The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse, via Wikicommons.

Budget relief may place burden on schools, fire departments

Legislators’ last attempt to balance this year’s budget relied heavily on across-the-board cuts to state programs, but some critics of the new effort say lawmakers are placing the burden of a projected $69 million deficit on local institutions ranging from school districts to fire departments. Discussions on a package of solvency measures continued Friday with the House of Representatives meeting for less than an hour before recessing until Saturday morning to vote on the legislation. With an eye toward stopping cuts to schools and economic development programs, Republicans plan to propose a series of amendments. “We don’t want to vote ‘no’ on something and not have an alternative,” said House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque. The Senate’s own budget-cutting plan passed easily this week with bipartisan support.

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Gas tax increase posed as a solution to failing roads

Moderately low gas prices and an increasingly dire budget situation in the state has lawmakers eyeing new sources for revenue. Gov. Susana Martinez has adamantly opposed any new or increased taxes, but some lawmakers are looking to grab several more cents from drivers at the gas pump. At least two state senators and one Albuquerque city councilor have introduced legislation to increase gas taxes to help pay for road repairs and infrastructure. The move appears to be a trend in several other states. New Mexico state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairs the Senate Finance Committee and is considered one of the most fiscally conservative Democrats in Santa Fe.

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

As lawmakers wrangle with deficits, House cuts legislative budget

As New Mexico lawmakers work to rebalance government spending for the current fiscal year and prepare to craft a spending package for fiscal year 2018, state House members have agreed to cut their own funding. In a unanimous vote Thursday evening, the House decided to shave about 2.5 percent from the Legislature’s budget and revert some of its own reserve funds. The move follows lawmakers’ decision during a special session last fall to cut 3 percent of legislative spending. The bill will save about $1 million overall, leaving a budget of about $8.7 million for the 60-day session. The original bill called for a legislative budget of about $24.4 million, funding not just the session but also year-round legislative staff and committees that meet in the months between sessions.

New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels painted a dour picture of the state's cash-strapped judicial system during a joint session of the Legislature on Thursday when he presented his the State of the Judiciary address. Daniels also announced that he will step down from the high court's top position this spring.

Chief justice: State’s judicial system ‘on life support’

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels on Thursday portrayed a state court system in crisis, withering from funding cuts to the point it can no longer provide indigent defendants their constitutional rights to an adequate defense. Without those rights, he told lawmakers during his annual State of the Judiciary address, laws simply become “words on paper.” “New Mexico’s justice system is on life support, and its organs are failing,” Daniels said. He acknowledged the statewide budget crisis and said he’s used to hearing lawmakers say, “We don’t have any money.” The total amount the judiciary is seeking this year is $168.6 million, or about 2.71 percent of the state general fund budget.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, right, with Reps. Javier Martínez and Liz Thompson, both Democrats from Albuquerque, speaks Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, during a news conference about a proposed constitutional amendment for automatic voter registration for those eligible to vote.

Democrats propose amendment calling for automatic voter registration

All eligible voters in New Mexico should be registered, and the government should do it for them automatically, three Democratic lawmakers said Wednesday in announcing a proposal to enshrine new election law in the state constitution. The legislators said their proposal for automatic voter registration would reduce costs and create a more accurate system. Another likely benefit would be more people voting and holding government accountable for policy decisions, said Rep. Liz Thomson, one of the measure’s sponsors. “The more voices we hear, the better we can represent them,” Thomson said. She is teaming on the proposed constitutional amendment with Rep. Javier Martinez and Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto.

Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester.

Santa Fe archbishop urges lawmakers to approve funding plan for early education

Santa Fe Catholic Archbishop John C. Wester, providing an example that being on the right side of a political party is one thing but staying on the right side of the Lord can be another, urged state lawmakers Wednesday to support a controversial proposal for funding early childhood education. Wester appealed to legislators during the annual prayer breakfast to back a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to use 1.5 percent of investment revenues each year from the state’s $15 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund. This plan would provide an estimated $140 million annually for early childhood education, defined as applying to children from the prenatal stage to age 5. The archbishop said using the fund for early childhood education would boost the quality of life for young people in a state with one of the highest rates of child poverty. “We see the high crime rate, the poverty rate, the violence, the addictions — these things are all directly connected to early childhood,” Wester said.

Gov. Susana Martinez delivering the 2017 State of the State Address.

Pomp, circumstance and State of the State in photos

As is often the case, the first day of the 2017 legislative session began with lawmakers, lobbyists and reporters catching up and getting their bearings straight. The first day began with lawmakers settling into their new seating assignments and making new leadership official. Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, was elected Speaker of the House, while Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, was elected by the Democratic caucus to serve as the Majority Floor Leader.  

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The House debating a three strikes law expansion in the 2016 special session

Budget woes and beyond: Legislators have work to do this session

The biggest issue for legislators this session is New Mexico’s perilous financial situation—and how they plan to fill a projected $67 million budget deficit. Gov. Susana Martinez has proposed moving  $268.5 million from state agencies into the general fund budget. Of that $120 million would come from local public education reserve funds. Martinez’s plan also would require state employees to pay roughly 3.5 percent more into their retirement plans. This piece also appeared in this week’s edition of the Weekly Alibi.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, joins his fellow Democrats on Tuesday during a press conference after the State of the State address during the first day of the state Legislative session.

Dem response: ‘The state of our state is unacceptable’

State Sen. Joe Cervantes, giving the Senate Democrats’ response to Gov. Susana Martinez’s State of the State address Tuesday, set the tone for the Democratic agenda for the new legislative session, rattling off dour economic statistics and saying it’s time for the state to stop relying on the booms and busts of oil and gas revenue and focus on job creation. “The state of our state is unacceptable,” he said, succinctly summarizing his caucus’ position. Cervantes, a lawyer from Las Cruces, spoke in measured tones, saying that most governors use the opening speech of a session to say, “The state of the state is strong.” He said Martinez was to be commended for not doing that. “She could not look at any of us and tell us with a straight face that the state of our state is strong,” he said.

Gov. Susana Martinez takes the podium Tuesday to deliver her State of the State address during the first day of the state Legislative session at the Roundhouse.

Martinez calls for unity

One week after accusing lawmakers of failing to make tough decisions as New Mexico slid into financial crisis, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez struck a conciliatory tone in her annual State of the State address Tuesday, calling on legislators to work together as the state faces a projected deficit that will top the agenda for the 60-day legislative session ahead. Rattling off issues on which Republican and Democratic lawmakers had reached agreement in the recent past, Martinez urged bipartisan compromise during the session’s opening day. But with the governor also calling on lawmakers to reinstate the death penalty for some crimes and reiterating her opposition to raising taxes, her pleas for cooperation with Democratic majorities in both the state Senate and House of Representatives will be quickly tested. Related: Dem response: ‘The state of our state is unacceptable’

This year’s session may be the last big opportunity for Martinez to advance some of her big-ticket legislative proposals. Only a 30-day session, which are typically dedicated to the budget, will remain before the two-term governor leaves office at the end of 2018.