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House gets started on budget fixes

SANTA FE – The House on the second day of a politics-drenched special legislative session voted Saturday to expand an existing child abuse law and approved the first in a series of Senate-passed solvency bills aimed at filling huge holes in the state budget.

The state Senate hours earlier – just after midnight Friday – had adjourned and headed home after passing nearly a dozen budget-balancing measures.

TRIPP: Wants to make changes in budget fixes

TRIPP: Wants to make changes in budget fixes

House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, said the GOP-controlled House planned to meet again today, vote on another crime bill, then recess.

He said the House wants to make some changes in the Senate-passed solvency fixes, and the recess could provide an opportunity for leaders in the two chambers to confer and see if some agreement could be reached.

“They will need to come back,” Tripp said of the Senate.

Under the state constitution, neither chamber of the Legislature can leave without permission of the other chamber for more than three days.

That clock would start Monday, because Sunday doesn’t count. So, if the House hasn’t adjourned by Thursday – although it could recess during that time – the Senate would be required to return to the session.

Top-ranking Senate Democrats insisted they had taken responsible action on the most pressing special session issue, a projected $589 million budget shortfall for the current and just-ended fiscal years.

“We had a job to do. … We came up here and we did the job,” said Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, minutes before the Senate adjourned.

The Democratic-led chamber has so far resisted doing the crime bills that Republican Gov. Susana Martinez put on the agenda for the special session, including a proposal to reinstate the death penalty.

The Republican-led House, however, approved one crime bill and was considering two others.

House members voted 66-1 to send to the Senate a bill expanding the “Baby Brianna” law by making intentional child abuse that results in death a first-degree felony, punishable by life in prison, regardless of the minor victim’s age.

Under current law, the life sentence is already an option for judges if the child is younger than 12. But offenders face 18 years if the child is 12 or over.

Rep. Conrad James, R-Albuquerque, the sponsor of House Bill 5, called it an “arbitrary cutoff that makes no sense.”

Before passing the bill, legislators amended it on the House floor to remove the time limits in state law for prosecuting some sex crimes against children.

Meanwhile, a governor-backed proposal to reinstate New Mexico’s death penalty for certain violent offenses was pending in a House committee on Saturday. And Tripp said he expected the House to vote on another crime bill, one expanding the state’s “three strikes” law, today.

Tax rate

While most solvency bills passed by the Senate were still in limbo Saturday, a House panel derailed a proposal to delay a scheduled corporate income tax rate cut for two years.

The Martinez administration is opposed to the measure, saying it would send a negative message to businesses considering relocating in New Mexico.

But supporters said pausing the tax cut is only fair given the scope of the state’s budget crunch, with Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, saying, “We are simply asking the business community to partner in making the state a good place to live.”

The Senate solvency package would generate an estimated $417.5 million in savings for the current budget year via a mix of one-time fixes and spending cuts.

The House was considering making changes to the spending cut bill, which would include even steeper budget cuts for universities – the University of New Mexico could face an 8 percent budget cut – but an elimination of proposed cuts to some Children, Youth and Families Department programs.

The plan would have about the same total savings as the Senate-approved version, a House leader said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said Saturday he hoped the House wouldn’t make changes to the Senate’s budget-balancing plan.

But a spokesman for the governor on Saturday called the Senate “arrogant.”

“This is a flawed hodgepodge of bills that Senate Democrats cobbled together in the middle of the night so they wouldn’t have to consider legislation to crack down on dangerous criminals,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said.

The one budget-balancing bill that the House approved – via a 66-1 vote – was one of the minor parts of that package, but Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said its passage represented a show of “good faith” that House leaders from both parties are determined to arrive at solutions for the budget problems.

Crime legislation

House Democrats on Saturday renewed their objections to dealing with crime legislation in the short special session, claiming it was politically motivated – designed to make them look bad in campaign advertising if they didn’t vote on, or voted against, a crime bill.

The anticipated ads would be along the lines of “Blank Senator sides with child killers over our children,” complained Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque.

But Senate Republicans said New Mexicans expect the Legislature to at least vote on crime bills after several recent high-profile crimes sent shock waves through the state.

“They expect us to address a budget problem, but they also expect us to address some of the recent tragedies,” said Sen. William Sharer, a Farmington Republican.

The election is Nov. 8 and all 112 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot.