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Wrangling over special session continues

SANTA FE – Talk about a special New Mexico legislative session to consider
capital outlay and a tax package ramped up Wednesday, but Democrats and Republicans continued to trade barbs over which side was responsible for the demise of the legislation in the closing hours of the regular session.

And both sides said it would take compromise by the other in order for anything to be accomplished in a special session.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said Wednesday that Senate Democrats support the special session idea – with caveats. He said it would require a vow of compromise from Gov. Susana Martinez’s office and that a more open vetting of which projects should be included in the final public works package.

“The Senate cannot have hugely expensively projects that we have never seen dropped in our lap in the final minutes of a session again,” Sanchez said in a statement issued by New Mexico Senate Democrats.

But Martinez said in response that it was Sanchez and majority Senate Democrats who were unwilling to compromise during the just-completed 60-day regular legislative session.

“Simply put, taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for anymore partisan, political games; they paid for enough of it during the 60-day session,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell told the Journal.

The Republican governor, who has the authority to call lawmakers back to Santa Fe for a special session, has thus far said she does not plan to do so. But she did say earlier this week she would consider calling such a session if Senate Democrats were willing to hammer out a deal with her administration beforehand.

Even a brief special session likely would cost at least $50,000 per day, based on the most recent such sessions.

The governor and Sanchez have tangled frequently in recent years and the two have not spoken since the session ended, Sanchez said.

But he said he’s open to having such a discussion, saying, “I’m interested. If she wants to reach out to leadership, I think that would be wonderful.”

He also said Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, would likely be the Senate Democrats’ main negotiator if talks materialize.

House Republicans, who hold a majority in the chamber, have also been critical of top-ranking Senate Democrats’ handling of the capital works measure.

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, wrote in a letter to the Journal that the Senate intended to “run out the clock” on the $264 million public works package by not sending it to the House until the final week of the 60-day session.

Though it was approved in both the Senate and House, the capital works bill died on the session’s final day since the two chambers could not agree on the same version of the bill. Its failure was marked by partisan finger-pointing – Senate Democrats blamed House Republicans for blindsiding them with changes to the measure – and disagreement over how to pay for highway repair and maintenance work statewide.

The public works measure would have funded hundreds of projects around New Mexico, ranging from senior citizen center renovations to improvements to University of New Mexico buildings. Lawmakers typically pass such a package annually, which is primarily funded by bonds backed by state severance tax revenue on oil and natural gas production.

As for the $4.8 million bundle of tax breaks, the legislation including nearly a dozen tax proposals passed the House on a decisive vote but died on the Senate floor in the session’s final minutes due to a mini-filibuster by Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque.

The death of this year’s capital works legislation, while not unprecedented, had prompted calls for a special session even before Wednesday. Earlier this week, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce urged the governor and top-ranking legislators to come up with a deal on capital outlay and the tax package and pass both measures during a brief special session.

Meanwhile, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, a Republican and former state representative, also urged lawmakers to strike a capital outlay compromise and approve it during a special session.

During a Wednesday news conference on another topic, Berry didn’t single out either party or chamber – the House and Senate – for blame, but made it clear that he and other mayors still hope to see a package of capital projects approved.

It could mean “thousands of jobs,” he said. “It’s critical infrastructure.”

Journal staff writer Dan McKay contributed to this report.