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Legislative session ends with 11th-hour cooperation

SANTA FE – A 30-day legislative session filled with plenty of political fireworks ended Thursday with bipartisan backslapping over spending measures aimed at boosting New Mexico’s economy.

Gov. Susana Martinez indicated she will likely sign – with some possible line-item vetoes – a $6.2 billion budget bill that both legislative chambers endorsed. The spending plan features salary increases of at least 3 percent for state employees and teachers and more than $170 million in additional spending for K-12 schools.

“As with every legislative session, no one got everything they wanted,” Martinez told reporters before she boarded a plane for Washington, D.C., to attend national governors meetings. “But I believe that we emerged with a tremendous set of bipartisan accomplishments.”

The Republican governor also cited legislation aimed at bolstering the state’s health care workforce and creating a new online business portal as key successes.

In all, lawmakers approved 91 bills and four constitutional amendment proposals during the regular legislative session that began Jan. 21, according to an unofficial tally.

Other measures heading to the governor’s desk for final approval include a proposed ban on texting while driving, tougher penalties for copper wire thieves and a solvency fix for the state’s dwindling judicial pension system.

“I think it’s a great thing that Santa Fe is not Washington, D.C.,” Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said after Thursday’s adjournment.

Meanwhile, high-profile attempts to increase the state’s minimum wage and legalize recreational marijuana use stalled during the session.

In addition, the Republican governor was once again thwarted in her attempt to repeal a 2003 law that allows immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses, regardless of their immigration status. Her push for retention, rather than “social promotion” of third-graders who can’t read well, also was rejected by the Legislature’s Democratic majorities.

Rep. Miguel P. Garcia, D-Albuquerque, the original sponsor of the 2003 driver’s license law, said a House committee had managed to keep “the governor’s lions caged” on the driver’s license issue.

Meanwhile, House GOP Leader Donald Bratton of Hobbs touted that Republicans were able to thwart a proposed constitutional amendment to divert money from the state’s largest permanent fund for education.

He said most controversial issues received a thorough airing during the 30-day session.

“I think nearly everything was afforded an opportunity for debate and we were able to get an up or down vote on most of the issues that were important to the people,” Bratton said.

With Martinez seeking a second term as governor this year and all 70 House seats also up for election, some lawmakers described the 30-day session as politically charged, at least at times.

The Governor’s Office and Democratic legislators clashed over Senate hearings on a new 25-year racino lease for the Downs at Albuquerque.

Partisan differences also flared up earlier this week during a long-awaited confirmation hearing for Public Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera, who has pushed for merit-based pay for teachers and other controversial school initiatives.

The Senate Rules Committee ultimately deadlocked on moving Skandera’s appointment to the floor for a full vote, leaving the education chief still in place and vowing not to quit.

House Republican Whip Nate Gentry of Albuquerque, who drew the ire of some Democratic lawmakers for tacking proposed amendments onto their bills, said legislators could have compromised on more legislation.

“All that fighting and all that posturing at the end of the day doesn’t get anybody anywhere,” Gentry told the Journal.

Meanwhile, Senate Democratic Leader Michael Sanchez of Belen criticized four House Republicans for not voting on the proposed minimum wage hike that failed on the House floor.

“I can’t imagine the people who sent them up here want them to sit there and not vote,” he said. “I think people deserve to know where they stand on issues.”

He lamented the role of politics played in derailing some proposed legislation, but acknowledged, “We’re in a political building.”

The governor vowed to review the proposed $6.2 billion budget line by line before her March 12 deadline to act on legislation passed during the session’s final days.

While she expressed concern about the overall 5 percent proposed growth in state spending, she said increased teacher salaries and more pre-kindergarten dollars could pay future dividends. In addition, more than $30 million in new education spending will be targeted at specific PED initiatives, including merit pay.

“In this budget, we will spend the most on education in state history,” Martinez said, while adding that simply spending more money would not guarantee improvements in the state’s education system.

Journal staff writers Deborah Baker and James Monteleone contributed to this report.

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