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.

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.

ABQ Jewish Community Center again part of wave of bomb threats

For the second time in two months, Albuquerque’s Jewish Community Center was targeted with a bomb threat today. It was one of at least 10 bomb threats to different JCCs across the country. Fred Duran, a spokesman with the Albuquerque Police Department, said the bomb threat to the Albuquerque location “came through the phone.” JCC staff evacuated the building after the threat came, and APD officers found no bomb inside, according to Duran. Everything at the JCC is currently operating “back to normal,” Duran added. Similar bomb threats were directed against JCCs today in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Texas, New York and Alabama, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

NRA tops lobbyist spending with $44K online ad

No issue in the 2017 New Mexico Legislature has drawn citizens to the Roundhouse like the push to expand mandatory background checks on gun sales. People on both sides of the issue have shown up in droves to committee hearings in both the House and Senate to testify about two bills that would require more gun buyers to go through background checks. And lobbyists for out-of-state organizations on both sides of the issue have spent thousands of dollars to push their positions. In fact, according to lobbyist expense reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office, the biggest expenditure since the session began in mid-January was $44,377 spent by Tara Reilly-Mica, the Texas-based lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. Reilly-Mica’s report, filed Feb.

Measure creating independent ethics commission advances

Several lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle had pointed questions Thursday about a proposed constitutional amendment that would establish an independent ethics commission in New Mexico. But at the end of the hearing, the House Local Government, Elections, Land Grants and Cultural Affairs Committee voted unanimously to give a do-pass recommendation to House Joint Resolution 8, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, and send it to the House Judiciary Committee. “We all know there is an obvious gap in trust between us in office and the public,” Dines told the committee. “The more we do to restore trust, the better it will be, not only in New Mexico, but in the U.S.” Under Dines’ proposal, if the seven-member commission is approved by voters in 2018, members would be appointed by the governor and the Legislature to investigate possible ethical violations by legislators, state officers and officials in the executive branch.

Republicans block bill criminalizing false water quality data

Cloudy, brown and rank water flowed from the taps of homes in the northwest corner of New Mexico. Some of those who drank it say they became nauseous. They complained of cramps, headaches and diarrhea. Thousands of people were told to boil their water to guard against illness. Farmington-area residents whose homes are hooked up to the Animas Valley Water system said the water also damaged their water heaters, washing machines and clothes.

House Dems propose tax, fee hikes to raise state revenues

With the state still running a deficit and reserves depleted, Democrats in the New Mexico House of Representatives have identified four tax or fee increases they say would prevent more cuts to education and put the state on better financial footing. The initiatives — taxing all internet sales, raising the permit fee on heavy trucks, closing a loophole that benefits nonprofit hospitals and increasing the tax on vehicle transfers — could raise more than $200 million in ongoing revenue. Some of it would go to avoid cuts in state agencies and some to beef up reserves. The move to bring together the House Democratic caucus came on the same day as state economists restated a revenue forecast from December that shows the economy has stabilized but reserves are far below the desired level of $300 million, or 5 percent of recurring revenue. The reserve account for the $5.6 billion budget at the end of the fiscal year on June 30 is projected at 1.6 percent.