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March 22, 2003

Governor Praises Legislative Session

By Barry Massey
The Associated Press
    SANTA FE   —   Gov. Bill Richardson was praising the Legislature even before it adjourned Saturday.
    "One day history will be written and this could be the most productive session ever in the history of state," Richardson said in a brief appearance on the House floor shortly before adjournment.
    Under the state Constitution, time ran out on the Legislature at noon Saturday.
    The governor thanked Republicans and Democrats for their work and bipartisan cooperation during the 60-day session.
    "The success of this legislative session is not a success for the governor, or Democrats or Republicans, but for the people in New Mexico," Richardson told lawmakers.
    House Republican Leader Ted Hobbs of Albuquerque said in an inteview, "The governor's fingerprints are all over the legislative session and its agenda."
    Hobbs said a income tax reduction package was the highlight of the session. However, he said that was partly offset by a number of tax and fee increases approved to cover proposed spending increases.
    On Friday, the House and Senate were still rushing bills through the House and Senate when Richardson declared that "we accomplished all of the major goals I think are necessary to get New Mexico on the right track." House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, joined Richardson at a news conference in which the governor announced he was signing a $4 billion budget package.
    "I think in just four small words this session has been about dialogue, communication, compromise and accomplishments," said Lujan.
    Well before adjournment, the Legislature had finished work on the highest priorities of the governor and lawmakers: personal income tax cuts, public school reforms, tougher penalties for repeat drunken drivers and water policy revisions.
    Winning final approval on Friday was a financing package considered a must-pass item by lawmakers. The bill provides nearly $140 million for almost 2,200 state and local capital improvement projects. Traditionally, the capital outlay proposal is one of the last big-ticket measures passed by lawmakers.
    The governor signed the budget after the Legislature gave final approval to a proposed cigarette tax increase that will generate additional revenue to help cover state government's spending increases next year.
    The state tax on cigarettes will increase from 21 cents a package to 91 cents under the legislation. The higher levy is projected to provide nearly $47 million next year, with about $34 million of that available to spend on general government programs ranging from Medicaid to public schools. The rest of the tax revenues will back bonds for a University of New Mexico hospital expansion and state Health Department facility renovations.
    Richardson has pledged to sign the cigarette tax measure and another bill to allow more spending of tobacco settlement revenues.
    Richardson pointed to passage of school improvement proposals, including a 6 percent teacher pay raise provision in the budget and a new teacher licensing system, as among the most significant accomplishments of the session.
    The school reforms included a proposed constitutional amendment sought by Richardson to create a cabinet-level secretary of education who answers to the governor. Currently, the state Board of Education sets policies for public schools across the state. Voters will decide the fate of the constitutional amendment in a special statewide election in late September.
    Another top accomplishment, Richardson said, was enactment of his five-year $360 million income tax reduction package.
    Sent to the governor in the final stretch of the session were proposals to:
      —   Outlaw discrimination based upon sexual orientation.
      —   Allow New Mexicans 25 and older to be licensed to carry a concealed handgun.
      —   Allow irrigation districts to lease water to municipalities and other public entities.
      —   Earmark 10 percent of the yearly severance tax bond financing would be available for water projects.
      —   Require development of a statewide water plan.
      —   Provide a permanent source of financing for renovation and maintenance of state museums.
      —   Allow convicted drunken drivers with revoked driver's licenses to get special licenses if they installed ignition interlock systems.
      —   Protect consumers from abusive mortgage lending practices.
      —   Establishes a fine arts education program to encourage public schools to offer music, theater, dance and visual arts classes; provides for state aid for the programs to flow through the school financing formula. The supplemental budget measure allocates $4 million for the program.
      —   Revamp election laws to conform with federal requirements and qualify New Mexico for $21 million in federal money.