The idea of assigning state police officers to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge to prevent suicidal people from jumping met with a quick defeat Tuesday at the state Capitol. Members of the House Finance and Appropriations Committee unanimously blocked a bill to allocate $156,000 a year to help pay for the suicide prevention squad. “I can’t see how it’s going to work,” said Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, who led opposition to the proposal, House Bill 166. The measure called for three state police officers to be assigned to the bridge, presumably in different shifts. But Thomson pointed out that the cost of salaries, benefits and equipment for three officers would run $288,000 a year, or nearly double the amount sought in the bill.
A member of the state House of Representatives is asking for an investigation of a legislative committee, charging that several of its members met privately without him to craft part of the annual state budget and omitted his proposal to restore about $41 million cut from the reserves of school districts last year. Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, said the meeting left legislators like him out of part of the process of preparing the spending plan. In an unusual move, Townsend asked the Legislative Council Service to investigate why the meeting did not include him and many other members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. “I don’t believe it’s in any of our interest, whether it be a Democratic majority or a Republican majority, to have a process that prevents your constituents or my constituents from being represented,” he said on the House floor Thursday before heading to the council’s offices on the fourth floor to file what the representative described as a verbal complaint. Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, the Gallup Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said the panel did nothing improper or out of the ordinary.
Only 328 people live in Red River, but even they have a lobbyist. The mountain town known as a vacation destination pays $2,000 each month plus tax for the services of Gabriel Cisneros, who represents a short list of local governments at the state Capitol. He is just one in a small army of lobbyists at work in Santa Fe during this year’s 30-day legislative session representing towns, counties, villages, school districts, colleges and even charter schools — mostly if not entirely on the taxpayers’ dime. They may seem like a waste of money given that these communities are already represented by legislators and an alphabet soup of advocacy groups from the New Mexico Association of Counties to the New Mexico Municipal League and the Council of University Presidents. Government officials counter that lobbyists are worth the price to keep up with a legislative process that can affect local budgets and institutions, from the county jail to the water treatment plant.
The tax bill Congress is considering could blow up New Mexico’s budget—as early as next year. New Mexico Senate Finance Committee chair John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and House Appropriations and Finance Committee chair Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, sounded the alarm with a letter to members of the congressional delegation and Gov. Susana Martinez. The two wrote the state could lose nearly $600 million in federal funding in the coming year, including over $430 million in federal mineral leasing payments. This is money the federal government pays to states for oil and gas drilling and coal mining on federal lands within their borders. “Loss of FML revenues, which primarily fund public education in New Mexico, would have a devastating impact on the state’s budget and would wipe out the reserves our state has struggled to rebuild,” the two legislators wrote.
The House of Representatives passed three pieces of budget legislation Wednesday afternoon and evening with little debate. The first restored funding to higher education and the state Legislature. Earlier this year, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the entire budgets for both during the regular session, citing her opposition to tax increases. Two Republicans—state Reps. Jason Harper of Rio Rancho and Rod Montoya of Farmington—voiced concerns for the spending bill.
State House Republicans unveiled a spending plan for the upcoming special legislative session that would transfer $12.5 million from the state Legislative Retirement Fund to the general fund to solve the New Mexico’s budget shortfall. Martinez announced the special session will begin Wednesday, May 24. GOP House leaders announced the plan publicly in a press release Tuesday, touting it as a solution to fix the state’s budget issues without raising taxes. “This plan covers New Mexico’s budget needs for the upcoming fiscal year and increases funding for cancer care as well as support for students working to obtain a college degree,” state Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, said in a statement. “I urge my colleagues in the Legislature to adopt these proposals so we can resolve this budget impasse fairly and for the benefit of all New Mexicans.”
But the ranking lawmaker in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee questioned whether the Legislature could legally transfer money already invested the retirement fund.
The governor vetoed the entire higher education budget totaling almost $3 billion, along with the entire budget for the Legislature, to force lawmakers back to Santa Fe for a special legislative session to redo the state spending plan for the budget year that starts on July 1 and to overhaul the gross receipts tax system. She says she is against raising taxes on New Mexicans but willing to allow some new revenue to support the budget. We’ve seen “no tax” pledges coupled with deeps cuts to higher education in other states and how distressing the combination has been to students, families, and communities. Patricia Lundstrom is a Democratic state Representative from the 9th District. For years, a number of governors have pitted higher education against corporate and other tax cuts to spectacular and devastating results.
One of the biggest winners in the just concluded 60-day session of the New Mexico Legislature was a man who never set foot in the Roundhouse and, in fact, never came close to crossing the state border. His name is Donald J. Trump, the president of the United States. Republican Trump lost New Mexico in November by 8 percentage points, and Democrats control both the state Senate and House of Representatives. Even so, several pieces of legislation aimed at Trump failed to get traction in the Legislature. Senate Bill 118, sponsored by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, would have required presidential candidates to disclose five years of personal income taxes to get on the general election ballot in New Mexico.
The final pieces of a 2018 fiscal year budget were falling into place Thursday with just enough money to balance spending and send lawmakers home without the need for a special session. Those measures were advancing even as other bills — such as an effort to increase the tobacco tax or raise money by closing tax loopholes — died in committees and looked to jeopardize any final agreement. One of the developments came as hospital executives met with Gov. Susana Martinez to discuss a section of House Bill 202, which increases taxes and fees in several areas. One of its provisions would equalize the gross receipts tax on all nonprofit and for-profit hospitals, with the money earmarked for Medicaid. The New Mexico Hospital Association helped craft a compromise with lawmakers to support the tax if some of the $80 million raised could be used to bridge a shortfall in Medicaid, which costs the state $916 million a year.
Hopes of capping the amount that storefront lenders in New Mexico can charge in interest and fees waned Monday after a powerful lawmaker’s attempt to close a loophole in the bill met with cool resistance. House Bill 347 and a companion measure in the Senate represent the most significant movement in years by lawmakers to regulate an industry that consumer advocates say preys on poor people with annual rates that can climb as high as 9,000 percent on some loans. By capping most annual percentage rates at 175 percent, the bills have won backing from lobbyists for many storefront lenders and some consumer advocates who view it as a palatable compromise. But the proposal still prompted skepticism Monday in the House Judiciary Committee, which postponed a vote on the bill after House Speaker Brian Egolf asked the sponsors to eliminate an exception to the cap of 175 percent. This casts doubt on the proposal’s prospects as the legislative session enters its last 12 days.