Legislature begins special session on budget, crime

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers will convene at the Roundhouse today for a special legislative session to consider weighty issues – a daunting budget shortfall, the reinstatement of the death penalty and revamped child abuse laws – with Election Day looming just over a month away.

While the Republican-controlled House is expected to move quickly on the crime-related bills that Gov. Susana Martinez added to the special session agenda, top-ranking Democratic lawmakers said Thursday that the budget crunch should be the focus and the other bills can wait until the 60-day regular session in January.

“The special session is supposed to be about fixing the actual deficit that (the governor) and House Republicans created,” said House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. “They’re not taking the budget situation seriously.”

A Martinez spokesman, however, cautioned Democratic lawmakers against ignoring crime-related issues, singling out for criticism Senate Democratic floor leader Michael Sanchez of Belen, who said earlier this week that Senate Democrats are focused on budget concerns.

“A roll call vote would take two minutes, and if legislators did what people are demanding, it could mean justice for victims, fewer repeat offenders on our streets, and safer neighborhoods for our kids to grow up in,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said.

Some top-ranking legislators were caught off guard by the governor’s special session announcement late Wednesday, as a series of budget talks had not yet led to agreement on a budget-balancing plan.

Martinez, who had earlier said she wanted an agreement before calling the special session, decided to call the session after working for more than 60 days to try to negotiate a budget deal, an aide said earlier this week.

House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, said the governor’s decision to move forward without a deal in place means lawmakers will be forced to take prompt action on the state’s budget crunch, adding, “Sometimes you have to create an urgency and that did it.”

He said he’s hopeful the special session will last for no more than three days – such sessions can last for up to 30 days per the state Constitution – so that legislators could leave Santa Fe by the end of the weekend.

Another challenge facing lawmakers is elevated hotel room prices and low hotel vacancy rates due to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which begins Saturday.

Budget woes

The driving force behind the special session is the state’s precarious financial situation. New Mexico is facing a total $589 million budget shortfall for the current and just-ended fiscal years and the possibility of having its credit rating downgraded, as plummeting oil and natural gas prices have led to the state taking in far less revenue than expected over the last two years.

In budget negotiations, Martinez, the state’s two-term Republican governor, has stuck to a “no tax increase” stance she has held since taking office in 2011, while Senate Democrats have balked at cuts to public schools, which make up 44 percent of the state budget.

Some of the budget fixes being eyed by top-ranking lawmakers include taking money from various state government accounts and infrastructure projects, tapping a $220 million-plus tobacco fund created in response to a 1999 legal settlement and tightening several state tax “loopholes.”

Top House Democrat Egolf said one proposal recently floated by House Republicans would take money from school districts around the state and trim spending on the state’s film incentive program, a proposal he described as a “horrible idea.”

House Speaker Tripp said there will be 10 to 12 solvency-related bills in the special session, though he declined to go into detail about the specific budget-balancing measures being pushed.

Some long shot proposals could also be in the mix, as Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, said Thursday he plans to introduce bills to legalize and tax recreational marijuana use and tighten the allowable capital gains tax deduction for individuals.

Those bills could be allowable for debate, as the formal special session proclamation Martinez issued Thursday opens the door to bills to “reform and simplify” the state’s tax laws.

Martinez had previously said she’d like the special session to be a quick affair in order to keep taxpayer costs to a minimum. The special session will cost an estimated $50,000 per day, based on recent such sessions.

Campaigns interrupted

The special session could also have an impact on campaign activities, as state law bars both legislators and legislative candidates from soliciting campaign contributions – via fundraisers or other approaches – from the time the governor issued the special session proclamation until adjournment.

All 112 legislative seats are up for election Nov. 8, and Monday is the deadline for the second campaign finance reporting period for the general election cycle. State law also bars lobbyists from giving campaign donations during the restricted period.

While campaign fundraising efforts will soon be on pause, outside groups were busy Thursday gearing up for the special session.

A Santa Fe-based group pushing for a 25-cent per drink increase in alcohol taxes, which has been assailed by the state’s growing microbrewery industry, plans to launch radio ads starting today in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe.

And one of the state’s teachers unions, the National Education Association-New Mexico, called on members to gather signatures for petitions aimed at showing opposition to any spending cuts to public schools or universities. Those petitions will be presented today to the Governor’s Office and the chairmen of both the House and Senate budget-writing committees.

Meanwhile, several family members of victims of violent crimes, who have formed a coalition, said Thursday they also plan to attend the special session.

Nicole Chavez of Albuquerque, whose son, Jaydon Chavez-Silver, was shot and killed while attending a house party in June 2015, said in a statement that New Mexico has become a “safe haven” for violent repeat offenders.

“For the safety of our families and communities, we plead with our legislators to finally be a voice for the victims,” Chavez said.

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