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Senate to Return To Take Up Road Package

By Loie Fecteau and David Miles
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE— Senate leaders agreed to come back into special session today to consider a House-passed $1.6 billion transportation package sought by Gov. Bill Richardson.
    The transportation package includes about $60 million in state tax and fee increases for road projects. It was unclear how the Senate might react.
    Richardson met Monday with Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero, D-Albuquerque, and several other Democratic senators who joined with Republicans on Friday to abruptly adjourn the Senate's special session. The breakdown was attributed to lack of agreement among Democrats on tax changes and fear of voter response in the 2004 election year.
    "I believe substantial progress was made on the road package," Richardson said after the meeting. "I was encouraged."
    Because the House voted against adjournment last week, and has remained in session, the state constitution required the Senate to return to session by Wednesday.
    Romero and the other senators who met with Richardson said the meeting helped improve communication with the governor.
    "We left feeling that was going to be taken care of," said Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, who criticized Richardson last week for failing to communicate with rank and file senators.
    However, Senate Democrats who met with Richardson said they were undecided about the transportation package, which was approved Saturday by the Democrat-controlled House mostly along party lines.
    Senate Democrats, who have a 24-18 majority in the Senate, are scheduled to meet privately today to discuss the road financing plan, which includes several proposed tax and fee increases to generate an estimated $60.3 million a year for the state's Road Fund.
    The bill includes provisions to raise a tax on trucks by 38 percent; increase the tax on diesel and other "special fuels" from 18 cents a gallon to 21 cents a gallon; and raise annual motor-vehicle registration fees, which vary by weight and age categories, by an average of $12.50.
    The legislation would finance 40 road, rail and other transportation projects across the state by issuing bonds, which would be repaid by the tax and fee increases.
    The bill has several Albuquerque-area projects, including:
   
  • Widening Interstate 25 to three lanes in each direction between Albuquerque and Santa Fe or creating public transportation, including commuter rail service, between the two cities.
       
  • Reconstructing the I-40-Coors Boulevard interchange.
       
  • Reconstructing and improving I-40 from Central Avenue to Coors Boulevard.
       
  • Extending Rio Bravo Boulevard to Mesa del Sol.
        House Speaker Ben Lujan, a Santa Fe Democrat and chief backer of the transportation package, said out-of-state truckers traveling across New Mexico would pay most of the increased truck tax, which he said hasn't been raised in more than 20 years.
        Lujan said the transportation package would lead to better roads and create about 8,000 jobs a year. "It's a win-win situation," Lujan said.
        Lujan and Romero said they hoped the House and Senate could finish special session work tonight.
        Romero previously had said he could not support the transportation package because of the proposed tax and fee increases. But Romero said Monday he was rethinking his position because of projects that would benefit the Albuquerque metropolitan area.
        "If it looks like it's got some wings, it may take off," Romero said.
        Sen. Joe Carraro, R-Albuquerque, said he would consider voting for the package if it didn't contain tax and fee increases and included funds to extend Paseo del Norte to Unser Boulevard on Albuquerque's West Side.
        Carraro, the only Republican senator who voted against adjourning Friday, said he would try to amend the bill to add $12 million for the extension. "There's no way I could ever support that bill without Paseo del Norte," Carraro said.
        The Senate's expected return today means Richardson would be able to sign tough new sex-offender legislation into law.
        The measure, which passed the Senate and House with no dissenting votes, has been in limbo because the Senate adjourned while the House remained in session, Deputy Attorney General Stuart Bluestone said. The bill stiffens penalties and increases supervision of convicted sex offenders.
        Richardson initially had envisioned the special session, which began Oct. 27, as dealing solely with tax issues.
        But, with the Senate walkout Friday, Richardson has backed off his push to get his comprehensive tax package approved during the special session.
        The governor said he would continue to fight for tax changes, including getting rid of the state's gross-receipts tax on groceries, during the state's regular legislative session in January.