Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The Republican-majority House on Monday approved two more components of its solvency package, a proposed combination of spending cuts and one-time fixes aimed at filling most – if not all – of a $589 million hole in New Mexico’s budget.
But, as a special legislative session reached its fourth day, there was still fierce debate over the budget-balancing plan – and whether temporarily trimming state spending on film incentives should be part of it – and over crime-related measures pushed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
“This has been a difficult session for all of us, and probably more so for the people of New Mexico,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, during a committee hearing.
Late Monday, the House Appropriations and Finance Committee approved 8-6 a bill sought by the governor reinstating the death penalty for those who murder children, police officers and corrections officers.
Republicans voted for the bill, and Democrats against it. It now goes to the House floor.
First, the committee removed provisions that opponents complained were archaic and offensive: a reference to “mentally retarded” inmates and a requirement that if a death row inmate were believed to be pregnant, she would be examined by physicians in the presence of a judge – with the doors closed, if she requested.
Before debate on the death penalty began, the full House approved without changes two of the nine bills the Democratic-led Senate passed last week to deal with the budget crisis, and then recessed until Wednesday.
House committees already have begun making changes in the rest of the Senate-passed package, which would bring the Senate back to the Capitol – likely on Thursday – for final decisions on the solvency plan.
The state came up $131 million short in the budget year that ended June 30, due largely to plummeting oil and natural gas prices, and faces a projected shortfall of $458 million for the current budget year
The House on Monday voted 50-13 to approve a bill that fills nearly $90 million of the budget hole.
Most of that comes from shifting the funding mechanisms for previously approved capital improvement projects around the state, but $12.5 million of it comes from canceling projects from 2014 and earlier that have not gotten off the ground.
Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, called Senate Bill 8 “one of the least bad of the bad decisions we have to make.”
But Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, objected that the capital outlay cuts include 21 projects on the Navajo Nation in an area that is already economically depressed and lacks basic services.
“We have communities that are left out, we have communities that are hurting,” Clahchischilliage said.
“McKinley County alone has 15 projects on this list, all of them on Navajo land,” agreed Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan.
The House also approved unanimously Senate Bill 4, which takes $12.5 million from the Public Schools Capital Outlay Fund and puts it toward the solvency plan.
Film cuts assailed
While most lawmakers appear resigned to budget cuts, there’s been partisan disagreement over what programs and services should be affected.
Democratic members of a House tax panel strongly objected to a proposal to reduce spending on film rebates to $30 million – there’s a $50 million cap on film credit spending – by postponing payment on some film rebate applications for one year.
“I just really think this sends a bad message to the industry,” said Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe. “They’re looking for reliability and consistency.”
But the measure, House Bill 15, passed the House Ways and Means Committee on a party-line 7-5 vote after backers defended it as fair given the belt-tightening other state agencies and programs are facing.
“All we’re asking the film industry to do is allow us to take a little longer for the payout,” said Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington.
The bill now goes to the full House. It would also have to pass the Senate in order to land on the governor’s desk for final approval.
Meanwhile, changes made by House committees to the Senate budget package included restoring funding to law enforcement and child services that was clipped in the Senate version.
The Senate had cut law enforcement programs by $1.8 million and the Children, Youth and Families Department by $1.5 million. The House plan also added $1.5 million to CYFD for child protective services, agreeing to earmark the money for home visitation programs.
Under the pending House plan, those restorations and additions would be paid for by taking $10 million out of the Legislative Retirement Fund, which pays for legislative pensions. The GOP says the pension fund is “significantly overfunded,” but labor union leaders questioned the legality of the proposal and said it could affect other pension plans.
A House committee also has rejected the Senate’s plan to delay previously scheduled cuts to the state’s corporate income tax. The Martinez administration had objected to the delay, saying it could send a negative message to businesses considering relocating here.
No tax increase
House Ways and Means Chairman Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said Republicans in the proposed House package “kept our promise to not raise taxes and place the burden on New Mexico families.”
Both the House and Senate plans leave about $89 million in reserves, or about 1.5 percent of the current year’s spending level.
Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, issued a statement defending the Senate for leaving the Capitol in the early hours of Saturday after having passed its solvency package.
“After we acted, we had nothing left to do,” Smith said. “The House had not passed anything yet and was working on crime legislation, not the deficit.”
Democrats in both chambers have objected to the inclusion of crime bills on the agenda.