Budget concerns cast cloud over session

Steve Terrell and Milan Simonich
The Santa Fe New Mexican
Former Santa Fe Mayor David Coss speaks on behalf of the immigrant community during a Senate Public Affairs Committee meeting dealing with Real ID bills on Feb. 2 at the state Capitol.
State Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuqurque, presents his three-strikes bill to the House Judiciary Committee at the state Capitol on Jan. 26.

SANTA FE – During the first part of the current session of the New Mexico Legislature, there was so much noise and clamor over bills dealing with crime and punishment that an outside observer might not have realized that the main purpose of the 30-day session was to craft and approve a state budget.

But as lawmakers go into the final stretch of the session, ever-shrinking revenue projections caused by plummeting oil and gas prices have cast dark clouds over the budget and forced lawmakers to deal with the possibility of deep cuts. Whispers about the need for a special session are growing louder every day.

"We no longer have a structural deficit. We have an actual deficit," Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, told reporters last week. "We're in a free fall right now with state revenues. This free fall is not something I've ever experienced, and I've been here 28 years."

Just over a week ago, the Republican-controlled House approved a $6.3 billion budget. It included $80 million in new spending and another $74 million in unused money from other state accounts. That budget would move $147.5 million from a tax stabilization account into more liquid operating reserves.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has been silent about the budget situation. However, a spokeswoman for her Department of Finance and Administration said in an email Friday that Smith's alarm over the evaporating revenue may be overblown.

"We are very aware of the challenges presented by falling oil and gas prices," Julia Ruetten said. "However, it is important not to overstate the problem. Some figures have been cited that suggest the state's problem is worse than it actually is."

Ruetten argued that state reserves are adequate to manage revenue problems but said it's essential to curb spending. And raising taxes is out of the question. That, she said, "would hit hardworking New Mexicans and small businesses at the worst time."

Smith has introduced legislation that would postpone for two years more cuts in the state's corporate income tax. However, considering Martinez's stance and Republican control of the House, nobody seriously believes that will happen.

Of the more than 600 bills introduced in the session, as of Saturday morning, only one -- the "feed bill" that pays for the session -- had passed both chambers. By Saturday afternoon, the House had passed a handful of Senate bills. The total is bound to increase considerably in the remaining days.

Spurred by the surge of violent killings last year, including two police officers, the House wasted little time in the first half of the session to pass a huge wave of bills aimed at increasing criminal penalties.

Among those passed by the House are a "three strikes" bill (House Bill 56, sponsored by Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, designed to send more repeat criminals to prison for life terms; a bill to add police officers, firefighters and other first-responders to protected classes in the state hate-crimes bill (HB 95, sponsored by Pacheco and House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque); a bill that would allow cities and counties to impose curfews on minors between midnight and 5 a.m. (HB 29, sponsored by Gentry and Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe); and several bills aimed at child pornography, drunken driving and other crimes.

Of those, the three strikes bill passed the Senate Public Affairs Committee on Saturday. The same panel recommended the curfew bill last week, while the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday recommended House Bill 65, which increases penalties for possessing child pornography.

However, the hate-crimes bill effectively died Friday in the Senate Public Affairs Committee.

While the political rhetoric in general seems far less heated in this session compared with last year's bloody slug fest, the crime issue is one area in which partisans on both sides haven't been shy about going for the throat.

Democrats in both chambers complained about the Republicans' emphasis on crime when the state has one of the highest unemployment rates and child poverty rates in the nation. Some have implied that Martinez and her GOP allies are using crime as a way to distract the public from the state's economic problems. Democrats complained that Martinez gave messages to GOP crime bills — which are necessary for a bill to be considered during a budget session — but not for most bills by Democrats meant to boost the economy.

Republicans have shot back with claims that the Democrats are soft on crime and insensitive to crime victims. Some have suggested that Democrats care more for the rights of murderers and pedophiles than they care about the rights of law-abiding citizens.

Republicans criticized Senate Democratic leaders for sending many of their crime bills to three committees rather than just two, including the Senate Finance Committee. Democrats said they had to because the House leadership didn't send those bills to its Appropriations and Finance Committee to determine the cost of the bills to courts, police and prisons.

Republicans said the budget the House passed includes an extra $12 million for prisons and other law enforcement costs.

But now, with the likelihood of an unbalanced budget, it's not clear if there will be enough money to pay for longer sentences.

A couple of crime-related measures that don't deal with sentences seem to have decent chances of passing.

One is a proposal that would close a gun-law loophole by requiring the state's courts to report relevant mental health records to the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Both the House and the Senate have passed their own bills. As soon as one of those clears both chambers, it will go to the governor for her signature.

Another is a bipartisan constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 1, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, that would allow judges to keep some people accused of violent offenses in jail without bail while they await trial while allowing nonviolent indigent offenders to be released without bail after petitioning a judge. The current version of the measure came out of a compromise negotiated among Wirth and other legislators and bail bond industry lobbyists.

Another big compromise made news in the session last week. The divisive issue of issuing driver's licenses to undocumented residents — which has been an annual battle in the Roundhouse since Martinez became governor five years ago — might be coming to an amicable end in the Legislature.

On Friday, the Senate Finance Committee adopted amendments to a House bill that won praise from Martinez, as well as immigrant-rights advocates. And on Saturday, the full Senate voted 41-1 to pass the amended bill. It goes now to the House for concurrence and then to Martinez for her signature. She has said she'd sign the bill as it stands now.

Some thought this might be a banner year for ethics reform because of the fraud case that led to the resignation of Secretary of State Dianna Duran last year. However, many of the ethics bills introduced have languished, never getting messages from the governor.

Some ethics legislation has moved through the Roundhouse. The House last week passed a proposed constitutional amendment, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, to establish a state ethics commission. So far, it hasn't been heard in any Senate committee.

On Saturday, the House passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, to require lobbyists to specify which lawmakers they are spending money on. The House also passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park, that would require candidates and lobbyists to electronically file campaign contributions into a new system to make it easier for the public to search campaign finance data.