Tuesday, October 28, 2003
Sex Laws Replace Tax Fixes
By David Miles
Journal Capitol Bureau
SANTA FE New Mexico lawmakers on Monday convened a special legislative session with an agenda that might be as notable for what's not included as what is.
Gov. Bill Richardson said Monday that strengthening sex-offender laws now is his highest priority in the wake of several recent sex-offender cases.
The Democratic governor, who called the 112 lawmakers back to the Capitol for the session, initially wanted a special session focusing on tax reform.
"The sexual-predator initiative is an emergency," Richardson said in an interview. "It's a huge priority as a state because our laws are so weak, and I don't want a tragedy to happen between now and January."
Although several tax reductions remain on Richardson's wish list, his tax agenda is considerably toned down. He decided, for one thing, to postpone consideration of removing the state's tax on food until the regular session in January. Elimination of the food tax had been a central interest for Richardson and some legislators, but it was not recommended by a special bipartisan tax commission.
"This is not a tax-reform special session any more," said Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque. "It's pretty clear there is no tax reform. We're just here to piddle."
The Legislature's minority Republicans, meanwhile, sounded a warning.
House Minority Leader Ted Hobbs, R-Albuquerque, said Republicans voted unanimously during a caucus Monday to oppose any tax increases.
Hobbs said Richardson was making a mistake by calling for a single bill on all tax changes in the special session because of the possibility that it could contain some tax hikes.
"We're so strong against tax increases, I think it will kill the whole bill if it comes to us that way," Hobbs said.
Richardson said raising the state's alcohol tax is the only tax increase he would consider.
The American Cancer Society is launching a radio and newspaper advertising campaign advocating raising the alcohol tax by 10 cents a drink. The current rate varies by drink.
The state's Blue Ribbon Tax Reform Commission that met in preparation for the special session decided against recommending raising the alcohol tax when it issued a package of tax proposals earlier this month.
The panel initially approved a recommendation to make the tax on alcohol 10 cents a drink across the board, but it failed after House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, asked for a second vote.
Richardson did not endorse all of the commission's package of tax recommendations, which would result in a net tax increase of $152.3 million. The commission had suggested a gasoline tax increase and a real estate transfer tax, among others.
Lujan said the increases were necessary to pay for road improvements and deal with soaring costs of Medicaid.
Although Richardson said he was open to raising the alcohol tax, he stopped short of putting the increase on the agenda.
Richardson controls the agenda for the special session and waited until Monday morning to issue his formal proclamation. The House and Senate convened shortly after noon.
Richardson asked legislators to toughen sex-offender laws, finance about $1.5 billion in transportation projects and make tax code revisions.
The House Appropriations and Finance Committee endorsed a bill (HB 1) to spend $682,100 for legislative operations during the session. The bill would provide enough money for a 10-day session.
No legislator made a motion to abruptly adjourn the session, a possibility some lawmakers had discussed last week.
Also absent from Richardson's special session proclamation was any mention of reopening the state's congressional redistricting plans.
Some Democratic legislators had urged Richardson to add redistricting to the agenda.
"I think it's very unlikely that I deal with redistricting because it would be divisive," Richardson said. "I want a bipartisan atmosphere."
Richardson's special session proclamation included several tax proposals. Among them:
Tax relief for senior citizens;
Expanding the Low Income Comprehensive Tax Rebate;
Providing an income-tax exemption for low- and middle-income taxpayers; and
Allowing health-care providers to deduct their taxable gross receipts for payments received from managed-care companies and certain Medicare payments.
Richardson's sex-offender package includes proposals to increase probation and parole, as well as creating a Sex Offender Management Board that would identify and track offenders.
Richardson also wants to create a minimum mandatory jail sentence of three years for offenders convicted of second-degree criminal sexual penetration when the victim is between 13 and 18 years old.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., on Monday endorsed Richardson's $1.5 billion transportation plan, which would pay for 47 projects across the state. And the Associated Contractors of New Mexico ran full-page ads in newspapers Sunday to support the plan.
Journal politics writer Loie Fecteau and staff writer Kate Nash contributed to this story.