Special session to focus on spending bill - Albuquerque Journal

Special session to focus on spending bill

The Roundhouse in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Democratic legislators and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham reached agreement Friday on plans to call a special session April 5 focused on issuing tax rebates and passing a $50 million package of omnibus spending.

The agreement comes as New Mexico – the nation’s No. 2 oil producer – enjoys a revenue boom but consumers are hit by high gasoline prices.

Legislators are reviewing the possibility of one-time checks of $110 to $160 for each tax filer, or twice that for couples who file jointly. They may also limit the rebates to filers who made under $75,000 last year or under $150,000 as a couple.

But the details remain under debate.

“As prices remain high nationwide,” Lujan Grisham said Friday, “it is clear that we must act swiftly to deliver more relief to New Mexicans.”

The session could also resolve a budget confrontation between Lujan Grisham and legislators of both parties. The governor last week vetoed a $50 million supplemental spending package that features projects and programs picked by individual legislators.

The special session agenda would include a revised version of the bill addressing the governor’s objections and avoid the possibility of lawmakers calling themselves into session to override the veto.

In an interview, Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said lawmakers are committed to addressing transparency and other concerns raised by the governor about the spending measure, sometimes called the “junior” budget bill.

House Majority Leader Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, said the special session will allow policy makers to quickly address both issues – tax relief and the spending package.

“I’m just grateful that we have a path forward so that we can not only give New Mexicans relief from these high gas prices we’re seeing across the state but also making sure those investments vetted through the junior bill get to those communities,” he told the Journal.

Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, said Republicans have long supported sending more of the state’s revenue directly back to taxpayers. But the special session, he said, is designed to avoid having legislators embarrass the governor through a veto override on the spending package.

“I think the special session being called is really just a political calculation to cover up for her misstep in vetoing the junior spending bill, which was just shocking to everybody,” he said. “That’s really what this is all about.”

As lawmakers prepare to return to the Capitol, economists for the Legislative Finance Committee have analyzed the possibility of issuing $110 to $160 rebates for each tax filer, or $220 to $320 for couples filing jointly. They also studied how much it would cost to limit the rebates to filers who made $75,000 or less in 2021, or $150,000 for couples.

The estimates range from $139 million to $242 million, depending on the size of the rebate and who’s eligible.

The main budget package authorized this year already calls for record-high spending of $8.5 billion, driven by increased state revenue from oil and gas production.

Some lawmakers have suggested suspending the state’s 17 cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline, but opponents said it would interfere with the state’s debt obligations.

Now lawmakers and the governor are turning their focus to rebate checks, building on a similar measure they approved earlier this year.

Tax legislation approved in this year’s 30-day regular session, for example, already calls for $250 checks to taxpayers who made less than $75,000 last year, or $500 for married couples filing jointly who make under $150,000.

The new rebates would come on top of that.

“I think it’s a good use of our nonrecurring general fund revenue,” Stewart said. “Our reserves are at almost 30% – that’s $2.5 billion.”

As for the $50 million spending bill, the Democratic governor angered legislators of both parties when she vetoed it, contending it circumvented the usual budget-vetting process.

The bill allowed each member of the state House to allocate $360,000 to projects and programs of their choosing, and $600,000 for each senator. The proposal, Senate Bill 48, passed without a dissenting vote.

But Lujan Grisham argued that some of the money would go to projects that aren’t fully funded, meaning the money couldn’t be used.

Talks between her administration and legislators accelerated this week about how to resolve the conflict.

Some lawmakers – Democrats and Republicans alike – had pushed for bypassing the governor altogether and overriding her veto. The state Constitution permits lawmakers to declare an emergency and call themselves back into session with support of three-fifths of the members in each chamber.

But the special session is expected to produce a revised version of the spending bill.

“I look forward to continuing our work to deliver pragmatic and productive solutions that benefit New Mexicans,” Lujan Grisham said, “and I appreciate the Legislature’s agreement in prioritizing transparency and accountability in this and future sessions.”

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