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Bracing for Gov.'s Big Agenda

By Trip Jennings
Copyright 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE— Caution: WIDE LOAD ahead.
    The state's 112 part-time lawmakers see a weighty and maybe slow-moving agenda for the 30-day session of the New Mexico Legislature that starts Tuesday.
    Much of it is coming from Gov. Bill Richardson, who's just returned from a year on the presidential campaign trail and wants to resume doing big things back home in New Mexico.
    Politically, the second-term, Democratic governor still has the advantage of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. But the complexity and volume of anticipated 2008 proposals has even some of his allies gasping for breath.
    "I am bracing myself," said longtime Albuquerque Rep. Mimi Stewart, a Democrat. "I don't know how we think we can do all this."
    We already know the lawmakers will be asked to tackle health care and ethics reform.
    There's a plan to change how the state funds public education.
    Granting gay and lesbian couples the same rights as married, heterosexual ones, is a familiar and controversial issue likely to return to the table.
    By the way, legislators also must craft a multibillion-dollar state budget and might divvy up more than $300 million for brick-and-mortar projects around the state that are better known as pork.
    That's just the big stuff; hundreds of additional issues, with legislators pushing their own priorities, will pile up as everyone tries to address a year's worth of problems and wishes in one month's time.
One issue: health care
    The governor has the biggest hand in determining the agenda for New Mexico's "short" sessions of the Legislature, which alternate with 60-day sessions in odd-numbered years. And Richardson's top priority this year might be the most difficult: expanding health care coverage.
    "It's health care, health care, health care," Richardson said Friday in Santa Fe. "I don't want any divergence."
    Further complicating matters are the 2008 elections.
    All 42 members of the Senate and all 70 House members are up for election this year. Some of them already are worrying about being summoned back to Santa Fe for a special session to mop up any unfinished business when they think they need to be out campaigning.
    "It's pretty ambitious," said Sen. Timothy Jennings, D-Roswell— expected to be the Senate's new president pro tem— sizing up this year's agenda.
    "I don't know if we can get it all done," said House Minority Whip Dan Foley, R-Roswell, "I just hope we can agree on certain things and do those first, and not start off fighting."
    On the budget, Richardson and legislators generally see eye to eye on the big picture. Both Richardson and the Legislative Finance Committee have recommended a 6 percent increase in spending, or around $360 million, above this year's $5.7 billion budget.
    Differences are found on the finer points, such as how much to raise spending on the government's Medicaid health insurance program for low and middle-income people.
    But even more difficult debate might well come on other issues.
    Among those is Richardson's health care plan.
'A huge issue'
    The governor's administration has proposed that every New Mexican have some sort of health coverage; that the state establish a powerful new authority to control health care costs and improve efficiency; and that insurance companies be prevented from rejecting anyone for medical reasons.
    "I intend to put my full efforts behind our No. 1 priority: health care reform," the governor said last week.
    Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, a Portales Republican, said health care deserves its own session, not a portion of a 30-day session.
    "There are some things a 30-day session are meant to handle," Ingle said. "We need to make sure we get the basics done first. Health care reform is a huge issue."
    Others, however, said the Legislature could vet and pass the proposal, provided certain conditions are met.
    "If all the ducks are in line, we know where the cost and money is coming from, that will make a big difference," said House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, a Richardson ally. "If information is lacking, that will slow things up."
    Jennings said that lawmakers had not yet seen the governor's health care bill drafts by the middle of last week.
Domestic partnership
    A domestic partnership bill that the state Senate killed last year also will be high on Richardson's agenda, his staff said.
    That legislation would give unmarried couples— homosexual and heterosexual— the same rights and benefits as married couples provided they are in intimate and committed relationship, share a home and are not related by blood.
    It would allow eligible couples to register with county clerks, who would issue them certificates.
Campaign, ethics issues
    Richardson also wants the Legislature to take up several campaign finance and ethics measures that failed last year because of resistance from legislators.
    One proposal would cap monetary contributions to elected officials and political candidates. New Mexico remains one of a handful of states with no contribution limits.
    Another would expand the public financing of elections to candidates and elected officials seeking statewide offices such as governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and land commissioner.
Public education
    Beyond Richardson's agenda, some state lawmakers want to alter the way New Mexico funds public education.
    At $2.5 billion, public education is New Mexico's single largest expenditure.
    A proposal, developed last year following a lengthy review of the state's funding formula, calls for adjusting the way New Mexico parcels out money to local school districts.
    It also recommends raising the amount of money earmarked for public education by more than $320 million, said Stewart, the Albuquerque Democrat who co-chaired a task force studying the state's school funding formula.
Regulatory reform
    There also might be a bi-partisan movement among state lawmakers to address "regulatory reform" because of new state regulations on the disposal of waste produced during oil and gas drilling to prevent ground water contamination.
    The regulation concerns pits— holes dug in the ground— to hold the wastewater produced during drilling. State regulators say the tougher rule is needed to protect ground water from potential contamination.
    Some lawmakers say the Richardson administration has overstepped its powers with the regulations.
    "That's making law without being legislators," Jennings said.
    Added Foley, the House minority whip: "The distance is widening between us and oversight" of the executive branch.
Other issues
    Beyond these issues, state lawmakers will be pulled in several directions to fix problems that some believe are just as pressing as the high-profile issues.
    They include:
  • Address the state's retiree health care system, which is underfunded.
  • Deciding where to find extra money to go toward the state's highway system, also underfunded.
  • Debating whether to fix the state's new minimum wage law.
        Because of what some call a glitch in the new minimum wage law, state and local governments could spend millions of dollars a year more in overtime for firefighters, police, corrections officers and emergency medical personnel.
        The law, which took effect Jan. 1, lacks a standard federal provision that exempts firefighters and others from being paid overtime if they work more than the standard 40-hour work week within a seven-day period.
        On the Board
        Here's a quick look at some of the top issues expected to come before the 30-day session of the New Mexico Legislature, starting Tuesday:
        A plan by Gov. Bill Richardson would dramatically alter how health care is delivered in New Mexico. His proposal would require every New Mexican to have some sort of health coverage; establish a powerful new authority to control health care costs and improve efficiency; and prevent insurance companies from rejecting anyone for medical reasons.
        Expect discussions on where to come up with extra money for New Mexico's underfunded highway system.
        With no money to pay for them, the New Mexico Transportation Commission postponed indefinitely $500 million worth of high-priority road projects. That amounted to 29 projects around the state.
        New Mexico, like many states, is struggling with a shortage of transportation money because of skyrocketing inflation in the price of construction materials and less money than expected from the federal government.
        Richardson and the Legislative Finance Committee generally agree on increasing the $5.7 billion state budget by roughly 6 percent, or around $360 million in general fund spending.
        The governor and the committee also want to increase funding for public education by around $120 million, to $2.6 billion.
        There already are budget disagreements, such as how much to increase spending for the governmental low-income health insurance program known as Medicaid.
        Richardson has proposed increasing Medicaid by $100 million compared to the $84 million proposed by the Legislative Finance Committee.
        task force is recommending an overhaul of the formula used to distribute state financing to school districts.
        Some lawmakers say changes must be made or the state risks being sued for not providing equal and adequate funding for schools. However, the state will need to increase spending by several hundred million dollars to implement the school finance changes over three years.
        Education always is a top budget issue. Part of the debate is how much to boost salaries for teachers and school workers and increase spending on programs such as pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds.
        The state health care plan for about 42,000 retirees is projected to hit red ink in the next decade, even with a 9 percent premium increase taking effect in January.
        In addition to the premium increase, retirees also will see higher co-payments for some medical benefits and prescription drugs ordered through the mail.
        Lawmakers are expected to discuss what's needed to shore up the system's finances.
        The fight for ethics reform will pick up where the Legislature left off last year. Richardson plans to ask lawmakers to cap monetary contributions to elected officials and political candidates and to create a first-ever state ethics commission. Both proposals were defeated last year.
        The governor also will ask legislators to consider expansion of public financing of elections to candidates for statewide office.
        -- SOURCE: Journal staff report and The Associated Press