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Special Session To Tackle 3rd Grade Reading

Copyright © 2011 Albuquerque Journal

Gov. Susana Martinez will put one of her top education proposals back in front of the Legislature early next month, asking lawmakers to halt the “social promotion” of underperforming third-graders.

The legislation, which would require public schools to hold back for one year third-graders who are not reading proficiently and give them remedial help, passed the House during the regular legislative session this year but was never voted on in the Senate. Opponents said the law would have held back too many minority students and provided no money for the remedial help.

Martinez planned to announce the addition to her special legislative session agenda today. The chief purpose of the special session starting Sept. 6 is to redraw congressional and legislative district lines following the 2010 Census, but the governor can ask lawmakers to deal with additional issues.

Some lawmakers are warning that Martinez should not be too ambitious with her special session agenda, especially since redistricting is stressful for lawmakers whose political futures could be at stake.

“The more logs she puts on the fire, it could heat right up,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming.

House Minority Leader Tom Taylor, R-Farmington, said his colleagues shouldn’t complain. There is a long tradition of other business being considered during special sessions, he said.

“In my opinion, it’s a standard way of doing business,” Taylor said.

Martinez told Journal editors and reporters Friday that legislators ought to have the time to consider about a dozen bills. At the beginning of the special session, she said, only a few members from the House and Senate will be working directly on redistricting issues.

“When you have just redistricting and no bills to be considered, then most of them aren’t doing anything,” she said. “The reason we think that they can handle it (other bills) rather quickly is because we’ve been reaching out to (lawmakers) for weeks now, talking with them, getting bipartisan sponsorship of the bills and support early on and consensus early on, so it doesn’t take very long once the session starts.”

Senate President Pro-Tem Tim Jennings said Martinez has the power to add new issues to the workload, but her assessment of how the session works is off because most lawmakers would be working on redistricting maps, even if they are not part of the initial committees looking over various options.

“To characterize it as only five or six people working, that’s just absurd,” he said.

Martinez is planning to call for action on at least eight issues, in addition to redistricting. Several of those issues were addressed in bills that passed both chambers of the Legislature this year but were vetoed by Martinez for technical reasons.

Once those technical issues have been fixed, Martinez said, she expects them to move quickly through both chambers.

Other special session issues to be put forward by the first-term Republican governor remain controversial.

Martinez’s social promotion bill has been changed slightly from the last session to include requirements for schools to assess children’s reading abilities from kindergarten through second grade. The change would give the state a better chance to get $50 million in federal Race to the Top funding over five years.

Other items on the special session agenda include:

♦ A bill, to be sponsored by Rep. Andy Nuñez, a Hatch independent, and Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Texico, that would stop the state from issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. The bill passed the House but faltered in the Senate in the 2011 regular session and caused significant tension between the Governor’s Office and some Democrats.

Martinez said she has not built the same consensus with the driver’s license bill as with other agenda items, but she is including it because of support from constituents.

“They don’t want us to stop fighting for it. They want to take every chance we have to keep bringing up the opportunity to repeal this law,” Martinez said.

♦ A capital outlay bill that would appropriate $211 million for “statewide” public works projects. Martinez stressed that the bill would be only for projects that benefit large regions of New Mexico or the entire state. A capital outlay bill failed in the late minutes of the regular session due to amendments to include smaller projects added in the House. One new provision in the proposed bill would allot $41 million for road maintenance — a rare transfer from the general fund, which generally doesn’t support road maintenance. That’s because the state is having to use an average of $41 million of its highway construction funds to pay Rail Runner debt.

♦ A bill that would make changes to how employers pay unemployment insurance fees. Martinez said she is working with the Legislature to keep fees down for now, but to add language that allows the fees to increase if the unemployment fund becomes close to insolvency. Currently, the fund is estimated to become insolvent in March 2013.

♦ A bill that would allow local governments to ban fireworks. Many municipalities and counties were frustrated this summer to find they could not order an outright ban on fireworks, despite severe drought and a fire season that burned nearly 1 million acres in the state.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal