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          Front Page


March 21, 2003



Governor Signs $4 Billion Budget, Praises Legislative Session



   
   
By Barry Massey
The Associated Press
    SANTA FE   —   Gov. Bill Richardson signed a $4 billion budget proposal on Friday as the Legislature neared adjournment and lawmakers tried to wrap up the business of the 60-day session.
    The Legislature ends at noon Saturday.
    Before time ran out, lawmakers were rushing bills through the House and Senate. However, the Legislature has finished work on most of the highest-profile items that have been priorities of the governor and lawmakers, including personal income tax cuts, public school reforms, tougher penalties for repeat drunken drivers and water policy.
    "We have had, in my judgment, one of the most successful legislative sessions in the history of the state," Richardson said at a news conference in which he announced he would sign the budget and a supplemental spending measure.
    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.
    Richardson added another request to the Legislature. He wants lawmakers to push through a bill to provide $4.5 million for several of his initiatives, including expanding child care assistance for lower-income families and extra judges to handle water cases.
    The governor announced he would sign the budget several hours 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, who has pledged to sign the cigarette tax measure and another bill to allow more spending of tobacco settlement revenues, said the additional money was critical for balancing the budget. Spending in the main budget bill exceeded next year's projected revenues   —   before adjusting for tax cuts and money-raising legislation   —   by about $60 million.
    House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, joined Richardson at the news conference in praising the work of the Legislature.
    "I think in just four small words this session has been about dialogue, communication, compromise and accomplishments," said Lujan.
    Richardson pointed to passage of several school improvement measures, including a 6 percent teacher pay raise provision in the budget and a new teacher licensing system, as the most significant accomplishment 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. The board names the state superintendent of schools. Voters will decide the fate of the constitutional amendment in a special statewide election in late September.
    The governor said his tax-reduction package was the second-most important accomplishment of the session. The top rate of the personal income tax will be lowered from 8.2 percent to 4.9 percent over five years and a 50 percent capital gains deduction will be implemented over the same time. The cost: $360 million in lost revenue to the state. The governor contends the tax cut will stimulate economic growth, which will produce revenues to offset the cost of the tax rate changes.
    The governor said he would sign a supplemental budget bill, but trim about $5.6 million by vetoing individual line-item allocations of money.
    Sent to the governor in the final stretch of the session were proposals to:
      —   Allow New Mexicans 25 and older to be licensed to carry a concealed handgun.
      —   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 install ignition interlock systems.
      —   Prohibit unsolicited advertising from being sent by fax or e-mail, unless the message contained a toll-free number or e-mail address that the consumer could use to get off the mailing list.
      —   Protect consumers from abusive mortgage lending practices.
      —   Study the effects of gambling and the effectiveness of tribal and Gaming Control Board efforts to address gambling addiction and its prevention.
      —   Establish a fine arts education program to encourage public schools to offer music, theater, dance and visual arts classes; provide 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.