. Some worry underfunding could result in lawsuits against the state if not addressed. An education coalition has proposed a one-cent increase in the state's gross receipts tax to generate $380 million a year in new dollars for schools. But the outlook for any tax increase is politically uncertain at best.
Bills are expected that would establish an agency to direct state health policy; consolidate management of existing health insurance programs for public employees and retirees; create a single-payer system whereby state funds and not insurance would pay most medical bills; raise or eliminate caps on payments to victims of medical malpractice; and require insurance companies to allow any qualified medical provider who asks to be part of the insurers' panel of providers. Fights are expected over who would control a health care authority. Doctors will fight changes in malpractice limits. Budget problems will threaten all spending debates, including Medicaid.
With ethics clouds — including a "pay-to-play" investigation and the possible misuse of public money — looming over portions of state government, a slew of bills are expected. They are expected to include measures to cap campaign contributions; create a state ethics commission; impose a one-year "cooling off period" before former legislators could lobby at the Roundhouse; and tighten up an existing law regulating campaign contributions from prospective state contractors. Reform advocates believe the political climate could be right this year to get the long-sought campaign contribution limits.
Advocates are seeking a law giving domestic partners the same state legal rights and obligations as married couples, and a "reciprocity" measure that would give those rights in New Mexico to same-sex couples married in other states. A similar bill was part of Gov. Bill Richardson's 2008 legislative agenda, but failed, as have previous measures. As it has in the past, the issue will likely cause sparks to fly in the Roundhouse: Opponents say such measures undermine the sanctity of heterosexual marriage.
OUTSIDE ... AND MORE
•Wildlife advocates are seeking to change the controversial 1997 "Jennings Law" that allows ranchers to kill wildlife that presents a threat to crops.
•Lawmakers may also consider an overhaul of a 2005 all-terrain-vehicle safety law that requires ATV drivers under age 18 to wear a helmet and complete a safety class — a measure prompted by dozens of deadly wrecks on the fun but powerful machines.
•State water officials are looking for regulatory authority over newly discovered deep aquifers full of brackish water. No current rules govern the water's use.