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Packed Agenda For Lawmakers

SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez is going where no New Mexico governor has gone before – and it’s not a foreign country.

By expanding the agenda of a once-per-decade legislative session on redistricting to include other contentious issues, such as immigrant driver’s licenses and banning fireworks, the first-term Republican governor is breaking with recent state convention.

Top-ranking Democrats are blasting Martinez for not allowing the Legislature to focus solely on the politically difficult task of redistricting, and even some Republicans say some items on the agenda will be tough sells.

Redistricting Special Session 2011
West Side growth will force lawmakers to reshape N.M.’s political map A6
Political advantage will color debate over redrawing Congressional districts A7Redistricting isn’t the only subject New Mexico lawmakers will be confronted with during a special legislative session that starts Tuesday. Gov. Susana Martinez plans to include nine other issues on the session’s agenda. Here’s a summary of what’s on the table:
â–  A proposed repeal of the 2003 law signed by then-Gov. Bill Richardson that allows illegal immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses.
â–  Legislation tightening the requirements of an in-state preference law meant to provide New Mexico businesses with an advantage in bidding for government contracts.
â–  Legislation that would help the state’s unemployment fund stay solvent by continuing the contribution rates, or taxes, businesses currently pay into the fund.
â–  A measure that would grant the governor and local governments the authority to enact fireworks bans in extreme droughts.
â–  Three separate proposals to merge state government Cabinet agencies. The mergers would be: The Department of Cultural Affairs with the Department of Tourism, the Department of Public Safety with the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management ,and the General Services Department with the Department of Information Technology.
â–  A requirement that public schools hold back for one year third-graders who are not reading proficiently and give them remedial help. The halting of “social promotion” passed the House in a regular session this year but was never voted on in the Senate.
â–  A $450,000 appropriation to extend a supplemental food stamp program for 4,000 low-income, elderly and disabled New Mexicans through next June.
â–  Approval of a capital outlay bill authorizing more than $200 million in statewide infrastructure projects. That includes $41 million for road maintenance to help offset the Department of Transportation’s spending on the Rail Runner commuter train.
â–  A technical fix to address a flaw in the state’s high-wage tax credit law, which gives businesses a tax break of up to $12,000 on the wages and benefits of each qualifying New Mexico employee.

This much, however, appears clear: When the state’s 112 part-time lawmakers convene in Santa Fe on Tuesday, they will be in for a “supersized” special session.

“I’m just hoping we’re not going to choke ourselves with nonredistricting issues during the special session,” said Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe.

In addition to fireworks and driver’s licenses, Martinez plans to ask legislators to act on seven other issues during a session that’s expected to last for at least two weeks, if not longer. That doesn’t include redistricting.

According to the Legislative Council Service, no other governor in the past 50 years has asked legislators to take action on substantive bills on other subjects while they’re at the Capitol for redistricting.

“The governor certainly has the authority to do that,” Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said of the packed agenda. “I haven’t seen it in previous redistricting sessions, but the issues will be taken up, and there are some issues that are very solvable.”

Martinez has said lawmakers will have time during the special session to address issues important to New Mexico. In fact, before floor votes, most of the 112 legislators won’t be formally involved in the redistricting process, as specific committees develop redistricting bills.

“While a committee in each chamber works on redistricting, there is very important business that can be done to benefit New Mexico families and businesses,” Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell told the Journal.

House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, disagrees. He said last week that most lawmakers – who will have to seek re-election in the newly redrawn districts next year – will be focused on scrutinizing the implications of the many redistricting proposals that will be introduced.

While Martinez has tried to lay the groundwork for the session by meeting in recent weeks with legislators from both main political parties, Lujan said there are still deep fault lines of opinion on agenda topics.

“I don’t know that there’s been consensus on any of the issues at this point in time,” Lujan said

The special session will be Martinez’s first as governor since she took office in January and comes as the state continues to grapple with an economic recession that’s caused state spending to be trimmed for three consecutive years.

The session, which is limited by the state Constitution to no longer than 30 days, is expected to cost about $50,000 per day, according to the Legislative Council Service.

“The purpose of this special session is solely for redistricting,” said Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, who clashed with Martinez during this year’s 60-day legislative session, which ended in March. “I think some of the other stuff, most of the other stuff, can wait until (next year’s legislative session in) January.”

“We really don’t want to be up there longer than two or three weeks because of the cost to the taxpayer.”

Streamlining

The most recent addition to the special session agenda is government streamlining.

Martinez plans to back three separate proposals to consolidate state agencies in an effort to improve efficiency and cut down on costs, according to the Governor’s Office.

The state now has 23 Cabinet-level departments, including eight that were established in the past nine years.

Including government restructuring, the majority of Martinez’s agenda items are carry-overs from bills that either came up short during the regular session or were vetoed by the governor for having perceived drafting flaws.

That includes legislation aimed at ensuring the solvency of the state’s dwindling unemployment fund that would have increased the amount businesses pay into the fund, while also rolling back unemployment benefits for some jobless New Mexicans.

Driver’s licenses

The driver’s license issue is also expected to generate heated debate, after Senate Democrats earlier this year thwarted a Martinez-backed plan to repeal the 2003 law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses and instead backed a proposal to toughen the current law.

In July, the Martinez administration launched an initiative aimed at verifying the residency status of 10,000 of the approximately 85,000 foreign nationals who have licenses under the 2003 law.

However, a state District Court judge temporarily halted the controversial program last week after a lawsuit was filed challenging its constitutionality.

Martinez has acknowledged there isn’t full-fledged consensus on the proposal to repeal the 2003 law, an opinion shared by top-ranking Republican lawmakers.

A House committee is also expected to be formed to discuss the possible impeachment of embattled Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr., who faces allegations of misusing his state-issued credit card.

If the panel recommends impeachment, it’s likely the Legislature would call itself into extraordinary session to act on it, Lujan said. That would occur after the special session ends.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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