New Mexico House passes budget, tax package

The New Mexico House of Representatives passed a spending plan late Wednesday that boosts funding for classrooms and the courts, while cutting money for colleges and universities and leaving most other agencies with no new money. A companion bill also headed to the Senate, House Bill 202, would raise more revenue for future years by boosting fees and taxes. The $250 million a year in new ongoing revenue is needed to avoid more spending cuts and to replenish cash reserves, said sponsor Carl Trujillo, D- Santa Fe. “We are bleeding, we need to stop that bleeding,” Trujillo said as he held up a graph showing the state’s diminished reserves. The House approved the revenue measure first, because the proposed budget needs some $157 million in additional money to meet the constitutional requirement for a balanced budget.

At Capitol, Giffords urges N.M. lawmakers to ‘come together’ on gun control

Partially paralyzed and speaking in just a few simple sentences, a former U.S. congresswoman shot in the head six years ago during a rampage that left a half-dozen people dead delivered the most high-profile endorsement yet of two gun-control bills being considered in the New Mexico Legislature. “I’ve seen great courage when my life was on the line,” Gabrielle Giffords told a crowd of reporters and gun-control advocates at the Capitol on Wednesday. “Now is the time to come together — to be responsible. Democrats, Republicans, everyone.” Giffords’ appearance at the Legislature demonstrated the campaign for gun control is not letting up during the final weeks of the session.

Sweeping charter school reform bill stalls in House committee

Democrats on the House Education Committee effectively killed an expansive charter school reform bill after two hours of testimony Wednesday, arguing that it was too complex and contained provisions that many charter school advocates oppose. “It’s more dead than less [dead],” Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of the bill, said after the committee’s 7-6 vote along party lines to table House Bill 273. The bill would have called for “automatic closure” of low-performing charter schools. It also removed a cap on the number of charter schools that could open in any given year, gave high-performing charter schools the ability to streamline their renewal process and would have cut charter school funding by 25 percent over the course of several years. Ivey-Soto and fellow co-sponsor Rep. James Smith, R-Sandia Park, told the committee the measure would save money for the state and hold charter schools more accountable.

Emergency funding bill for New Mexico courts heads to governor

After weeks of wrangling over emergency funds for New Mexico courts, the Legislature is sending the governor a bill that would provide $1.6 million to cover expenses for the next few months. The House of Representatives on Tuesday concurred with the Senate’s version of House Bill 261, which, if signed by Gov. Susana Martinez, will pay for jury trials and other costs for courts around the state for the rest of the budget year, which ends on June 30. The House initially passed a bill appropriating only $800,000, which would cover the cost of jury trials. However, the Senate doubled that amount to cover the judicial branch’s entire shortfall. House Republican Leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, asked House members to accept the Senate’s changes.

Bill eases gender changes on birth certificates

With little debate Tuesday, the Senate approved a bill that would make it easier for transgender people to change the gender listed on on their birth certificate. Under Senate Bill 120, transgender people wishing to change their birth certificate no longer have to submit a physician-signed statement that they have undergone a sex-change operation. Instead, the only required document would be a form signed signed under penalty of perjury by a licensed medical or mental health-care provider saying that, based on the provider’s opinion and in accordance with contemporary professional standards, the individual’s sex designation should be changed. The bill sponsor, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, told the Senate that the provider’s statement would have to confirm that the applicant had undergone appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition. Then, he said, a court would decide whether the birth certificate’s marker should be changed.

Bill to ban traps on New Mexico public lands stalls

A bill to ban most trapping of animals on public lands in New Mexico probably is going nowhere this year because it’s caught in a clash between ranchers and advocates for animals. The bill stalled Tuesday in a Senate committee, prompting the sponsor to say he does not expect to reach a compromise in the last four weeks of this 60-day session. That means the practice of trapping in public forests is likely to continue for at least another year. “I believe it’s going to take much more time than a couple of days,” Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, said after the Senate Conservation Committee asked that he rewrite parts of Senate Bill 286. The bill would outlaw setting traps to capture or kill animals on public land.

Compromise sought on payday loan rates

A former state senator who is helping lead the fight against high-interest payday and other small loans said Monday that a bill to cap rates at 36 percent is dead. “The governor would veto it anyway,” former Sen. Steve Fischmann, co-chairman of the New Mexico Fair Lending Coalition said, referring to House Bill 26, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque. But Fischmann, a Mesilla Park Democrat, said supporters of the bill are in negotiations with certain parts of the industry that are backing another bill aimed at regulating businesses that offer small loans at high interest rates. “I think we are getting close to a deal,” Fischmann said. That bill, HB 347, sponsored by Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, would in effect set maximum interest rates of 175 percent.

Democrats push tax, budget plans to House floor

An effort that had broad support to bring in more money to New Mexico government by taxing all internet sales has mushroomed into a measure to raise additional money from hospitals, trucking companies, nonprofit organizations and car buyers. Democrats say the amendments to House Bill 202, originally an effort to raise $30 million by expanding the gross receipts tax to out-of-state internet transactions, are necessary to restore cash reserves and put the state on better financial footing to avoid further cuts to school districts and another credit downgrade. With the changes, the bill is now expected to bring in $265 million in ongoing revenue. Some $1 million a year would come from the legislative retirement fund. A sponsor of the tax bill, Rep. Carl Trujillo D-Santa Fe, said lawmakers have cut spending, both during the 2016 session and again in an October special session.

Wrangling continues on raising New Mexico minimum wage

A proposal to raise New Mexico’s minimum wage drew opposition from business organizations and workers rights groups alike on Monday. Co-sponsored by House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, House Bill 442 would appear to be a compromise that boosts the statewide minimum hourly wage to $9.25 from $7.50, less of an increase than some Democrats have proposed. But a section of the bill that would strip local governments of the power to adopt certain labor regulations, such as the Work Week Act previously proposed in Albuquerque, drew sharp criticism from workers rights advocates. And business groups as well as some Republicans argued that $9.25-an-hour would still be too high. The bill would also raise the hourly minimum wage for tipped employees such as waitresses to $3.70 from $2.13.

Dems: Popular vote should determine presidential winner

New Mexico’s five electoral college votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who received the most popular votes nationally, under a bill that state senators approved Monday in a party-line decision. All 26 Democratic senators voted for the measure and all 16 Republicans opposed it, perhaps a predictable outcome three months after Republican Donald Trump lost the popular vote but handily won the presidency in the electoral college. The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said the electoral college allows presidential candidates to ignore most voters because it largely functions as a winner-take-all system in individual states. “Candidates have no reason to pay attention to states where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind,” Stewart said. In addition, she said, minority-party voters in heavily Republican or overwhelmingly Democratic states believe that their votes don’t matter because the electoral college takes precedence over the popular vote.