Very little legislating typically occurs during the first week of New Mexico’s 60-day legislative session. Instead, the first days are more commonly dedicated to speeches, organizational meetings of various committees and perhaps a few proclamations recognizing prominent New Mexicans or the successes of high school sports teams.
But with the state in a budget crisis, this year’s session has started with a sprint, especially in the Senate. “We’re moving rather rapidly,” Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said after his body approved four bills on the session’s second day to balance New Mexico’s budget in the face of a projected $69 million deficit. Those measures have moved to the House of Representatives for further consideration. Not until legislators balance this year’s budget can they begin work in earnest on a budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.
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 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.
Gov. Susana Martinez announced Tuesday her proposal to balance the state budget, which involves moving $268.5 million from various state agencies. “This is a responsible budget that reduces the size of government while at the same time protects the progress we’ve made in diversifying our economy, reforming our education system, and keeps our communities safe,” Martinez said in a press release. The proposal includes taking $120 million from public education in funds that Martinez’s press release referred to as “slush funds.”
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, told NM Political Report that the proposal is a “starting point for negotiation purposes,” but that real discussions will happen in committee meetings once the legislative session begins next week. Smith, a fiscal conservative, also criticized Martinez’s proposed sweep from public schools. “I’m not as harsh on education as she is,” Smith said.
The latest update on the state’s budget situation was filled with negative news, including a large reduction from previous budget projections released in August. The current year’s budget is projected to be $69 million in the hole. For the fiscal year starting July 1, 2017, state budget experts project $300 million less money to spend than the budget in the current fiscal year—which itself saw massive cuts during the special session, with 5.5 percent cuts to most agencies. The update, presented by experts from the Department of Finance and Administration and the Taxation and Revenue Department Monday morning to the Legislative Finance Council, comes a month and a half before legislators go back to work during a regular legislative session to deal with next year’s state budget. During a special session in September and October, the Legislature plugged a $600 million budget deficit that encompassed last year’s budget and the current budget through a combination of tapping into reserves and making cuts.
After a marathon all-nighter in the House that mostly involved debate to reinstate the death penalty, the state Senate moved briskly Thursday morning to adopt the House changes to budget fixes and adjourn. The move brought an end to a chaotic special legislative session, which began last Friday. Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, lamented that the Senate did not hear crime bills passed by the House. Yet he spoke highly of the House’s budget compromise with the Senate, which scaled back proposed higher education cuts that singled out the University of New Mexico. “There seemed to be a little bit of overemphasis on popping UNM a little too hard,” Ingle told reporters after the session.
Showing possible signs of movement from the Senate Monday, the chamber’s majority and minority leadership have been spotted around their respective offices in the Roundhouse even though the chamber voted to adjourn early Saturday morning. Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, told NM Political Report Monday that he, President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, and Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, are among the senators who returned to the state capitol building as the House hears, and amends, budget bills originally sent from the Senate. Sanchez wouldn’t go into detail about what they were doing or if they are going to hear any House bills, but confirmed there is some sort of conversations happening. “We’re visiting, trying to figure some things out,” Sanchez said. Sanchez didn’t say if they were speaking to the House.
The Senate, saying their business was done for the legislative session, passed a number of bills to fix the budget deficit this year and the recently-completed fiscal year that ended on June 30, adjourned sine die. This means the Senators can go home. The state constitution provides that the House would need to stay in session for three days—not including Sundays—to force Senators to come back. The House Appropriations and Finance Committee passed a feed bill that would fund the Legislature during the special session for three days; the Senate passed their own version.
As for the actual budget, the Senate passed eleven bills, including the bill to fund the special session.
The Senate Finance Committee went to work Friday to bridge the gap on the large budget deficits in both the current fiscal year and the recently completed fiscal year. The proposals to close the deficits came from expanding medical marijuana, taxing some internet sales and accelerating the phasing out of the hold-harmless provision for local governments. “If it looks like chaos, that’s what it is,” Senate Finance Committee chair John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, joked at the start of the productive meeting. Another meeting for the bills was scheduled for later Friday evening, with Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez saying the full Senate would hear the bills later that night. The committee passed seven bills in all, sending all seven to the Senate floor.
RED RIVER — The state is facing a big hole when it comes to the state budget, lawmakers were told at the latest meeting of the interim Legislative Finance Committee. The projected $325 million deficit for the current year’s budget comes in part because state revenue projections from January were off by more than half a billion dollars. A larger-than-expected downturn in the oil and gas industry made a big part of the decline. This year, the state House of Representatives passed a budget based on the January projections, but the state Senate drastically slashed that budget before sending it back to the House. But even the big cuts in the final budget for this year leave a lot to be done.