October 1, 2016

House committees pass Senate bills, with one key amendment

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

Two House committees passed four Senate bills, three with no changes, but the one bill that must pass this year to balance the books on the budget for the year that ended three months ago passed with a change.

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

If the bill passes in the amended form, the Senate would need to resolve the differences created by the House Appropriations and Finance Committee before it heads to the governor.

In a bill that moves over $200 million from various funds, largely the tobacco settlement permanent fund, the change moved $1 million more from a legislative account.

“I don’t want to say it’s a political movida, but it sounds to me like it’s a political movida,” Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, said before the committee approved the changes.

“If we don’t make an effort to increase our reserves, our bond rating is in danger of being down-rated,” committee chair Larry Larranaga, R-Albuquerque, said.

The expert witness for the bill, Charles Sallee of the Legislative Finance Council, when asked by Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela said the $1 million would likely not make a material difference for the agencies that do bond ratings.

Without the funds, the budget that ended June 30 would be unconstitutionally not balanced.

Earlier Saturday, House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, told reporters the House would force the Senate to return. According to the state constitution, one chamber can force the other to come back to a special session by staying in session for three days, not counting Sunday.

The Senate adjourned early Saturday morning after passing budget solvency bills.

HAFC passed another bill without changes, though many expressed doubts about the bill, especially Varela.

That bill would move money related to capital outlay for schools around. Like in the Senate, backers said it was made possible by legislation in recent years that has kept schools adequately repaired.

Still, Varela said the bill showed how priorities among legislators were askew.

“We’re cutting all these special projects and losing job creation to take care of this deficit that we have and we’re not solving the problem,” Varela said. “All we’re doing is delaying the problem for perhaps some future additional revenue, which I don’t see happening under this administration.”

The committee didn’t debate SB 9, the Senate bill that outlines the deep cuts. House Republicans reportedly will change that bill to take out cuts to parts of the Children, Youth and Families Department while deepening cuts to higher education. The Senate version did not cut any money to child protective services at CYFD.

Similarly, the House Ways and Means Committee passed two bills but did not address more contentious legislation. The committee will debate a proposal to delay corporate income tax cuts by two years later, possibly as early as Saturday night.

Two other bills cleared the bill unanimously without changes.

One bill would freeze the automatic increase in funding to retiree healthcare and fire protection grant funds.

“They’re going to have to decrease the benefits increase the copays and their going to do it to people that can least afford it,” Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, said.

Still, the bill passed unanimously.

Another bill that lawmakers expressed concern about but still passed unanimously was one to take funds from older capital outlay projects that have yet to be started and move the funds to the general fund.

Committee chair Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, noted he had some projects in the bill from 2013 and 2014, saying he was “not happy about” it.

Still, he said it sends “a message that we’re serious about drawing down this billion dollar or whatever our state auditor says is in the bank.”

He referred to money that the State Auditor said over the past few years that is sitting in various accounts, unused.

Rep. Bill McCamley, who presented both bills in the Ways and Means Committee for Senate colleagues, said in closing on the bill legislators should pass the capital outlay sweep.

“This is probably one of the two things we all agree on, as bad as it is,” McCamley said.

The bill to move capital outlay funds to the general fund will now head to HAFC. The other three bills are headed for the House floor for final passage.

Andy Lyman contributed to this report.