Key Senate panel adjusts state spending plan

A key Senate committee on Monday unveiled 123 different changes to a $7 billion state budget approved by the House of Representatives, tweaking proposed raises for school teachers, funding for a marquee economic development program and plans to bring back soccer at the University of New Mexico. The budget would mark an 11 percent increase over the current year’s spending plan as New Mexico enjoys a windfall of tax revenue from an oil and gas boom and as the new Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, sets out an agenda that includes big education funding increases as well as filling vacant positions across state government after years of budget cuts. The House approved the budget mostly along party lines last month, sending it to the Senate, where the Senate Finance Committee on Monday added about $19 million in spending to the plan and rearranged other expenses. The changes include more than trebling funding for an economic development program to $60 million from $14 million. The Local Economic Development Act allows the state to pay for brick-and-mortar upgrades such as roads and utility connections as well as other costs associated with setting up businesses to the state.

New Mexico readies for driverless vehicles

Autonomous vehicles are coming. Soon—and New Mexico needs to be ready. That was the message from a recent summit on autonomous, or driverless, vehicles organized by the state Department of Transportation. Local officials, technology experts and even industry representatives all agreed legislators need to understand the technology before changing laws or other policies. Earlier this year, Sen. James White, R-Albuquerque, introduced a memorial asking NMDOT to organize the summit and get New Mexico ready for autonomous vehicles.

Senate panel advances House tax bill over health providers’ objections

Lawmakers looking for every possible penny of new revenue to balance the state budget moved ahead with an omnibus tax package Wednesday over the objections of hospitals and medical providers that claimed paying more to the state would harm health care in New Mexico. House Bill 202 is part of an effort to bring in revenue from the fastest-growing part of the state’s economy — physicians, hospitals and clinics, most of which now pay little or no gross receipts tax. Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, said his bill equalizes the tax among the entire health care sector at just over 3 percent — and that amount is paid on just 40 percent of patient revenue. “I don’t know how you can be more fair than everyone in this profession paying the same,” he said. The measure would raise $250 million for the general fund and restore cash reserves to about 4 percent, Trujillo said.

Special session off to a testy start

Even before the House and Senate are scheduled to meet at noon Friday, the high tensions between the two parties was evident, previewing what promises to be a bare-knuckle brawl of a special session. The special session is necessary to fix a budget deficit of over $500 million between the current fiscal year and the already-ended fiscal year. The special session will also feature a handful of high profile crime bills. It was these bills that drew the ire of House Democrats, especially since the bills would be heard in committee hour half an hour after the floor session. “The first thing that this House seeks to do is seek reinstatement of the death penalty.

Gov. Martinez fills two legislative vacancies

Gov. Susana Martinez announced two appointments Friday to fill vacancies created by lawmakers who left the Legislature before the end of their terms.

Martinez appointed former State Rep. James White, an Albuquerque Republican, to fill the vacancy in Senate District 19. Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort announced her resignation earlier this year. The veteran Senator from Sandia Park previously announced that the 2016 regular legislative session would be her last. Martinez highlighted White’s nearly three decades as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. In the House, Martinez appointed a Democrat to fill the House seat of former Speaker of the House Ken Martinez.

Wilson Beffort resigns from Senate

State Senator Sue Wilson Beffort resigned, opening up a seat for the governor to appoint—for the next three months at least. The Republican from Sandia Park is not running for reelection, so anyone who is appointed would only serve through the start of the year. The Mountain View Telegraph reported the news that the Bernalillo County Commission is accepting applications from those who want to be considered by Gov. Susana Martinez for the appointment. The paper reported Wilson Beffort tendered her resignation July 29. Republican former state representative James P. White will face Sandia Park Democrat Harold W. Murphree in November’s election in the Republican-leaning district.

Former lawmakers’ campaign funds scrutinized

The Secretary of State’s office said this week it would look closer at a former lawmaker’s decision to contribute money from his campaign fund to a family member running for office last year. Former Rep. Henry “Kiki” Saavedra, D-Albuquerque, donated $2,400 in December 2013 to his son Randy’s unsuccessful House primary race and another $2,600 donation on June 6, 2014, after the primary, campaign finance documents show. The contribution limits in 2014 were $2,400 for the primary and $2,400 for the general election. Secretary of State spokesman Ken Ortiz said the office would review the situation involving Saavedra, which appears to exceed state limits. “In the case with Rep. Saavedra, we will need to review the donation of $2,600 to determine if it exceeds the allowable limits,” Ortiz wrote in an email.