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.
Brian Egolf, on his first night as speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives, selected nine committee chairmen and chairwomen who will be in leadership jobs for the first time. Egolf, D-Santa Fe, on Tuesday also expanded the number of committees in the House from 13 to 14. Republicans, back in the minority after two years as the controlling party, objected to adding a committee but lost on a party-line vote of 38-29. Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, said the additional committee would create the need for more staff. Egolf said that was not the case because the existing pool of legislative analysts would handle the workload for all committees.
As New Mexico lawmakers prepare to convene for the 2017 legislative session — Gov. Susana Martinez’s final 60-day session — probably the most common words spoken at the Roundhouse by legislators, staff, lobbyists, reporters and other Capitol regulars are some version of “Here we go again.” Another session. Another budget crisis. More partisan head-knocking. More harsh rhetoric.
Anyone paying attention knows New Mexicans have it tough. Our state ranks near last in unemployment and income. We are one of the worst places in the country to be a child. Our income inequality keeps growing, and many families face chronic, multi-generational poverty. More people move away from New Mexico than from any other state in the region.
Media coverage of planned tax legislation has so far focused on one hot-button topic of the proposal—reinstating a state tax on food. Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester and advocacy groups like New Mexico Voices for Children have vocally opposed the idea. But the two state representatives behind the proposal have not actually filed any legislation on the matter for the session that begins in January. Legislators could begin introducing bills on Dec. 15.
With Democrats back in full control of the New Mexico legislature, marijuana policy reform will likely continue gaining traction in 2017. Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, has sponsored his version of a legalization bill since 2015, only to see it die before a committee ever hears it. McCamley has vowed to continue introducing the legislation as to keep the discussion going, even with a governor who opposes marijuana legalization. “It’s not an academic exercise anymore,” McCamley said of legalization bills in the upcoming 2017 session. Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor, has long been a critic of marijuana legalization and said she would veto any measures to do so.
The House spent the first hours of Thursday debating on whether or not they should debate a bill to bring back the death penalty in New Mexico. Shortly before 12:45 a.m., Speaker of the House Don Tripp, R-Socorro, sought to introduce a new calendar that had just one item: The death penalty bill. House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, immediately objected and appealed the ruling of the chair. This led to a parade of Democrats criticizing Tripp’s ruling. The House finally voted to uphold Tripp’s ruling, on a party-line vote, at 2:45 a.m. on a party-line 35-32 vote.
Legislators on opposing sides of the aisle are using remarkably similar arguments on two bills that would delay tax breaks and subsidies to businesses to help balance New Mexico’s projected $460 million shortfall between last year and this year. One would delay incoming corporate tax cuts for two years, saving the state an estimated $13.8 million this fiscal year, according to the Legislative Finance Committee,
The other bill would generate $20 million by cutting New Mexico’s film industry subsidy by that much this year. While both bills bear similarities in delaying tax breaks and subsidies for businesses, they’re being both supported and opposed on nearly opposite partisan lines. Democratic leadership in the Roundhouse argued that businesses must participate in the “shared sacrifice” of cuts to solve the state’s budget crisis when supporting the corporate tax cut delays that the Senate passed last weekend. House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, emphasized this point when criticizing proposed cuts to services in the Republican budget plan Monday morning in his office.
A House committee held off on any changes to a bill providing big cuts across most state agencies to give lawmakers and the public more time to review the deal. This came even as the panel, the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, approved a bill to shift capital outlay funds for infrastructure projects and another to sweep unused reserves to the general fund to shore up the state’s large budget deficit. While the amendment to deepen some cuts, and halt others, did not go forward it will likely be the structure for a version to be heard on the House floor, as early as Monday. The proposal on the bill to cut spending would have deepened cuts for many state agencies. The committee amended the Senate bill that provided spending cuts to cut most state agencies by 5.5 percent instead of the 5 percent in the original Senate version.
A House committee voted Saturday night to reject a bill that would delay a corporate tax cut for two years. The corporate tax delay, which narrowly passed the Senate the night before as part of a wider budget package, would have saved nearly $13 million in the current fiscal year and more in the next fiscal year according to analysis by the Legislative Finance Committee. The Taxation and Revenue Department, part of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, estimated it would save much less, saying it would be $5 million in the current fiscal year and again less than the LFC predicted in the next. “We are not asking for a tax increase,” Rep. Bill McCamley, the Las Cruces Democrat who carried the bill on the House side, said. “We are merely asking that we delay this tax.