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Berry veto quashes pot, tax proposals

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Mayor Richard Berry on Friday vetoed an election resolution that would have asked Albuquerque voters to reduce marijuana penalties and to raise taxes for social services.

The mayor faced an all-or-nothing proposal from the City Council – an election resolution containing five ballot items, including the marijuana and tax proposals.

The debate now turns to the council, which could try crafting a new election resolution when it meets Wednesday. Unless a councilor changes his or her position, there isn’t enough support to override the veto.

Mayor Richard Berry said he "can't sign a bill that would raise taxes" and decriminalize an illegal drug. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Mayor Richard Berry said he “can’t sign a bill that would raise taxes” and decriminalize an illegal drug. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

In a YouTube video posted to his Twitter account, and in an interview afterward, Berry slammed the council for last week’s party-line vote to add marijuana and tax questions to the election resolution.

Berry is a Republican, but Democrats hold five of nine council seats.

“In good conscience,” the mayor said, “I can’t sign a bill that would raise taxes without any definite plan on how to spend the money and it flies in the face of state and federal law (by decriminalizing) an illegal drug.”

City Council President Ken Sanchez, a Democrat, accused Berry of depriving Albuquerque residents of the right to vote on important initiatives.

“You’ve got to trust the voters that they are going to make the right decision,” Sanchez said. Berry “is not raising the taxes. This would be the will of the voters of Albuquerque if they choose to invest in these initiatives.”

What’s next isn’t clear. The council has broad agreement on at least three measures it wants to send to voters:

  • Granting the City Council approval authority over the mayor’s hiring of a police and fire chief.
  • Changing the voter-initiative process so that successful petition drives don’t cause frequent special elections.
  • A bond proposal to fund metropolitan redevelopment.

Councilors could try crafting an election resolution with just those items. Sanchez has already joined Republican Brad Winter and Democrat Isaac Benton in sponsoring such a bill for consideration Wednesday.

Councilors also could try packaging the three less-controversial measures with one of the proposals Berry opposes in hopes that he’ll sign it anyway, or they could try breaking each item into its own election resolution.

But challenges remain, even if Berry agrees to whatever the council passes.

First, the general-election ballot is already crammed with state and county items. County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver said she expects to have room for at least one municipal item and maybe more, but not all five. Ultimately, the County Commission would have to decide whether to approve the city items.

Second, time is running out. The council meeting is Wednesday, and the County Commission plans to meet on Thursday to consider the city items, if there are any. The mayor, then, would have to almost immediately sign the council-approved bill before the commission’s 5 p.m. meeting.

The ballot is due to state election officials by Sept. 9. The election is on Nov. 4.

Pot, tax proposals

The marijuana and tax proposals look like long shots, unless one of the GOP councilors flips positions and agrees to support them. It would take support from two-thirds of the council to either overturn Berry’s veto or act immediately on a new election resolution.

The marijuana question, sponsored by Councilor Rey Garduño, asks voters whether they want the city to reduce the penalty for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. It would be up to the council to craft an ordinance with the details afterward.

The city of Santa Fe this week passed a similar ordinance.

Opponents have questioned whether the idea is legal or of practical significance, given that state penalties for marijuana would remain in place. Supporters say they gathered thousands of signatures that demonstrate community interest in voting on the idea.

The tax proposal, sponsored by Klarissa Peña, would seek voter approval of a one-eighth cent gross-receipts tax to fund social services.

It would raise about $16 million – with half going to fund services to help people struggling with mental illness, homelessness or addiction. The other half would go toward those services, too, or for construction of “capital improvements” needed to carry out the work.

The measure would boost the city’s gross-receipts tax rate from 7 percent to 7.125 percent.

A task force is meeting to go over what services are needed to help people struggling with mental illness.

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