October 27, 2003
Lawmakers Back For Unpopular Special Session
By Deborah Baker
The Associated Press
SANTA FE The Legislature convened Monday for a special session sought by the governor that has lawmakers grousing.
When Gov. Bill Richardson took office in January, he pledged there would be a special session during which legislators "without the distraction of other issues" could redesign New Mexico's tax structure.
This promises to be something short of that.
On the agenda will be piecemeal tax reforms, not the "comprehensive redesign" the Democratic governor talked about in January.
Highway financing and sex offender legislation also will be on the table. The governor waited until shortly before the start of the session to issue the proclamation that formally spelled out the items he wanted lawmakers to consider.
Rather than a revamp, the tax reform commission Richardson appointed came up with a laundry list of possible changes, including $151 million in higher taxes and fees, some of it for highways.
While the governor didn't endorse the package and said some of it disappointed him he also said it was a good jumping-off point for making the tax system fairer and boosting economic growth.
But some legislators complain that the discussion could, and should, wait until the annual legislative session.
"I don't think we need to come up there. . . . We can do it in January," said House Republican Leader Ted Hobbs of Albuquerque. "I think it's a waste of taxpayer money."
There even has been talk of moving to adjourn the session as soon as it opens something lawmakers did in 1985, when Gov. Toney Anaya assembled them to vote on education funding.
"I would certainly make the motion if I saw we were going to spend taxpayers' money and not get anything done," said Sen. Joseph Carraro, R-Albuquerque, who as a freshman lawmaker made the motion to adjourn in the 1985 session.
House Appropriations and Finance Chairman Max Coll, D-Santa Fe, said it's "totally backwards" to tinker with tax revenue before it's clear how much the state must spend next year on schools, state agencies and other operations.
"If you do (tax reform)
first, and you find out you are short, it's real hard to take a second bite of the apple," Coll said.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, says he'd feel better if lawmakers had new revenue projections due in December in hand before they made tax changes.
"The financial conservative side of me says, let's make certain we don't have to come back here in January and change things around," Smith said.
Lawmakers also are troubled by the prospect that a lack of consensus on tax changes could prolong the session. Under the state constitution special sessions are limited to 30 days, but legislators don't want to stay anywhere near that long.
"We have got to have an agenda, and this is what we want to accomplish, and this is what we all agree to. Otherwise, it's wide open," said Sen. Leonard Lee Rawson, R-Las Cruces.
Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero, D-Albuquerque, acknowledges that reaching agreement on tax reforms is "not an easy thing, and it's not going to be done overnight."
"But it feels like this is the time to start," Romero said.
Toughening the laws for sex offenders was prompted by the July killing of a Santa Fe teenager at an Albuquerque concert, allegedly by a convicted sex offender on probation.
"It would be terrible if we had another tragedy and the Legislature (had)
just stayed home," Romero said.
But Richardson's get-tough stance on sex offenders has some Republicans steaming. They've introduced similar proposals for years in the Democrat-dominated Legislature with no results.
"Why weren't they important to the governor in the 60-day session" last January, said Rep. Daniel Foley, R-Roswell.
"I'd like to see us go home right away," Foley said. "I've got a family, and a business to run."
Special sessions vary widely in cost, depending on how long they last, how much staff must be hired and how many bills must be printed.
A one-day budget session last year cost $65,400; an 18-day redistricting session in 2001 cost $35,000 a day; and an eight-day session in 2000 cost $61,300 a day.
The governor's proclamation listed 13 tax issues, mostly new tax breaks or deductions for businesses and lower income families. However, lawmakers generally will be free to introduce other tax measures and bills related to the topics on the proclamation.
The governor expanded his list of sex crime proposals to include a measure allowing public employers to fire, suspend, refuse to hire or renew the contract of government workers convicted of a sex offense.