$50M spending bill, fuel prices focus at Capitol - Albuquerque Journal

$50M spending bill, fuel prices focus at Capitol

In this file photo, flags hang at the Roundhouse rotunda.(Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Democratic lawmakers debated in closed-door talks Tuesday how to provide financial relief to drivers squeezed by high gasoline prices and options for restoring $50 million in spending vetoed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

They discussed the possibility of an April 5 special session called by the governor that would focus on tax rebates and a revised version of the spending package.

But they didn’t make a final decision during caucus meetings late Tuesday at the Capitol.

In an interview, Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, expressed optimism about reaching an agreement with Lujan Grisham on plans for a special session.

But lawmakers, she said, are still evaluating how to address the governor’s objections to the spending bill.

“We’re not there yet,” Stewart said.

If no agreement is reached, lawmakers have discussed the option of calling themselves into session without the governor’s approval, using an emergency procedure outlined in the state Constitution for an “extraordinary” session.

Whether by special or extraordinary session, lawmakers are focused on addressing fuel costs and enacting the $50 million supplemental spending package initially rejected by the governor.

Among the fuel options under consideration, according to lawmakers, are suspending the state’s portion of the gas tax or issuing tax rebates to New Mexicans to reflect the higher cost of living.

Oil prices have surged following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, sharply expanding revenue in New Mexico, the No. 2 oil producer in the United States.

Some lawmakers have floated the idea of suspending the state’s 17 cents a gallon tax on gas. But others say lifting the gas tax might affect the state’s debt obligations, among other potential consequences, leading to increased talk of rebates as an alternative.

Lawmakers of both parties, however, have said they support taking action of some kind to help New Mexicans hit by higher fuel costs.

“The state is certainly rolling in revenue,” House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said Tuesday.

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, put it this way: “People need help.”

Caucus meetings are closed to the public. They are a confidential forum that allows a group of legislators – usually Democrats or Republicans in a particular chamber – to discuss strategy or other topics among themselves.

This month’s round of talks began after Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, angered lawmakers of both parties by vetoing legislation that would have funded programs and projects picked by individual legislators.

The proposal, Senate Bill 48, gave each lawmaker a certain amount of money to allocate as they chose. Members of the House got $360,000 each and senators had $600,000.

It passed without a dissenting vote.

Funding was earmarked for a wide range of purposes: speech and debate clubs, animal rescue, medical equipment, public safety programs and other projects.

Lujan Grisham rejected the bill, contending it circumvented the typical budget process and wasn’t a wise way to make spending decisions for public money.

Lawmakers initially focused on whether to call an extraordinary session, as it’s called in the state Constitution, to override the veto.

Such a session can be convened with support from three-fifths of the members of each chamber.

But it’s a rare procedure – having been used only once in state history, in 2002 – and would deliver an unusual, bipartisan rebuke to a governor up for reelection this year. While an extraordinary session would be open to any topic, a special session would be limited to subjects authorized by the governor.

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