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Gov. Calls Senate Adjournment 'Temporary Setback'

By Loie Fecteau and David Miles
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE— The state Senate bailed out of a special legislative session Friday, unable to find majority support for a tax package sought by Gov. Bill Richardson.
    The abrupt Senate adjournment left the House hanging and the future of the special session called by Richardson unclear.
    The House met briefly Friday night and was expected to reconvene today to take final action on a measure to strengthen New Mexico's sex offender laws and consider a big Richardson transportation proposal. But House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, suggested the House might then go temporarily into recess, possibly to reconvene early next week.
    The state constitution would require the Senate to come back into session Wednesday if the House remained in session, even in recess, until then.
    "We were just floundering," said Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero, D-Albuquerque, who supported the motion by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, to adjourn the Senate's five-day-old session at about 3 p.m.
    "I'm very disappointed," Richardson said later. But he called the situation a "temporary setback" and said he expected senators to return to the Capitol next week.
    Some Senate Democrats and other lawmakers said Richardson had failed to communicate his tax plans to lawmakers before they convened.
    The Democratic governor instead blamed the breakdown on election-year politics, with all 112 legislative seats up for election in 2004.
    "I think legislators get nervous when they have to vote on taxes in an election year," Richardson said.
    Richardson came out in favor of a mammoth tax bill sponsored by seven Senate Democrats. Although it contained tax cuts for seniors, working families and single parents, among others, the bill would result in an estimated net $135.5 million increase in state and local taxes and fees.
    The proposed hikes included increases in the state's motor-vehicle registration fees and taxes on alcohol, motor-vehicle purchases, oil production and diesel and other "special fuels."
   
No action on taxes
    Lujan on Thursday had unveiled a tax plan apparently aimed at winning compromise among the Legislature's majority Democrats.
    The Senate, with even some of its top Democrats objecting to proposed tax increases, adjourned without final action on any tax plan.
    Both chambers had passed, with no dissenting votes, a measure to stiffen penalties and lengthen supervision of convicted sex offenders. The House was expected to concur today with Senate amendments to the bill, sending it on to Richardson for his signature.
    Mexican President Vicente Fox, at the invitation of Richardson, is scheduled to address a joint session of the Legislature on Wednesday. But it was not clear Friday whether both the House and Senate would be in session then.
    Both chambers of the Democratic-controlled Legislature have not bucked a governor and voted to adjourn a special session "sine die" since 1985, during the administration of Gov. Toney Anaya.
    The Senate action Friday was the first major political setback of Richardson's term.
    The Democratic governor, who took office in January, called the state's 112 part-time lawmakers into special session on Monday to make changes to New Mexico's tax code, to toughen New Mexico's sex offender laws and to consider his $1.6 billion road and rail plan.
    Richardson acknowledged Friday that legislative prospects for his tax package had collapsed, but he vowed to make another try when lawmakers convene their 30-day regular session in January.
    He said he would continue to push in the special session for his $1.6 billion transportation package, which would be funded by issuing bonds.
    Richardson, a former New Mexico congressman, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and U.S. Energy secretary, had gotten nearly all he wanted during this year's regular legislative session, including nearly $360 million in cuts in personal income tax and capital gains, which passed with strong bipartisan support.
   
Richardson blamed
    Many legislators from both parties blamed the special session's breakdown on taxes on poor communication from the Democratic governor, who set the agenda for the session.
    Richardson spent much of the summer successfully campaigning for the Sept. 23 special election passage of two constitutional amendments on education, one giving him an education secretary and the other allowing the diversion of more money from a state permanent fund for schools.
    Senate Minority Whip Leonard Lee Rawson, R-Las Cruces, noted that Richardson did not have a tax package ready when the session started Monday.
    The governor also initially distanced himself from a Senate Democrat-sponsored tax bill that he later supported, Rawson said.
    "When we have a special session, we have to have a pretty solid framework agreed to before we come to the session," Rawson said. "He couldn't sell his tax increase to Democrats."
    Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, said Richardson failed to reach out to rank and file Democrats in trying to build support for his tax package.
    "He has to start communicating with each and every one of us, not just the leadership," said Griego, who voted to adjourn.
    Griego called the Senate action "a reality check" for Richardson.
    Eight Democrats joined 15 Republicans as the Senate voted 23-14 to adjourn Friday shortly after the chamber convened for the day. Sen. Joe Carraro, R-Albuquerque, was the lone Republican to vote against adjournment.
    "This was a crazy session," Senate Majority Leader Manny Aragon, D-Albuquerque, who voted against adjournment.
    Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, noted that the special session was costing state taxpayers about $60,000 a day.