The legislative session ends in just four short days.
That means lawmakers will be working late into the night — and likely into the wee hours of the morning — to get important legislation across the finish line and onto the governor’s desk.
Those that should be passed
GUARDIANSHIP: Lawmakers need to adopt legislation to address the massive abuses of our state’s closed legal guardianship/conservator system. Senate Bill 19 – which cleared the Senate by a unanimous vote last week – has four key reforms that must be implemented this session. Those key reforms include: opening court hearings that are now closed, giving family members more access to guardianship records, ensuring visitation would not be as easily thwarted by commercial guardians, and requiring non-family conservators to post sufficient bonds in case financial impropriety occurs.
While there are problems with other aspects of the bill, which we hope the House addresses, it’s crucial these four elements be enacted this session to protect New Mexico’s most vulnerable citizens, especially after the recent revelations that millions of dollars have been embezzled from guardian or conservator clients.
DA FUNDING: Second Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez, a Democrat, is asking for a budget increase of about $5.4 million. It would allow him to hire 20 more prosecutors who, combined, could handle about 1,600 more felony cases. The need for the additional funds is obvious. Both violent and property crime in Albuquerque has skyrocketed. Unfortunately, Torrez has faced an uphill battle, with the House approving a $2.3 million increase in his base budget (and additional one-time funds). However, the Senate Finance Committee is offering a reasonable compromise at $4.3 million. Lawmakers should give Torrez the resources he needs to get a handle on the crime problem. Failing to do so puts Albuquerque, and the whole state, at risk.
TAX REFORM: House Bill 4 would impose gross receipts taxes on internet sales and not-for-profit hospital services. Imposing GRTs on online sales would level the playing field for New Mexico brick-and mortar retailers, which is critical. And it would put New Mexico’s not-for-profit hospitals on equal footing with for-profit hospitals such as those owned by Lovelace Health Systems, which is already paying state gross receipts taxes.
However, the bill would also change personal income tax rates, increasing the top rate and reducing tax rates for some households. An analysis by the state Taxation and Revenue Department estimates that the proposed changes to the personal income tax rates would have a negative impact on revenue. Lawmakers should pass the GRT reforms but table the proposed changes to the personal income tax structure to allow for a thorough vetting of those changes.
CARLSBAD BRINE WELL: It’s one of those projects that isn’t flashy or exciting; in fact, it’s the equivalent of pouring millions of dollars into a hole. But state lawmakers and Gov. Martinez should come up with the funding to address the Carlsbad Brine Well, which is on the verge of collapse. A collapse would result in an estimated $750 million in direct loss, including serious damage to two state highways, an irrigation canal that feeds nearby farmland, an aquifer, a mobile home park and a church. Waiting until next legislative session to find the money for this project would be the equivalent of playing Russian roulette.
STEP THERAPY: Senate Bill 11, a bipartisan proposal, is aimed at improving the regulation of “step therapy” – the practice of requiring patients to try cheaper drugs before more expensive ones. This bill would create an appeals process if a patient is denied his or her ideal drug. It’s important to note that the legislation doesn’t do away with step therapy. It merely strikes a balance between insurance companies, who are trying to keep costs low, and patients, many of whom are suffering from debilitating illnesses and shouldn’t have to suffer through months of ineffective drugs to get the medicine they need.
PET FOOD FEE: Senate Bill 51 and House Bill 64 are bipartisan proposals that would impose a fee on dog and cat food to help fund spay-neuter programs. The bills would generate nearly $1.4 million a year, once the fee is fully phased in, for programs that help low-income families spay or neuter their pets. The proposal would cost families about $1.38 a year for each dog or cat, and would reduce animal suffering and euthanasia. This is a small price to pay to reduce the number of preventable animal euthanasias in our community.
DWI: There are several bills aimed at chipping away at New Mexico’s pervasive DWI problem. House Bill 71 would allow police to obtain warrants for blood tests when individuals are suspected of DWI. Under current state law officers can only obtain warrants for the tests in DWI incidents involving felonies, great bodily injury or death. SB 213 would allow officers to appear for Motor Vehicle Division license revocation proceedings via video conference. HB 266 would add a stipulation that DWI ignition interlock devices can be removed only if a driver has recorded two or fewer tests with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05 percent or higher during a six-month period and met other criteria. Currently, the device can be removed after six months, regardless. HB 54 would make individuals with five or more DWI convictions eligible for prosecution under New Mexico’s habitual offender statute, increasing the consequence for drivers convicted of DWI while on a suspended or revoked license from a misdemeanor to a fourth-degree felony, and make the charge of great bodily harm by vehicle a second-degree felony.
LOTTERY: House Bill 147 would remove a requirement the lottery put at least 30 percent of its gross revenues into the Legislative Lottery Scholarship program. Three amendments adopted by the House on Saturday make it acceptable. One caps the lottery’s operating expenses at 15 percent. Another one raises the minimum guarantee for students from $38 million to $40 million. The third amendment clarifies that unclaimed prize money must go to the scholarship fund in addition to the $40 million minimum. Lawmakers should pass this bill, but only if all three of those protections for students are included.
Those that should die
TAPPING THE PERMANENT FUND: A proposal to take more money out of the state’s largest permanent fund to pay for early childhood programs narrowly made it through the House last week. While we understand the desire to invest more in early childhood programs, this proposed constitutional amendment misses the mark on two fronts. First, it would damage the financial health of the fund, which already provides hundreds of millions of dollars for schools and other beneficiaries each year. According to the State Investment Council, the state would receive extra annual funding for about 25 years, but after that the state would actually get less than if it had not tapped the fund. The other concern is no detailed plan has been put forth for how the additional $150 million a year for early childhood services would be spent. If this measure makes it through the Legislature, it will go to voters as a constitutional amendment and also needs to be approved by Congress.
SPACEPORT: A proposal to allow Spaceport America to keep secret basic information about its aerospace customers tramples the public’s right to know. Despite meetings with government transparency advocates, the bill that has emerged is worse than the one the state agency originally proposed. Under the new Senate Bill 98, even the names of the companies that contract with the SpacePort, built with $200 million in taxpayer money, are allowed to be kept confidential. We understand some confidentiality is needed to compete in the brand new space industry — but this bill goes too far.
By law, the Legislature must wrap up its work by noon Thursday. There’s a great deal riding on their success.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.