The state Senate voted Wednesday to require more transparency about the political spending of so-called “dark money” groups while also doubling the amount of money that individuals can donate to candidates for public office. Senate Bill 96 has won backing from campaign finance reform advocates who have pushed for years to close loopholes that allow groups to spend large sums of money to influence elections without having to disclose their donors. But a section that would allow candidates to raise far more money from private individuals prompted one Democrat to split with his party and oppose the proposal altogether. “People want money out of politics,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces. “Growing our individual contribution limits is the wrong direction.”
Thursday marks the halfway point of the 2017 New Mexico Legislature’s 60-day run in Santa Fe. And while half the time is gone, perhaps 90 percent of the work remains. All-important debates over how to spend the public’s money, where to get it and how much to keep in reserve, are yet to be resolved. How much should be devoted to keeping the schools running? What kind of tax breaks are effective in stimulating a sputtering economy?
State lawmakers say revenues are no longer deteriorating but remain flat, and they are moving forward on a 2018 budget with proposals to infuse new revenue — including tax increases — to balance spending and replenish reserves. A new consensus revenue estimate for fiscal year 2018 was expected to be released Wednesday but was pulled back for more study. Still, lawmakers said they do not expect a significant change from December, when economists were forecasting a $125 million deficit for the 2018 fiscal year, which begins July 1. “I don’t believe there’s going to be a material change,” Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, told the Senate Finance Committee. A forecast presented halfway through last year’s legislative session showed state revenues cratering from the collapse of crude oil prices.
Two state senators grappled with the definition of “ethnic studies” in schools during a legislative hearing Wednesday morning. State Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, sponsored a bill to require that schools offer courses in ethnic studies as electives. State Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, was the only member of the Senate Education Committee to vote against the bill. Brandt asked Lopez if her bill would include “all ethnicities.”
Yes, she responded, mentioning Latinos, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Native Americans as examples. “You didn’t mention mine, and I am an ethnicity,” Brandt, who is white, said.
While state lawmakers are pulling out all the stops to find “now money” to plug an expected deficit in the next fiscal year, Rep. Jason Harper has introduced a bill he hopes can put the state on better financial footing for decades to come. Harper, R-Rio Rancho, admits that House Bill 412, the New Mexico Tax Reform Act, is not a quick fix and will not patch the budget in fiscal year 2018 or even 2019. But by restructuring the state gross receipts tax and simplifying income and other tax policies, New Mexico will position itself for more solid growth in the new economy, he said. “It doesn’t help us fix the current budget problem,” Harper said of his bill, “but this hopefully prevents another budget problem.” The measure comes halfway through the 2017 legislative session, when reserve funds have been depleted by efforts to balance budgets for the last fiscal year and the current year, which ends in June, and many lawmakers are focused on raising enough new money to get through the upcoming year.
After a long committee meeting and often-times emotional testimony from the public on a controversial bill to ban abortions on pregnancies of 20 or more weeks of gestation, lawmakers on the Senate Public Affairs Committee quickly tabled the legislation on a party line vote. Neither the committee chair nor vice chair—Sens. Jerry Ortiz y Pino or Bill O’Neill, both Democrats from Albuquerque—nor any of the three Republican members actually spoke about the issue during debate. And the three remaining Democrats—Sens. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque, Liz Stefanics of Santa Fe and Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces—kept their comments on the issue succinct before joining their other Democratic colleagues to table the bill.
Backers of a proposed constitutional amendment that would take about $112 million a year from the state’s land grant endowment to pay for early childhood education say a new study shows that the need for such programs actually exceeds $400 million annually. “This is an alarm,” Allen Sánchez, president of CHI St. Joseph’s Children, said Tuesday of the report commissioned by his organization. Sánchez is among the most vocal supporters of House Joint Resolution 1, sponsored by Democratic state Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestes and Javier Martinez, both of Albuquerque.
State Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, remained in a Denver hospital Tuesday for treatment of a heart condition. Trujillo, 77, was flown to Denver last week. He couldn’t be reached for comment, but House Speaker Brian Egolf said Tuesday that Trujillo is out of the intensive care unit and is “up walking and talking.” “My understanding is that he is doing well and should be out of the hospital this week,” said Egolf, D-Santa Fe. I am not sure when he will be back in Santa Fe, but we are hoping in the next 10 days or so.”
Voters unaffiliated with either of the two major political parties — currently barred from participating in primary elections — would be allowed to choose either a Democratic or Republican primary ballot under a bill that unanimously cleared a House committee Tuesday. But judging by the reaction a similar bill received in a Senate committee earlier this week, the House bill could run into trouble if it makes it to the other side of the Roundhouse. The House Local Government, Elections, Land Grant and Cultural Affairs Committee gave a do-pass recommendation to House Bill 206, sponsored by Reps. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, and Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque. Garcia Richard says her bill is aimed at increasing voter turnout.
A state Senate committee Monday night approved $1.6 million in funding for the courts, enough to pay for jury trials through June 30, the end of the fiscal year. Still, it was unclear whether the legislation represented a temporary or a permanent step back from the brink of a breakdown for the judicial system. The committee action was another pull in a political tug-of-war between the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez over funding for the courts. The game is being played out against a backdrop of a state budget crunch across all of government. In recent weeks, Martinez has twice vetoed money to avoid a halt to jury trials and potential dismissal of criminal charges against defendants.