SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers gave their final approval Wednesday to a pared-back $6.2 billion spending plan for next year, but bills calling for increased criminal penalties and tougher public corruption laws were still in limbo as today’s finish line for the 30-day session approached.
With the session set to end at noon today, the Senate late Wednesday approved bills that would impose harsher penalties for child pornography and some DWI offenses.
The House voted 57-10 for the $6.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts in July, sending it to Gov. Susana Martinez for final approval.
The vote came after criticism from House Democrats that the plan would not provide sufficient funding for Medicaid, public schools and other state programs.
The budget plan hinges on drawing down the state’s cash reserves, taking $129.5 million from various government accounts – through a separate bill – and reducing state spending levels for the first time in five years.
“When the next crisis comes with our budget, we’re not going to have these huge reserves and these cash balances to sweep,” said House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.
Lawmakers also sent to the governor’s desk another big-ticket spending bill Wednesday, when the Senate signed off on House Bill 219, a $166 million package of public works projects.
Meanwhile, ethics-related legislation faced tougher sledding at the Roundhouse.
Attorney General Hector Balderas told the Journal on Wednesday that he was disappointed with the failure of an ethics commission proposal a day earlier, and with the slow movement of a bill making explicit that corrupt public officials lose their pensions.
“I think that politicians are afraid to apply accountability and strengthen laws that may impact their own bodies. That’s always been a very difficult culture to overcome,” Balderas said.
Balderas said he was “hopeful the Legislature will strengthen and put teeth into the (pension forfeiture) law.”
The attorney general determined last year when he was prosecuting former Secretary of State Dianna Duran for misusing her campaign funds that the current law – which some thought allowed pension forfeiture – was vague and unworkable.
Several senators, meanwhile, defended themselves against criticism that they had derailed a House-approved ethics commission measure.
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, told reporters at a news conference that members of the Senate Rules Committee had merely tried to improve the proposed ethics commission, not kill it.
“I do think it’s a little bit unfair to suggest things go to die when you have sponsors who abandon their bills,” Ivey-Soto said.
That was a reference to Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, the sponsor of the ethics commission measure, who said Tuesday that revisions proposed by members of the Senate committee would make it a “toothless tiger” and that he didn’t want his name on it.
The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 65, which would provide sentences of up to 10 years for possession of child pornography, plus an additional year if the child depicted is under 13. Currently, because of a court ruling, those offenders can be sentenced at most to 18 months, no matter how many images they possess.
Distribution or production could result in an 11-year sentence – up from the current three years – and manufacture could result in a 12-year sentence, instead of nine years now.
The Senate left intact a provision that’s intended to ensure that teenagers under 18 who engage in “sexting” aren’t charged with possession.
Balderas objected to that exemption, saying it walled off law enforcement from investigating situations that may, in fact, be exploitation.
The bill headed back to the House for its agreement to changes the Senate made.
The Senate also approved on a 34-2 vote Senate Bill 118, which would create a penalty for an eighth or subsequent DWI: a potential 12 years in prison, with 10 years of that mandatory.
Currently, the penalty provisions stop at a seventh or subsequent DWI with a potential of three years in prison.
In other action Wednesday:
• The House voted 63-0 to approve Senate Bill 137, requiring student athletes with concussions to sit out for at least 10 days, up from the current requirement of seven days.
The concussion protocol also was expanded to youth athletic groups that use public school district property.
• The Legislature sent to the governor House Bill 336, authorizing the Department of Public Safety to create and maintain a criminal records clearinghouse that merges information from multiple databases. It also would require the Administrative Office of the Courts to report to the FBI any information from court proceedings, or other updates, that would affect someone’s eligibility to buy a gun.
• Lawmakers sent the governor a bill that would allow 17-year-old New Mexicans to vote in the June primary election if they will turn 18 before the November general election. House Bill 138 passed 24-16.
• Lawmakers sent the governor House Bill 105, which would mandate that the Secretary of State’s Office create and maintain a more user-friendly, modern campaign contribution website that would be searchable by the secretary of state’s staff and the public.
Unresolved as the session wound down were other crime-related bills that Martinez and majority House Republicans made a priority.
They included harsher penalties for child abuse, an expansion of the three-strikes law and a bill allowing judges to look at the juvenile records of some offenders when they’re deciding about bail.
Other proposals awaiting action would allow retired law enforcement officers to return to work while still collecting their pension benefits and increase the annual payout from the state’s $14 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund.