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SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers will return to the Roundhouse on Tuesday for a special session focused on providing state residents with relief from high gas prices and the revival of a $50 million spending package.
The special session called by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is expected to be brief – likely lasting just one day – and comes less than four weeks after the governor drew legislators’ ire by vetoing the initial version of a spending bill containing funding for dozens of small projects around the state.
Top Democratic legislators said Monday a rebate plan crafted after discussions with the Governor’s Office would provide $500 payments to individual taxpayers, regardless of their income level. Married couples filing jointly and individuals filing as heads of household would get $1,000 rebates. Those who don’t file tax returns, including some elderly residents, could still qualify for the rebates but would have to file an application with a state agency.
“Given the tremendous revenue increases we’re seeing, we think it’s prudent to give a little more help to residents of our state,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told reporters during a news conference at the Roundhouse.
The new round of rebates are larger than previously proposed and would cost the state an estimated $690 million, which would come out of the state’s still-flush cash reserves. They would be sent out in two payments – the first by the end of June and the second in mid-October, under a draft version of the bill.
If approved, the new round of rebates would be in addition to tax rebates of $250 for New Mexicans who reported making less than $75,000 last year that were ratified during this year’s 30-day legislative session as part of a broad tax package.
Those checks will be sent out in July, and heads of households and married couples filing jointly will get $500 rebates if they reported earning less than $150,000 last year.
The state’s financial largesse has been made possible by a record-smashing revenue windfall, as New Mexico has seen its oil production more than triple over the last five years.
However, the spike in oil prices has also pushed New Mexico average gas prices to an all-time high – they averaged $4.114 per gallon as of Monday – and strained state residents who live in rural areas or have to drive long distances for work.
“Too many parents are having to make the choice between putting food on the table and filling up the gas tank to bring their kids to Little League practices and games,” said House Majority Leader Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque.
“We have the money available,” added Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. “It’s much better if it’s out working for people than if it’s sitting in a savings account.”
Egolf said the state Constitution’s anti-donation clause prohibits lawmakers from giving gasoline debit cards to residents. He also insisted the rebates were not politically motivated in a year in which all 70 House seats are up for election and all statewide offices – including governor – will be on the ballot.
“I really don’t think the voters are going to decide whether or not someone should be elected based on the tax rebates they received,” Egolf said.
Complaints over session
Not all lawmakers are thrilled to be heading back to the Roundhouse.
Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, who is one of five Republicans running for governor, blasted Democrats for a “one-size-fits-all” approach to financial relief and suggested the special session could have been avoided.
“We’ve been down this road before – the state Legislature will be returning to the Roundhouse at a massive cost to the taxpayer while our inept leadership already once vetoed the proposals we’ll be debating,” Dow said Monday.
That reference was to a $50.4 million grab-bag of projects, called the “junior” spending bill, that Lujan Grisham vetoed in March, saying the measure only partially funded many of the 500 or so projects it contained and did not represent sound fiscal policy.
The governor’s veto angered many lawmakers – both Democrats and Republicans – and some legislators initially expressed support for an extraordinary legislative session to override the governor’s veto.
But top-ranking Democratic lawmakers eventually reached an agreement with the Governor’s Office to have the bill brought back, with some changes, in a special session.
Those changes are not expected to significantly affect the bill’s price tag, but will include a transparency provision requiring lawmakers to disclose which projects they allocated funding for, legislators said Monday.
“It’s a much better bill than it was during the 30-day session,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe.
Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham said in a Monday statement the proposed financial relief would make a significant difference in New Mexicans’ daily lives.
“We stand together in our support of New Mexico families by providing meaningful financial relief in the face of rising prices, and we have a real opportunity to ease the burdens so many are currently experiencing,” the governor said. “Our state is in a good position financially, and we should do all we can to ensure that New Mexicans are feeling that success too.”
The Governor’s Office also said one of the special session bills would contain funding to “significantly” reduce ticket prices on the Rail Runner commuter train, which runs between Belen and Santa Fe and has seen an increase in ridership since gas prices began rising.
Three years in a row
The special session will mark the third year in a row lawmakers will convene for a special session, which are called by the governor and can last for no more than 30 days.
After no special sessions were called in 2018 and 2019, lawmakers were called back to Santa Fe twice in 2020 and twice last year – including a December special session focused on the once-per-decade task of redistricting.
Special sessions have cost an average of $50,000 per day in recent years.
However, Wirth said the expense will be worthwhile if lawmakers can provide additional financial relief for state residents.
He also expressed optimism the special session will not drag on for multiple days, saying, “the key to a successful special session is on the front end.”
“I think the special session is coming at a great time for New Mexicans,” Wirth added.