Full agenda to greet lawmakers this week

SANTA FE – As if crafting a new $6 billion-plus state spending plan at a time of free-falling oil prices weren’t a daunting enough task, New Mexico lawmakers will also have a thicket of other thorny issues awaiting them when they convene at the Roundhouse this week for the start of a 30-day legislative session.

Richard Sena, an assistant sergeant-at-arms, labels bill books in the House chamber in the state Capitol in Santa Fe in preparation for the legislative session, which starts Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Richard Sena, an assistant sergeant-at-arms, labels bill books in the House chamber in the state Capitol in Santa Fe in preparation for the legislative session, which starts Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Tough-on-crime bills, education initiatives, compliance with the federal Real ID Act and ethics proposals in response to the state’s latest scandal involving an elected official are all expected to be on the session’s agenda, in addition to the Legislature’s annual task of approving a balanced budget.

Meanwhile, it’s an election year and all 112 legislative seats – 70 House seats and 42 Senate seats – will be on the ballot in November, meaning the session will likely feature a healthy dose of politics.

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“You always have that in the back of your mind, but we need to basically remember we’re up there representing people who have no voice without ours,” Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said in a recent interview.

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, said he’s hopeful of finding bipartisan common ground on some issues but added, “In this 24-hour campaign cycle, it makes it difficult (to compromise).”

He blamed Republican Gov. Susana Martinez for contributing to the politically charged climate, and she, in turn, has in the past accused Democrats of obstructionism.

This year’s session will be the sixth regular session for Martinez, who will deliver her annual State of the State address on Tuesday, the session’s opening day, and has already called on lawmakers to focus on job creation, public schools and public safety.

In a recent speech to Albuquerque business leaders, Martinez warned that the tough-on-crime bills could face tough sledding in the Legislature, despite what she described as widespread public support.

“Having been governor for a little while, I can tell you that common sense is often trumped by politics and special interests in Santa Fe,” Martinez said.

If approved, many of the crime-related bills could lead to longer prison sentences and increased inmate populations at state prisons, and the Governor’s Office says it’s willing to accept a higher cost to taxpayers in exchange for safer streets.

New Mexico’s shorter, 30-day legislative sessions, held in even-numbered years, are historically focused on budgetary matters, although the governor can also approve other subjects for consideration.

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For this year’s session, Martinez has said she will give the green light to crime-related legislation, bills aimed at making the state compliant with the Real ID Act, some ethics proposals and a renewed attempt to add New Mexico to the list of states with “right-to-work” bills on their books. The governor has not decided whether to add legislation dealing with gun sales and abortion.

Crime

The occurrence of several high-profile violent crimes in the Albuquerque area, including the killing of Rio Rancho police officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner in May 2015, has prompted calls for tougher penalties for repeat offenders.

Gov. Martinez has thrown her support behind several of the proposals, which are primarily pushed by Republican lawmakers and are supported by several family members of victims. They include an expansion of the state’s “three-strikes” law for violent offenders, a bill that would allow New Mexico cities to enact curfews for minors and a constitutional amendment that would give judges the authority to deny bail to defendants in certain criminal cases.

House Majority Whip Alonzo Baldonado, a Los Lunas Republican, said the GOP-controlled House will most likely move quickly on Republican-favored bills dealing with crime and driver’s permits for immigrants who are in the country illegally.

“There’s no silver bullet in anything, but we’ve got to try,” Baldonado said, referring to the crime-related bills. “We’ve got to attempt to lock up those that are going to be a true detriment to society.”

Defense attorneys and some Democratic lawmakers, however, have expressed concern about the proposals, saying tougher penalties won’t fix New Mexico’s high rate of violent crime.

“Instead of paying for more prison beds, we should invest in mental health treatment facilities,” Matt Coyte, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, wrote in a recent letter to the Journal. “We must stop thinking in terms of punishment alone and instead concentrate on the long-term health of the community.”

There’s also a push for tougher ethics laws since the Republican secretary of state, Dianna Duran, resigned from office last year and pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to her use of campaign funds to fuel a gambling addiction.

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Democratic lawmakers have filed proposals to create an independent ethics commission, ensure that elected officials convicted of felonies lose their pensions and enact stricter reporting requirements for lobbyists.

Meanwhile, Republicans have countered by rolling out measures of their own, including a competing ethics commission proposal and a bill filed by Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park, aimed at strengthening the state’s online system for candidates to report their campaign donations and expenditures.

Jobs, schools

New Mexico’s tepid economic growth and its low ranking in public school quality measures are also expected to be hot-button issues during the session, and familiar battle lines are already forming on several high-profile bills.

Labor unions have vowed to once again fight a proposed right-to-work law, which would change state law so that nonunion employees – in both the private and public sectors – would not have to pay union fees as a condition of employment. Although union membership cannot be required under federal law, such fees can be mandated under contracts in unionized workplaces.

And Senate Democrats say a new attempt to approve a bill requiring third-graders who cannot read proficiently to repeat the grade level – which proponents describe as putting an end to the practice of “social promotion” – will likely be dead on arrival.

Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said Oklahoma and Florida have recently backed away from mandatory retention laws.

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“Why would we move forward with a policy that has proven not to work in the two states that were leaders on it?” Sapien told the Journal. “We need to help our children, not penalize them.”

Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, who has filed a bill on the subject, in a recent letter to the Journal criticized the state’s current policy that allows students to move up in grade levels without having a solid grasp of basic skills.

“At the end of the day, we want to end a failed mentality concerning education,” Youngblood wrote in the letter, also signed by two other House GOP members. “Social promotion is saying some kids can’t learn, won’t learn, so pass the buck.”

Another measure likely to face long odds is a plan to earmark more money from the state’s largest permanent fund for home-visiting programs and other early childhood initiatives. The proposed change to the state Constitution has stalled in the Senate in recent years due to concerns over its impact on the fund’s long-term health.

But its backers have taken a new approach, and ignited a new controversy. In recent days they have launched a “New Mexico Truth” media campaign that highlights the state’s high poverty levels while satirizing the state’s high-profile “New Mexico True” tourism advertising campaign.

Rep. Martinez, who will co-sponsor the measure in the House, said that directing more money toward young New Mexicans could be an antidote to the state’s spate of violent crime.

“Early childhood education is the one proven crime-fighting strategy you can invest in,” he said.

Fiscal uncertainty

Underlining many Roundhouse debates will be the state’s hazy budget situation.

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Although state spending is expected to grow next year for a fifth consecutive year, plunging oil prices could mean no pay raises for most state workers – many of whom have received just two salary increases in the past seven years.

Revenue estimates released by executive and legislative branch economists in December projected that state lawmakers would have $232 million in “new money” to spend in the coming year – in addition to the state’s current $6.2 billion budget – but lower-than-expected oil prices could cause the new-money figure to be pared back during the session.

Sapien called the $232 million “fantasy land,” adding, “We’re more than likely going to be at $35 million to $40 million (in new money), if any at all.”

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Ingle said the state’s current situation is reminiscent of the 1980s, when plummeting energy prices led to the Legislature’s approving tax increases backed by then-Gov. Garrey Carruthers.

Ingle said that, although the state currently has sizable cash reserves of roughly $600 million, the uncertainty over oil prices could force lawmakers to keep spending growth to a minimum.

That could make for difficult decisions on how to address a ballooning price tag for Medicaid, an increase in the number of inmates in New Mexico prisons and a tax structure that some business owners say stifles commerce, even with several broad tax breaks having been enacted since 2012.

“The thing is, we can’t overspend,” Ingle said. “I don’t think there’s going to be much (money) available.”

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