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Gov. assails Democrats as tension over budget shortfall grows

SANTA FE – Tension over New Mexico’s gaping budget shortfall appears to be mounting, as Gov. Susana Martinez lashed out at Senate Democrats on Thursday for playing what the Governor’s Office described as “political games” with the state’s dicey fiscal situation.

The two-term Republican governor’s comments came after majority Senate Democrats had called on Martinez in recent days to put forward a budget-balancing plan and voiced concern about why a special legislative session to deal with the budget crisis has yet to be scheduled.

Meanwhile, a Martinez spokesman suggested other issues – including proposals to increase child abuse penalties and reinstate New Mexico’s death penalty – could be added to the agenda of a special session.

“Since it looks like the Senate Democrats don’t want to work on a budget solution in advance, that will mean a much longer session and it would make sense to include more items,” spokesman Michael Lonergan told the Journal, adding that no decision on adding other issues has been made.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the lead negotiator for Senate Democrats in budget talks, said Thursday that he recently told the governor during a telephone conversation that a special session should focus on the budget crunch.

New Mexico is facing a $458 million projected budget shortfall for the current fiscal year, along with a $131 million deficit for the budget year that ended June 30. The crunch is largely due to plummeting energy prices, which caused state tax collections to fall far short of what had been expected.

As a result, the state has spent all the money in its primary reserve fund, and its remaining reserve accounts could be drained in a special session.

Martinez has said previously that she would like a special session to be an in-and-out job, which would likely require that an agreement be reached beforehand. But no budget deal has been struck, despite meetings between Martinez administration officials and lawmakers, and the governor has held off on calling the Legislature back to Santa Fe.

Asked Thursday about the governor’s criticism of Senate Democrats, Smith said he has repeatedly sounded the alarm about the state’s budget situation and urged that action be taken to address it.

“I’ve said from the get-go that everything should be on the table,” Smith said in an interview. “The bottom line is I’ve been very out front about wanting a special session.”

The Martinez administration has not released a comprehensive budget-balancing blueprint, though top staffers have been looking at options. No budget plan has been put forward by the Legislature, either, although various cost-saving measures have been floated.

On Thursday, the Governor’s Office insinuated majority Senate Democrats are more worried about November elections – all 112 legislative seats are up for election this year – than they are about solving the budget shortfall.

“Unfortunately, Senate Democrats are more committed to playing political games than they are to addressing the budget situation,” Martinez spokesman Lonergan said.

He also said legislative leaders have not heeded the governor’s call to ask state agencies not under the executive branch’s control to reduce their spending levels. Martinez last month directed executive branch agencies to come up with ways to trim at least 5 percent in spending from their approved budgets, though exceptions were allowed for public safety and health.

But Smith said such spending reductions by non-executive branch agencies would likely only generate $35 million to $40 million in savings, or just a fraction of what’s necessary to balance the state’s budget.

And Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, blasted the governor in a Thursday social media posting that said, “Saying ‘no tax increases’ isn’t a plan. Governor, where’s the plan?” a reference to Martinez’s continued opposition to raising taxes.

As for the possibility of other issues being added to a special session agenda, Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, has said he supports adding increased child abuse penalties to the agenda, a move that would force lawmakers to deal with the issue just weeks before the November election.

Talk of tougher penalties and reinstating New Mexico’s death penalty – which was replaced in 2009 by life in prison without the possibility of parole – has been stoked in recent weeks by the death of Victoria Martens, an Albuquerque girl who police say was raped and killed on the day she planned to celebrate her 10th birthday.

A special session would likely cost taxpayers at least $50,000 per day in staffing costs and per diem payments to legislators, based on recent special sessions.

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