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60-day session reaches halfway point

SANTA FE – A 60-day legislative session that began with the patching of New Mexico budget holes hits its halfway point today, with more budget battles on the horizon.

The money issues – lawmakers are looking at ways to come up with as much as $250 million for next year to plug reserves and keep state programs running – have largely dominated the session’s first half and led to fewer bills being introduced than in past legislative sessions.

As of late Wednesday, 468 House bills and 433 Senate bills had been filed at the Roundhouse. The number of bills will increase, because today is the last day to file legislation, but it appears on pace to be down significantly from as recently as 2015, when 1,365 bills were introduced.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth

“I think when the money goes away, the number of bills certainly goes down,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said this week on the Senate floor.

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House Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, said the budget uncertainty has led to slow going in the Legislature for bills dealing with crime, education and other issues.

“Until we know where the revenues are, things are getting parked,” Gallegos told the Journal.

She said majority Democrats – who reclaimed control of the House in November’s election – are trying to find common ground with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez on the budget but are reluctant to sign off on another round of spending cuts to state agencies and programs.

Just two weeks into this year’s session, Martinez signed into law a $190 million solvency package that includes reduced funding for most school districts statewide and other one-time budget fixes. Those fixes were aimed at just getting the state through the rest of the current fiscal year, which ends in June.

“I know that our caucus is wanting to take a different approach,” Gallegos said. “There’s a difference between tightening our belts and not providing the services needed.”

However, top-ranking GOP lawmakers say Democrats haven’t offered new solutions to jump-start a stagnant economy – New Mexico’s jobless rate was second-highest in the nation last month – and have largely opposed Republican-backed ideas to change labor and education laws.

“We’re just disappointed we haven’t seen more,” said House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, who claimed Democrats’ agenda consists of increasing taxes and raising the state’s minimum wage.

Although a Democratic jobs plan unveiled last month did include an increase to the current $7.50-per hour minimum wage, it also included five other provisions.

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But both the House and Senate had passed only bills dealing with two of the six jobs proposals as of Wednesday – separate measures dealing with legalizing industrial hemp research and expanding broadband access.

There have been some signs of bipartisanship, however, and Gentry said he’s hopeful lawmakers can strike a compromise in the coming weeks to overhaul the state’s tax code to make New Mexico more competitive.

A slew of tax proposals have been filed at the Capitol, with some increasing tax rates and others calling for a mix of tax hikes and tax cuts.

“I do think we need major-league tax reform,” Sen. Williams Sharer, R-Farmington, said during a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday. “Our entire tax structure drives businesses out of New Mexico.”

However, it’s unclear whether the governor would support such proposals, as Martinez has vowed to veto any tax increases approved by the Legislature. Although, in a statement sent earlier this week, a Martinez spokesman suggested there may be some flexibility.

“The governor stands her promise: she will not raise taxes,” Martinez spokesman Chris Sanchez said. “She does, however, support closing tax loopholes and modernizing the tax code.”

The two-term governor will have final say over whatever budget plan lawmakers send to her desk. A House panel is crafting a spending plan that would advance to the Senate if approved.

Legislators will get a sense today of how much money they have to work with for next year when executive and legislative branch economists release a new revenue update.

Meanwhile, funding for the state’s cash-strapped court system is just one part of the budget crunch debate that’s expected to unfold over the next 30 days.

The state Board of Finance recently approved $600,000 in emergency funds to avoid a halt in jury trials, starting March 1, but the money is only expected to last through mid-April.

A stand-alone bill pending in the Senate would appropriate enough money to keep jury trials going through the end of the state’s budget year, June 30, but a big increase in funding for next year appears unlikely.

“We’ve just got to figure out how we’re going to keep our heads above water for the next two years,” Gallegos said.

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