Senate, House reach deal on $7 billion state budget

The New Mexico Senate and House of Representatives appeared to have an agreement on a $7 billion state budget late Friday after ironing out differences over pay for educators, funding for roads and college athletics. In the end, the biggest sticking point turned out to be a tiny but politically fraught piece of the spending plan: $700,000 for legislators to hire additional staff. The House passed the budget Feb. 21 and the Senate approved a series of changes on Wednesday. But the House did not accept those changes, spurring a round of negotiations between members of the budget committees in both chambers in an effort to reach consensus before the legislative session ends at noon Saturday.

Senate, House differ on details of hefty state budget

The New Mexico House of Representatives rejected the Senate’s proposed budget on Wednesday, raising objections related to teacher pay, road funding and the pension plan for public employees. The differences are not insurmountable, leaders in both chambers insisted, but they delayed final action on a whopping $7 billion spending plan. The Senate approved its version earlier in the day with a vote of 39 to 2. But the House voted overwhelmingly against that budget, leaving some questions over how to divvy up appropriations as the state increases spending by 11 percent over the current fiscal year, with big boosts in funding to schools, infrastructure and child services. “This isn’t war or anything,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Democrat from Gallup who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

Battle renewed over front-end license plate proposal

Arthur Medina would still be able to drive his cherried-out lowrider with Jesus on the front bumper. As the owner of a 1967 Pontiac Grand Prix with a customized “Jesus” plate on the front of his car, the Chimayó man and other classic car owners would be exempt from a bill that would require New Mexico motorists to have a front-end license plate. “Right on, bro,” Medina — also known as Low Low — said Wednesday while sitting outside the state Capitol in his lowrider, which was featured in March 1982 edition of National Geographic. But most other vehicle owners would have to affix a license plate to their front bumper under a bill that passed out of the House Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements Committee on a 5-3 vote Wednesday morning. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, a Democrat and former Albuquerque Police Department officer, said the proposal would make it easier for law enforcement to identify vehicles, especially if they’re involved in a crime.

House panel endorses changes in lottery operations

Financial bonuses for state lottery officials and contractors would be tied to increases in scholarship money available to New Mexico college students under a bill that got unanimous bipartisan approval from a House committee Monday. House Bill 250, sponsored by Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, also would require the state lottery to transfer money from unclaimed cash prizes — usually $2 million to $4 million a year — to the lottery scholarships fund. In addition, the bill would halt a pilot program launched last year in which lottery tickets are sold at self-serve gasoline pumps. Lottery officials launched the program at 13 gas stations — and 100 gas pumps — around the state, despite the fact that a House committee in 2015 killed legislation sought by lottery officials that would have legalized gas pump lottery ticket sales. HB 250 would prohibit all video lottery games connected with fuel pumps or automatic teller machines.

Open primary proposal moves forward

A proposal that would allow voters to decide whether or not those outside the two major political parties can participate in primary elections passed its first committee on Saturday. Right now, only Democrats can participate in Democratic primaries and only Republicans can participate in Republican primaries. The proposal brought forward by Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, and Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, would change that. The bill passed on a narrow 5-3 vote, with all four Democrats on the panel being joined by committee chair James Smith, R-Sandia Park.

Ethics commission moves forward despite concerns

A bill that would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to create an independent ethics commission cleared its first hurdle on Friday on a unanimous vote. Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, sponsored the proposed constitutional amendment explained that he felt this was a very important piece of legislation to both the public and the Legislature. “There are many different places to go to try to get an opinion, which can vary,” Dines said. “It needs to be centralized.” “It can give us direction.

‘Flawed’ campaign finance system in NM leads to more questions

State lawmakers are coming under more scrutiny since New Mexico Secretary of State’s office recently started investigating a handful of state legislators for possible campaign finance violations. State Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, Roger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo and Andy Nuñez, R-Hatch, are all under fire for discrepancies in their campaign finance reports. But perceived problems with campaign spending aren’t limited to them. New Mexico Political Report also found questionable campaign spending by state Reps.

Regulations for tax refund loans head to Senate after long House debate

A bill uncontroversial on its face about payday loans became the focal point of yet another drawn-out skirmish in the House. Members of the two political parties argued pros and cons of more stringent regulations for entities that offer payday and other high-interest small loans. Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales, presented HB 356, her proposal to update the state’s Small Loan Act to include additional rules for lenders who offer increasingly common tax refund anticipation checks. The bill ultimately passed on a 38-25 vote. Powdrell-Culbert said she proposed the legislation after hearing concerns expressed in committee meetings about the high interest rates charged by tax refund lenders, the majority of whom provide services to low-income people.

Bill to allow some employers to not hire tobacco users passes committee

A bill that would allow healthcare providers to decide whether or to not hire tobacco users passed a House committee without a recommendation on Thursday. The House Business and Employment Committee voted to pass the bill on a bipartisan 9 to 4 vote. HB 416, sponsored by House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R- Albuquerque, would exempt health care providers from an act that prohibits employers from hiring tobacco users. According to the Employee Privacy Act:

It is unlawful for an employer to:

(1)     refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise disadvantage any individual, with respect to compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment because the individual is a smoker or nonsmoker, provided that the individual complies with applicable laws or policies regulating smoking on the premises of the employer during working hours; or

(2)     require as a condition of employment that any employee or applicant for employment abstain from smoking or using tobacco products during nonworking hours, provided the individual complies with applicable laws or policies regulating smoking on the premises of the employer during working hours.The bill, which has support from the business and medical industries, would allow some employers to not hire those who use tobacco products. Gentry said his concern is health care workers who deal with patients who may be suffering from conditions that would otherwise be exacerbated by the smell of smoke.

Bills seek to aid, protect pregnant workers

In line with trends nationwide, the number of New Mexico families with women responsible for sole or primary financial support has grown dramatically. According to 2014 U.S. Census Bureau data, 106,993 households in the state are headed by females. If a woman who’s the head of a household gets pregnant, it can put the economic stability of her family at risk. Two pieces of legislation seek to address that issue, but a close examination of both reveals stark differences. Pamelya Herndon, an attorney and executive director of the Southwest Women’s Law Center, has seen the hard choices female heads of households face if their employers aren’t responsive to the challenges that accompany pregnancy or related complications.