Lawmakers race to resolve budget, crime issues

Morgan Lee
The Associated Press
An upcoming special session of the New Mexico Legislature has county officials worried about the potential impact on the county budget.

SANTA FE  — New Mexico lawmakers are racing to approve a balanced budget in a year of plunging oil revenues while pushing forward with an ambitious slate of criminal justice initiatives and anti-corruption reforms.

The state's abbreviated 30-day legislative session comes to a close by law at noon Thursday.

Amid election-year politicking, lawmakers in the Republican-led House and Democratic-controlled Senate have brokered compromises on revisions to immigrant driver's licenses, and an overhaul of the state's bail system designed to keep dangerous defendants behind bars and make sure poor, nonviolent suspects don't languish in jail.

Outcomes are far from certain for dozens of tough-on-crime measures that Republican Gov. Susana Martinez placed at the top of her agenda in response to a string of high-profile crimes over the last year.

Those bills would broaden three-strikes sentencing, allow youth curfews, increase mandatory-minimum sentences, and stiffen criminal DWI and child pornography provisions. Almost all have passed the House and still face Senate committee hearings, where Democrats are questioning the wisdom and expense of extended sentences in a tight budget year as the Corrections Department struggles to fill vacant jobs at state prisons.

A bill that would increase the number and type of felonies that require a mandatory life sentence upon a third conviction advanced past its first Senate committee over the weekend, while another that would expand a hate crimes law to include law enforcement officers has been sidelined.

Republican Majority House Speaker Nate Gentry sponsored the hate crimes bill and expressed faith that bipartisan cooperation is prevailing on major issues, citing compromises on bail reform. Democratic leaders, meanwhile, say crime legislation has stolen precious time away from more pressing initiatives aimed at stimulating the economy and jobs.

Budget negotiations have been thrown into disarray by low crude oil and natural gas prices and weaker-than-expected tax receipts in a state with the nation's highest unemployment rate.

State economists have repeatedly slashed revenue expectations during the legislative session. The latest revision reduced revenue forecasts by $250 million for this year and next, as Senate leaders rewrote a House-approved budget bill to slightly shrink spending next year on basic government operations.

Recommended spending increases for public schools have been pared down from $100 million to $7 million, eliminating new money for several early childhood education programs.

A proposal to shore up public school funding with money from the state's $14 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund won Senate approval Sunday. If the House approves the measure, the amendment would be placed on the statewide ballot in November. It would provide about $110 million a year in funding.

Select spending increases would offset surging costs of Medicaid health care and bolster state prisons and police and child protective services. Select merit and base pay increases for teachers are included.

Amid the budget crunch, the governor and Republicans have continued to oppose any new taxes and appear unlikely to overturn major tax incentives or delay decreases in the corporate income tax. Stalled tax proposals include a first-time levy on e-cigarettes. A proposal to legalize and tax sales of recreational marijuana was voted down by the Senate.

Rep. Jason Harper, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said New Mexico is barely showing signs of emerging from recession.

"With the oil and natural gas crisis, now is not the time to raise taxes on families," the Rio Rancho Republican said.

Two major anti-corruption proposals have won House approval in the wake of a campaign finance scandal that led last year to the resignation and jailing of former Secretary of State Dianna Duran.

A proposed constitutional amendment would create an independent agency to oversee the conduct and campaign finance activities of officials at state agencies and the Legislature, as well as lobbyists, state contractors and candidates for state or county offices. A separate bill would create an online clearinghouse for campaign finance information and make it far easier to track and cross-reference political spending among candidates, lobbyists and political committees.

Another House-approved bill would require lobbyists to disclose more about gifts and meals for legislators.