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Hundreds of bills await action in last few days

SANTA FE – With the clock ticking toward adjournment of a 60-day New Mexico legislative session, a $6.2 billion budget bill and a tax break package are among hundreds of pieces of proposed legislation still unresolved at the Roundhouse.

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, left, talks with Sen. John Arthur Smith, D- Deming, on the Senate floor Wednesday.(Eddie Moore/Journal)

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, left, talks with Sen. John Arthur Smith, D- Deming, on the Senate floor Wednesday.(Eddie Moore/Journal)

But much can happen in the run-up to Saturday’s finish line, and lawmakers were working late Wednesday in a likely preview of what is to come in the next couple of days.

“With just a few days left, we all understand the importance of getting those measures passed that keep government running,” said Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas. “Right now, there is a lot of communication and exchanges (of ideas) occurring.”

While some big-ticket bills are still in the mix, other prominent measures appear to be on life support.

A proposal to end “social promotion” in New Mexico public schools was derailed Wednesday evening in the Senate Public Affairs Committee, with senators voting 4-1 to table the bill.

The measure, one of Gov. Susana Martinez’s top initiatives, was approved 38-30 in the House last month but had languished in the Senate for more than a month before Wednesday’s vote. It would mandate that third-graders who cannot read adequately repeat the grade level.

The vote on the bill did not come as a surprise, but it prompted House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, to blast Senate Democrats for playing “petty politics.”

Meanwhile, tensions between the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate prompted a rare public apology Wednesday.

House Appropriations and Finance Committee Chairman Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, said he had personally apologized to a top-ranking Senate Democrat for a letter sent earlier this week that suggested the House would not approve the budget bill until the Senate signed off on a House-backed tax break package.

In a statement read on the House floor, Larrañaga said the letter sent to Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, included “unbecoming” language.

The letter was sent Monday and signed by Larrañaga and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho.

It appeared to suggest the massive budget bill could effectively be held hostage, saying, “Please pass the tax incentive package … immediately so that the House is able to concur with (the budget bill).”

In response to the situation, Smith said Wednesday, “I’ve never observed more attempts to leverage legislation in the 26 years I’ve been here.” He said differences between the two chambers are more typically resolved by negotiations.

The task of approving a budget is a must-do for lawmakers before the session ends at noon Saturday. The Senate approved the spending bill earlier this week after making only a few changes to the version previously adopted by the House.

However, the House still has to sign off on those changes before the measure can be sent to the governor for final approval.

As for the tax package, the House voted 59-0 this week to approve the measure, which features a half-dozen tax incentives proposed by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Tax cuts include expanded incentives for investors in small-business startups and the creation of technology jobs.

Backers say the tax package, Senate Bill 386, would bolster New Mexico’s economic competitiveness.

“By leveling the playing field, we can help mom and pop stores grow and, at the same time, attract new companies to set up shop in our state,” Harper said.

The bill would result in less revenue being collected by the state. Overall, its various tax cut provisions would amount to about $4.8 million in forgone revenue in the coming budget year, but that figure would grow to more than $12 million by 2019, according to a fiscal review of the legislation.

Journal staff writer Deborah Baker and The Associated Press contributed to this report.