Senate, House differ on details of hefty state budget

The New Mexico House of Representatives rejected the Senate’s proposed budget on Wednesday, raising objections related to teacher pay, road funding and the pension plan for public employees. The differences are not insurmountable, leaders in both chambers insisted, but they delayed final action on a whopping $7 billion spending plan. The Senate approved its version earlier in the day with a vote of 39 to 2. But the House voted overwhelmingly against that budget, leaving some questions over how to divvy up appropriations as the state increases spending by 11 percent over the current fiscal year, with big boosts in funding to schools, infrastructure and child services. “This isn’t war or anything,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Democrat from Gallup who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

Trapping bill highlights state’s urban/rural divide

Mary Katherine Ray has seen traps up close. One caught the leg of her dog Greta while they were hiking. “I will never forget the sound of Greta’s screaming,” Ray told a New Mexico legislative committee on Thursday. It was a story lawmakers heard over and over again — a story of beautiful days outdoors turned bloody by traps lurking in the brush. Animal welfare advocates and others are renewing a years-long effort to ban trapping on public lands in New Mexico.

Gas tax hike backers say NM roads need funding

New Mexico’s government has not raised the tax on gasoline since 1993. This year, that could change. A sweeping tax bill sponsored by Democrats in the state House of Representatives would increase the tax on gasoline by 10 cents a gallon, from 17 cents to 27 cents, starting in mid-2020. The special fuels tax would go up a nickel, too, from 21 cents to 26 cents. Backers say New Mexicans do not have to look any further than the wear and tear on the state’s highways for a reason to raise the tax, proceeds of which have traditionally paid for road maintenance.

Lawmakers pressed to devise plan for improving public education

State Rep. Bobby Gonzales shook his head from side to side after listening to all the suggestions about how to meet a judge’s order to provide more resources to New Mexico children who, in the court’s view, are not receiving a good public education. “About 15 different ideas,” the Democrat from Taos said following a hearing on the topic last week in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. “Maybe we need to break it all down. Maybe we can’t do it all in one year.” But the state doesn’t have a year, or even half a year, to comply with a mandate handed down in June by state District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe.

Bill seeks voter OK to pay legislators a salary

Rep. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales has been in the state House of Representatives for nearly 25 years. Plenty of colleagues have come and gone. And he’s noticed something about many of those who can afford to stick around in nonsalaried jobs as state legislators. “You have to be wealthy, retired or have a very supportive employer,” says the Democrat from Ranchos de Taos. New Mexico is one of only a few states that do not pay lawmakers an annual salary.

Proposed amendment to tap land grant endowment for early ed passes House

The state House of Representatives voted Tuesday to ask New Mexicans for an additional piece of the state’s $17 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood education. The House passed the proposed constitutional amendment by a vote of 36-33 that fell mostly along party lines after hours of debate that were both wonkish and visceral — dealing with a facet of the state’s finances that is arcane but deeply rooted in New Mexico’s history. In the Land Grant Permanent Fund, lawmakers argued alternately, there is an opportunity to break generational cycles of poverty or a risk of imperiling the state’s financial future. Progressives and advocates for children’s issues have pushed similar proposals for years, arguing additional money from the fund could provide a needed boost for families in the state with the highest rate of child poverty. But critics in both parties have countered that taking an additional 1 percent of the fund would strain the Land Grant Permanent Fund in the future.

PNM, enviro groups hammer out funding for ‘abandoned’ coal plant

A bill scheduled to come before the Senate Conservation Committee on Saturday has some environmental groups and the state’s largest electric utility facing off over financing the retirement of a coal-fired power plant. If passed, the bill would create a bond financing mechanism allowing Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM, to recover “stranded” costs associated with its planned closure of the San Juan Generating Station near Farmington. The bill would allow the utility to form a subsidiary that could issue low-interest “energy redevelopment bonds” and recover more than $300 million. Senate Bill 47 is sponsored by Albuquerque Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an attorney, and Republican Sen. Steven Neville, a real estate appraiser from Aztec. Its counterpart, House Bill 80, is also a bipartisan bill, sponsored by Rep. Roberto Gonzales, D-Ranchos de Taos, and Republican Minority Whip Rod Montoya, a miner from Farmington.