Lawmakers enter session homestretch with tax package, legislative pay proposals still in limbo - Albuquerque Journal

Lawmakers enter session homestretch with tax package, legislative pay proposals still in limbo

Sen. Benny Shendo, Jr. D-Jemez Pueblo, left, and Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, share a laugh Wednesday during a Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee hearing on a hefty tax package. The bill was headed to the Senate floor late Wednesday evening, after the committee approved changes to it on a party-line vote. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — With lawmakers entering the final three days of this year’s 60-day session, tensions are rising at the Roundhouse as sleep-deprived lawmakers and lobbyists seek to get bills over the finish line — or keep them bottled up for another year.

Proposals dealing with gun safety, retail crime and paying lawmakers a salary are among those whose fates will be determined between now and noon on Saturday, when legislators adjourn.

“Nothing around this place at this stage is friendly anymore,” Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, remarked during a late-night committee meeting this week.

But some high-profile measures advanced closer to final approval Wednesday, including a bipartisan compromise aimed at ensuring New Mexico independent outpatient clinics can obtain the medical malpractice insurance they need to operate and a massive $1.2 billion public works package.

The medical malpractice measure, Senate Bill 523, passed the Senate on a 40-2 vote just a day after being unveiled, despite criticism about it bypassing some committees, while the capital outlay bill was sent to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk after withstanding Republican attempts to remove a $10 million earmark for a proposed reproductive health and abortion clinic in Dona Ana County.

“I consider this a serious crime against humanity,” said Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington. “I want to do the right things for the mother and the child.”

In addition, the Senate unveiled revisions to a hefty House-approved tax package that, if approved, would provide $500 rebates to New Mexico taxpayers — married couples filing jointly would get $1,000 checks — and lower the state’s gross receipts tax rate for the second straight year.

“This is, I think, the biggest tax package we’ve done in years here, and it’s going to help a lot of New Mexicans,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said during a Wednesday committee hearing.

The full Senate then approved the bill on a 24-12 vote shortly before midnight Wednesday night, after majority Democrats rejected an attempt to scrap a proposed narrowing of the state’s capital gains tax deduction from the package, which would have been in addition to the other revisions.

But Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, suggested the House might not accept some of the Senate’s proposed changes, including a larger 5-cent per drink alcohol tax increase and a phased-in increase of the state’s annual cap on film incentive spending — from $110 million to $210 million.

If the House votes not to accept the revisions, a conference committee with designees from both chambers would be appointed to try to hammer out a deal in the session’s final days.

Meanwhile, with time running out, proponents of climate change bills and proposals aimed at improving prison conditions were among those frustrated by legislative inaction .

Specifically, more than 110 bills were awaiting action in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is known for its propensity to dissect bills.

The Democratic governor was also among those lobbying for bills, as Lujan Grisham issued a statement Wednesday urging the House to pass a special education funding measure, House Bill 285, that has been on the chamber’s floor awaiting a vote for more than a week.

“Further study is not going to solve this problem, and the time for the Legislature to act is now,” she said.

House Minority Leader Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, said he was hopeful that proposals to address organized retail crime and prohibit buying a firearm for a convicted felon would make it across the finish line by Saturday.

But he said lawmakers had missed an opportunity to tighten New Mexico’s pretrial detention laws to address repeat offenders.

“No real movement on crime bills is one of the big disappointments of the session,” he said.

Legislator pay stalls

There was also uncertainly about a Democratic-backed push to restructure the Legislature through constitutional amendments that would lengthen some legislative sessions and establish a salary for legislators.

A proposed constitutional amendment that would — if approved by voters — set up a commission to determine legislative salaries stalled in its final legislative committee Wednesday.

The Senate Finance Committee debated the measure for about 90 minutes Wednesday without taking action on it. The measure cleared the House earlier this month and had been advancing, albeit slowly, in the Senate until Wednesday’s hearing.

Members of the committee questioned whether it was appropriate or even legal to have an unelected body set salaries that the Legislature would be obligated to appropriate money in the budget to pay for.

“I think the bill needs a lot of work,” Sen. William Burt, R-Alamogordo, said. “I kind of like the concept, but I need to digest it a little more.”

The salary measure isn’t necessarily dead, but Rep. Angelica Rubio, a Las Cruces Democrat and co-sponsor, said on Twitter that she “can’t see a path forward” with just three days left.

A companion proposal, House Joint Resolution 2, would lengthen election-year sessions to 60 days, up from 30. It has been awaiting action by the full House, leaving it with dim prospects heading into the final days.

Supporters of the ideas — often described as attempts to “modernize” the Legislature — say they would result in a more responsive, effective legislative body and broaden the pool of people who can afford to serve.

Sen. Harold Pope Jr., D-Albuquerque, said the legislative modernization proposals are one of the key issues he’s watching in the final days of the session.

“The way the system is leaves out a lot of people,” Pope said.

‘Critical’ work

Even with plenty of work still to do, lawmakers already have dispatched a host of fiercely debated measures.

They have, for example, sent to the governor proposals expanding protections under the states’s Human Rights Act and blocking local governments from enacting anti-abortion ordinances or denying access to gender-affirming care.

Sen. Brenda McKenna, D-Corrales, said those bills are what she expects to remember about this session, especially as nearby states curtail abortion rights.

“To me, that’s so critical in light of what’s happening in other states,” McKenna said.

And Lane, for his part, said he was pleased to see a bipartisan deal on medical malpractice legislation take shape in the final days of the session, following the defeat of earlier measures backed by Republican lawmakers.

The compromise bill still needs House approval in the session’s final three days in order to reach the governor’s desk.

“We’ve been very vocal on this issue,” Lane said, “and I think it’s paying off.”

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