The New Mexico Legislature finished its main task of mending the state’s huge fiscal shortfall Saturday, but the special session wasn’t over as the House of Representatives still had work to do.
The Senate approved 30-12 a modified budget planthat uses a combination of spending cuts, reserves and federal funding to deal with a projected $2 billion drop in state revenue for the next fiscal year. “It’s certainly not the perfect response, but it darn well may be the only response we can give right now,” Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told his fellow legislators. After approving the budget, senators adjourned “sine die” and promptly left the Capitol, with several members eager to hit the road home. But the special session continued on. A long debate and dramatic revote on an election reform bill delayed the House’s proceedings, and representatives said they would need to return Monday to finish up.
If you started the clock at midnight Monday and counted down to the end of this year’s legislative session at noon Thursday, you’d come up with 84 hours. That’s how long legislators in the state Senate have to make adjustments to the state budget. “Putting out fires. That’s what it looks like,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. John Arthur Smith of what promises to be a frenetic three and a half days. Entering the final moments of the 30-day legislative session, the state budget encompassed in House Bill 2 remains in limbo.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s plan to cap charter school enrollment met a wave of opposition Monday, and at least one Democratic senator said he would break party ranks to oppose the initiative. The attempt to limit enrollment in charter schools is contained in wide-ranging Senate Bill 1, which has sponsors from both political parties. Critics of the bill include Sen. Bill O’Neill, a Democrat from Albuquerque and co-founder of a charter school in that city. The measure would limit charter schools statewide to 27,000 students for at least one year. Charter schools have nearly that many students now.
Gov. Susana Martinez signed a new nurse licensing compact on Thursday, averting what one lawmaker warned would be a health care crisis by ensuring nurses with licenses from more than two dozen other states can continue practicing in New Mexico without getting a separate certificate. A bipartisan group of lawmakers sped the bill through the Legislature in the first days of this year’s month-long session as they faced a deadline late Friday to either approve the new compact or leave dozens — potentially hundreds — of nurses with licenses from other states unable to work in New Mexico, only making worse a shortage of medical professionals around the state. “Some hospitals, as high as 70 percent of their staff are out-of-state nurses. This is critical,” Rep. Deborah Armstrong, a Democrat from Albuquerque and chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, told representatives before the chamber voted 68-0 to approve the new compact without debate. After the swift vote, the measure headed to the governor, who signed it Thursday afternoon surrounded by Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
Lawmakers face a hard deadline this week to make sure that dozens or even hundreds of nurses can continue working in New Mexico. Legislators have until midnight Friday to approve a new nurse licensing compact, an update to an agreement that allows nurses licensed in other states to practice in New Mexico without getting a separate certificate. Hospitals say the compact is key to recruiting in a state facing a shortage of medical professionals. Missing the deadline to join the new system would leave New Mexico with fewer nurses to care for patients, they say. Though not much usually happens during the first days of a legislative session, the high stakes amid a particularly rough flu season have forged what appears to be a bipartisan consensus that lawmakers must approve the compact and fast during their 30-day gathering that begins at noon Tuesday.
For seven consecutive years, Gov. Susana Martinez has unsuccessfully pushed a bill to hold back thousands of third-graders who score below par on standardized reading tests. A pair of similar bills this year haven’t even received a hearing before a legislative committee. And with just five days left in the 60-day legislative session, it is unlikely that they will. Democratic Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said she didn’t know whether the panel would have time to hear House Bill 114, introduced by Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque. But even if Garcia Richard’s committee takes up the measure, it almost certainly would table it.
The New Mexico Senate, hoping to improve state roads and rebuild cash reserves, approved a bill Thursday that would increase the state gasoline tax for the first time in more than 20 years. But the bill has little chance of becoming law. “If it reaches the governor’s desk, she will veto it,” said Chris Sanchez, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. An override of Martinez’s veto is unlikely because the tax bill received support from only three of the Senate’s 16 Republicans. The measure, Senate Bill 95, would raise about $180 million annually through a range of taxes and fees.
Some professors, students and advocates at the state’s flagship university are warning proposed sweeping changes to the state’s higher education system could undermine academic freedom and programs like ethnic studies. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs would scale back the number of required credit hours students take in public university “general education core” classes and establish “meta-majors.”
“Meta-major” classes are defined in the bill as “lower division courses” that are set by the department and include general education courses and prerequisite courses. At a Senate Education Committee hearing last week, Kernan said her bill’s purpose is to make it easier for students who transfer to different universities to use the credits they’ve already earned from previous courses toward their college degrees. Kernan’s bill is supported by New Mexico Higher Education Department Secretary Barbara Damron. At last week’s hearing, Damron described meta-majors as a group of courses set under a list of broad subjects that undecided college students can choose from to create a path toward their eventual major.
An attorney for the state Human Services Department told state lawmakers Friday he wasn’t sure how long an internal investigation of alleged systemic fraud within his agency would take to complete. But he offered his best guess. “My understanding is that the inspector general plans to have more by this fall,” HSD General Counsel Christopher Collins told lawmakers in response to a question from state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque. Collins made the comments in an interim Legislative Health and Human Services Committee hearing where lawmakers examined the food stamp scandal that has rocked headlines for the past three months. In May, HSD’s inspector general announced an investigation into allegations that department officials falsified emergency food aid applications to deny benefits to qualified applicants.
A House bill that would add first responders and law enforcement officers to the state’s Hate Crime statute died in a Senate committee on Friday. The Senate Public Affairs Committee voted against passing the bill, sponsored by House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, along party lines. A majority of public support came from law enforcement officers representing six different counties as well as New Mexico State Police. Also among supporters were Rev. Holly Beaumont of Interfaith Worker Justice and Julie Benner, the widow of slain officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner. Those who opposed the bill said adding officers to the hate crime act would dilute the law already in place.