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Lawmakers Ditch Gov.’s School Bills

SANTA FE – Key education measures pushed by Gov. Susana Martinez were left to die in the final minutes of a 30-day legislative session as New Mexico lawmakers adjourned Thursday.

House Democrats blocked a vote on a Senate-passed bill that would have required third-graders to be able to read before moving on to fourth grade. And the Senate did not pass a Martinez-backed bill on teacher evaluations.

However, the Republican governor described her second session as the state’s chief executive as a largely successful one. She criticized Democratic leaders for siding with unions on some issues, but she applauded cooperation on a $5.6 billion state budget and approval of several tax breaks aimed at stimulating New Mexico’s economy.

“Santa Fe did not go on a spending spree, and that is something we can all appreciate,” Martinez told reporters shortly after the Legislature adjourned at noon, as required by the state Constitution.

“I’m thrilled at the bipartisan work that was done in each chamber to help New Mexico small businesses grow and better compete so that we can get New Mexicans back to work.”

Before the session’s end, the state’s 112 lawmakers authorized nearly $280 million for statewide public works projects – including about $30 million for Albuquerque’s Paseo del Norte/I-25 interchange – and approved a measure allowing elected officials convicted of corruption to face fines up to the value of their taxpayer-funded salary and state pension benefits.

In addition to the failed education measures to evaluate teachers and retain students who do not show reading proficiency, the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Martinez were unable to agree on whether to toughen or repeal the 2003 law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses.

Martinez vowed to keep pushing on her rejected proposals.

Also left in the dustbin Thursday were bills to ease liability for spacecraft manufacturers, address solvency concerns with the state’s public retirement system, improve government transparency and fix protections against sudden property tax surges known as tax lightning.

House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Grants, said last-minute attempts to negotiate with the Martinez administration on the education measures were ultimately thwarted by the administration’s unwillingness to compromise. But he said the work done could be a foundation for next year.

“The silver lining is, you pick up where you left off,” Martinez said.

In all, 77 bills were sent to Martinez’s desk for final approval – 46 House bills and 31 Senate bills.

The session also marked the end of a political era as longtime House Speaker Ben Lujan bid an emotional farewell to the House of Representatives.

The Nambé Democrat, who has served in the Legislature since 1975 and as House speaker since 2001, announced at the beginning of the session that he has been battling advanced lung cancer and does not intend to seek re-election.

Education debate

Martinez pushed hard for education programs to establish teacher evaluation systems and allow students who can’t adequately read by fourth grade to be held back. Both efforts received strong legislator support when first voted upon in the House.

But student retention hit a wall when a Senate-approved version of the effort, SB 96, got to the House floor on Thursday. Republicans pushed to have the measure heard early in the shortened legislative day and sent to the governor for approval, but House Democrats said it would take a two-thirds majority vote to move the issue up on the agenda. Republicans couldn’t muster the vote, and the matter was delayed until the final minutes of the session.

“The fact of the matter is if it would have come to a vote, the education piece would have passed,” said House GOP Leader Tom Taylor of Farmington. “It’s of great concern to me that we’re unable to get together and even try something that seems to make sense to people.”

Critics of the student retention bill say holding students back a year causes more harm than good and leads to higher dropout rates. Instead of making the student retention mandatory, parents should have the option of seeking remediation, opponents have said.

A separate bill to require retention with remediation also failed.

“I’m ashamed that we cannot compromise one small item so that we can move forward with prevention and intervention for our students,” said Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, as the legislative clock expired at noon Thursday.

Teacher evaluation programs passed the House but were never approved by the Senate.

Tax breaks

Tax breaks designed to jump-start the state’s economy appeared to face uphill sledding earlier in the session, but picked up steam later.

Martinez had threatened to veto the $5.6 billion budget bill if some of the key tax measures sought by her administration were not approved.

The Legislature responded Thursday by endorsing a measure that will allow contractors and manufacturers to deduct certain items from their gross receipts taxes. That will ease the impact of tax “pyramiding,” in which taxes are levied on goods and services and then levied again on the final product.

It also sent to Martinez a bill that would provide a $1,000 tax credit to businesses that hire returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The tax measures were more easily sought in an improving state revenue climate. The approved budget calls for state spending to be increased by $220 million – about 4 percent – from this year’s levels. Most of that spending increase would go toward public education and Medicaid.

“For the second year in a row, we came together to balance the budget and we did it, once again, without raising taxes,” Martinez said.

However, some legislators questioned the wisdom of “piecemeal” tax policy.

“We went tax credit crazy, and we may live to regret it,” said Sen. Stephen Fischmann, D-Mesilla Park.

PRC legacy

The Legislature in the eleventh hour gave a nod to three constitutional amendment proposals that would change the way the state Public Regulation Commission does business.

The changes, which require voter approval in November, include rules that allow the Legislature to set minimum qualifications for the elected commissioners of the utility and insurance-regulating panel. Lawmakers also recommended changes in the agency’s authority by shifting regulation of corporations to the Secretary of State’s Office and by moving insurance oversight to an independent entity.

Two of the three changes, HJR 11 and HJR 17, won final approval squeezed in during the final 15 minutes of the session after House Republicans agreed to yield a filibuster intended to run out the clock in retaliation for the Democrats’ holding off a vote on student retention.

Martinez praised the Legislature’s proposed reforms as necessary fixes.

“We need the reform because the business as usual at the PRC isn’t helpful for businesses in New Mexico and it needs to change,” the governor said.

Driver’s licenses

For the second consecutive year, the Democratic-controlled Senate and Martinez butted heads on immigrant driver’s licenses.

And once again, that stalemate led to no legislation being approved.

Martinez has pushed the Legislature to repeal a 2003 law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain state driver’s licenses, but a coalition of supporters – including the Roman Catholic Church and immigrant advocacy groups – have staunchly defended it.

The House voted 45-25 in favor of a repeal measure, but the Senate responded by voting 27-15 to pass its own legislation that would impose tougher residency requirements and fraud penalties on foreign national driver’s license applicants. Neither measure was voted on in the opposite chamber.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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