The New Mexico House of Representatives passed a spending plan late Wednesday that boosts funding for classrooms and the courts, while cutting money for colleges and universities and leaving most other agencies with no new money. A companion bill also headed to the Senate, House Bill 202, would raise more revenue for future years by boosting fees and taxes. The $250 million a year in new ongoing revenue is needed to avoid more spending cuts and to replenish cash reserves, said sponsor Carl Trujillo, D- Santa Fe. “We are bleeding, we need to stop that bleeding,” Trujillo said as he held up a graph showing the state’s diminished reserves. The House approved the revenue measure first, because the proposed budget needs some $157 million in additional money to meet the constitutional requirement for a balanced budget.
New Mexico’s Road Fund was once considered a pot of money that would keep growing as more people in the state bought higher-priced cars and trucks, then drove extensively for business and recreation. Part of that has come to pass. With three interstate highways crossing New Mexico, increased trucking activity and record tourism, drivers are logging more miles. But they also are buying less gasoline, and the fund for road improvements and maintenance has stagnated. “We’ve seen an increase in traffic in New Mexico,” said state Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, a member of the House Transportation Committee.
While lawmakers say measures to patch an unconstitutional budget hole are the 2017 Legislature’s first priority, disagreements over a solvency package Tuesday kept most of the plan from moving forward to the governor. Four bills together would roll back some capital construction projects, sweep money from cash balances, including dollars earmarked for education reforms and economic development, and tap into reserve funds squirreled away by school districts and charter schools. “No one’s happy about having to cut the public schools in the middle of the year,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque. The exact amount of money that lawmakers scrape together will depend on the final version, but the legislation would beef up state government’s $6 billion general operating fund by adding some $260 million. If signed by Gov. Susana Martinez, as expected, the solvency plan would close a $70 million deficit for the fiscal year that ends June 30.
Several lawmakers groused about losing projects in their districts, but the House approved a bill Monday slashing 119 stalled infrastructure projects at a cost of $12.5 million. This piece originally appeared on New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission. Senate Bill 8 moves on to Gov. Susana Martinez for her signature. The legislation essentially moves nearly $90 million in unspent state dollars to New Mexico’s general fund as lawmakers try to backfill a deficit of nearly $600 million. SB8 also cuts earmarks for water, tribal and colonias by 1 percent. But the 119 projects, virtually all of them earmarked by individual lawmakers, drew the most debate as the bill moved through the House and Senate.
A bill aimed at bringing back the death penalty in New Mexico passed the House Appropriations and Finance committee along party lines after five hours of scrutiny from skeptical Democratic lawmakers. Missing on Monday evening, when compared to a previous committee hearing on the subject,was the emotional and tearful testimony from families of victims of criminals. The House Appropriations and Committee’s contentious tone started from the very beginning when Chairman Larry Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, encouraged panel members to only speak about the fiscal aspects of the bill. Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, called the request “inappropriate.”
“I’m going to call this for what it is,” Steinborn said. “A farce.”
The committee amended the bill to change controversial language, including removing the word “retarded” from the bill.
A House committee held off on any changes to a bill providing big cuts across most state agencies to give lawmakers and the public more time to review the deal. This came even as the panel, the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, approved a bill to shift capital outlay funds for infrastructure projects and another to sweep unused reserves to the general fund to shore up the state’s large budget deficit. While the amendment to deepen some cuts, and halt others, did not go forward it will likely be the structure for a version to be heard on the House floor, as early as Monday. The proposal on the bill to cut spending would have deepened cuts for many state agencies. The committee amended the Senate bill that provided spending cuts to cut most state agencies by 5.5 percent instead of the 5 percent in the original Senate version.
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. 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.
A proposal to allow retired law enforcement officers across the state to return to their old jobs cleared the House floor Wednesday evening after a three-hour debate. The House passed the bill on a 38-29 vote, with five Democrats joining all Republicans present for the vote. Sponsor Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, argued that it would solve staffing problems at police departments across the state. He emphasized that several county sheriffs across the state support the legislation, not just the city of Albuquerque and Albuquerque Police Department. Still, he had Albuquerque City Attorney Jessica Hernandez as his expert witness.
Some House Republicans gathered on Tuesday to implore Senate leadership to start hearing Republican crime bills that are in Senate committees. Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, a sponsor of a handful of bills to increase penalties on crimes, called out the Senate Democratic leaders for stalling some bills in committee. Members of the Senate majority previously said many of these bills were not given any vetting over appropriations in the House, therefore needed to be vetted by the Senate Finance Committee. “One of the main reasons that the Senate is not moving on any of the crime bills by the House is because they are basically saying there’s not any money for that,” Pacheco said. “I emphatically disagree.”
NM Political Report reached out to Senate Democrats for a comment.
Crafting this year’s state budget will be a challenge and some long-held assumptions and principles will be tested. That was the message from Sen. John Arthur Smith, the famously fiscally conservative and pessimistic chair of the Senate Finance Committee, as he gave a short preview of the budget on Monday morning. The Deming Democrat spoke on the Senate floor, just two days after the House passed their version of the budget. His committee will now begin the review of the budget. “We’re real concerned about getting through the fiscal year we’re in,” Smith said.