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Lawmakers OK $1.6 Billion Roads Plan

By David Miles
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE— Lawmakers on Wednesday adjourned their special session after approving a $1.6 billion transportation package sought by Gov. Bill Richardson and containing nearly $60 million in state tax and fee increases.
    The Senate passed the bill on a 22-18 vote after 1 a.m. Wednesday before adjourning. The House agreed to accept Senate changes to the bill on a 39-29 vote, mostly along party lines, before adjourning Wednesday afternoon.
    Richardson commended legislators for approving the measure.
    "The benefits of this legislation will reach every county in New Mexico," Richardson said in a written statement.
    Richardson had initially envisioned the special session, which began Oct. 27, as focusing exclusively on tax issues. The Democratic governor later added sex-offender legislation and the transportation package to the mix.
    Legislators approved a tough new sex-offender law and the 40-project transportation bill, but prospects for Richardson's comprehensive tax package vanished after the Senate adjourned for the first time last week.
    The Senate returned to the Capitol on Tuesday to pass the transportation bill, allowing some legislators to claim a partial victory on the special session agenda.
    "Two out of three's not bad," said Rep. John Heaton, a Carlsbad Democrat and House Democratic caucus chair.
    Richardson last week said he would make another push for his tax package in next year's 30-day regular session, starting in January. But House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, said he did not expect legislators to overhaul New Mexico's tax code next year.
    "We don't have such a bad tax system here in New Mexico," Lujan told reporters.
    The transportation package will generate nearly $60 million a year in estimated revenues for the state's Road Fund.
    The bill includes provisions to increase a tax on trucks by 38 percent; raise the tax on diesel and other "special fuels" from 18 cents a gallon to 21 cents a gallon; and increase annual motor-vehicle registration fees, which vary by weight and age categories, by an average of $12.50.
    Lujan, chief supporter of the transportation package, said the measure would result in safer roads and thousands of new jobs.
    But House Minority Leader Ted Hobbs, R-Albuquerque, said legislators should have adjourned their special session last week after approving the sex-offender bill, which includes tougher penalties and greater supervision for convicted sex offenders.
    "There is nothing in the highway package that is time-critical," Hobbs said.
    Rep. Rhonda King, a Stanley Democrat who joined three other Democrats in breaking ranks and voting against the bill, said she feared the measure would prevent the state from issuing more highway bonds for several years. The bill would increase total state highway-bond debt to about $4 billion, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.
    King also said the tax and fee increases would hurt trucking companies.
    But Lujan said most of the increased trucking tax would be paid by out-of-state trucks traveling across New Mexico.
    Lujan said there was good communication between Richardson and lawmakers during the special session.
    But Lujan also noted that the governor spent much of this summer successfully campaigning for two education-related constitutional amendments. That may have drawn Richardson's focus away from spelling out his goals for the special session, Lujan said.
    Fees, bonds and taxes
    Key provisions of a proposal approved by the Legislature and sent to Gov. Bill Richardson on Wednesday to finance transportation projects:
   
  • The tax on diesel would increase by 3 cents a gallon, starting in July 2004, from 18 cents a gallon to 21 cents. It would provide $14 million in a year.
       
  • Motor vehicle registration fees would increase by about 33 percent, starting in March 2004, providing $22 million. The annual fee for a newer car weighing up to 2,000 pounds would increase to $27 a year from $20; the fee would increase to $21 from $16 for a smaller car over 5 years old. For a newer car weighing between 2,000 pounds and 3,000 pounds, the fee would go to $39 from $29. The fee would increase to $55 a year from $41 for newer trucks with a gross weight between 2 and 3 tons. Registration fees, which vary according to the type of motor vehicle, currently average $38. The increase would average $12.50.
       
  • A 38 percent increase in the weight-distance tax paid by large commercial trucks. That would generate an additional $21 million.
       
  • Increased permit fees for overweight and oversize vehicles. Increase revenue by $2 million. Annual permit fees would increase from $60 to $250. Special single trip permits are needed for travel of more than 125 miles.
       
  • Authorize the issuance of $350 million in bonds immediately, and potentially up to nearly $1.6 billion, to finance more than three dozen road and transportation projects.
        -- The Associated Press