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May 24, 2002

Legislature Reconvenes To Consider Budget

By Barry Massey
The Associated Press
SANTA FE   —   The Legislature returned to work Friday in a historic session to approve a budget and head off a possible shutdown of state government in July.
    It marked the first time in the state's history that lawmakers have convened in an extraordinary session.
    House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, said the Legislature had to convene the session because Gov. Gary Johnson wouldn't, although "the specter of a drastic halt in government services loomed overhead."
    Democratic leaders hope the Legislature's stay will be brief   —   possibly just one day if the session goes smoothly.
    The goal is for the House and Senate to approve a $3.9 billion budget package, which was developed by a bipartisan panel of lawmakers. Lawmakers also plan to consider a proposal to finance the $20 million purchase of Eagle Nest Lake in northern New Mexico.
    By law, the agenda of the session cannot be limited. But legislative leaders urged their colleagues not to introduce bills on non-budget topics.
    "The intent of this extraordinary session is to pass a budget," said Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero, D-Albuquerque.
    As the Senate began debate on the spending plan, Sen. Shannon Robinson, D-Albuquerque, immediately objected that the proposed budget was developed behind closed doors, without public input.
    But the majority of the Senate, which met as a committee of the whole, swiftly cut off further debate and recommended on a 35-7 vote that the full Senate approve the budget plan. A committee of the whole is made up of the entire Senate membership.
    The state has no budget to finance public education and government agencies in the fiscal year that starts in July because Johnson vetoed two earlier spending blueprints. He maintained they would increase spending too much during tight financial times.
    The state's revenue outlook has improved slightly. However, Johnson's view of the latest budget hasn't changed. He says it's "a pig that won't fly" and he's vowed to veto the spending measure.
    If that happens, the Legislature will try to enact the budget over the governor's objections by voting to override his veto. Johnson already has predicted that will happen.
    Since Johnson, a Republican, took office in 1995, the Democratic-led Legislature has succeeded just once in a veto override.
    This time, a number of Republicans are unhappy because they thought the budget had satisfied most of the governor's objections. Two weeks ago, Johnson said he and lawmakers were close to an agreement and that the only remaining difference was over giving administration agencies more budget flexibility.
    "My expectation is that 80 or 90 percent of the Legislature would support an override," said Sen. Leonard Lee Rawson, R-Las Cruces, the minority whip and a member of the panel that negotiated the budget proposal.
    An extraordinary session   —   unlike a special session that is called by the governor   —   is convened at the demand of the Legislature to deal with emergencies.
    As the Legislature prepared to return to work on the budget, lawmakers learned Thursday that the state's revenue outlook had improved slightly.
    New Mexico is projected to collect nearly $60 million in additional revenues in the fiscal year that starts July 1, according to a new financial forecast delivered to a legislative committee.
    The announcement of higher-than-expected revenues could complicate the task of passing the budget, however.
    Lawmakers are under pressure to use some of the extra revenues to increase spending on public education or other programs next year.
    The New Mexico Federation of Educational Employees has sent letters to lawmakers urging them not to pass the budget developed by the bipartisan panel. Instead, the union wants the Legislature to override Johnson's veto of an earlier budget proposal that provides for a higher increase in spending on public schools.
    "If you vote to pass the ╣compromise' budget, then it will add to the crisis facing New Mexico's public schools, schoolchildren and educational employees," wrote union president Christine Trujillo and executive vice president Kathy Chavez.
    Democratic leaders are telling lawmakers to stick to the spending recommendations in the proposed budget and not try to change it at the last minute to boost spending with the new revenues.
    "We need to discipline ourselves," Lujan said. "We need to show the citizens of the state of New Mexico that we are responsible."
    Lujan and top officials in the Johnson administration cautioned that the projected increase in revenue hinges mostly on volatile natural gas prices.
    Rep. Max Coll, D-Santa Fe, chairman of the House committee that handles the budget, said the extra revenues would help boost cash reserves and protect the state against a potential downturn in the oil and gas industry.
    Rawson said there were enough votes to override a Johnson veto of the new budget proposal. However, he said Republicans were unlikely to support an override of Johnson's veto of an earlier budget   —   as the educational union wants.
    Johnson says he will veto the latest budget proposal because it leaves administration agencies about $30 million short of what they need to operate.
    Lawmakers said they are trying to address Johnson's concerns.
    For instance, a provision in the budget will set aside $4 million in a contingency fund that can be tapped by agencies with financial problems. Lawmakers acknowledged that the Corrections Department could face a budget squeeze in the coming year because the state's prison population is growing faster than previously expected.
    The Legislature also proposes to provide an additional $3.6 million to the Department of Public Safety   —   one of the agencies Johnson contends is underfunded   —   for purchase of state police cars and radios.