Session reaches midpoint

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Tuesday marked the midway point of this year’s 30-day legislative session, and while our local legislators say progress is being made, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

This session addresses the state’s budget and other issues Gov. Susana Martinez put on call.

Here’s a look at what our legislators are working on:

Rep. Don Tripp

Rep. Don Tripp (R-Socorro) said on Friday things are beginning to pick up around the Roundhouse.

“The session started real slow. The Rules Committee has been addressing a lot of bills that deal with direct messages from the governor,” he said.

The governor last week scaled back on some of the messages she put on call after some legislators complained there was too much to cover in a short session.

“That was procedural. Some messages were very broad,” said Tripp, who added that he hadn’t seen that happen in his 14 years as a state representative.

Tuesday was also the deadline for introducing new legislation. But Tripp said a set of “dummy” bills stand in reserve, which will allow some items to still be addressed.

“That’s so if there’s a need for something at the last minute,” he said.

One of Martinez’s big issues is to repeal the law that allows illegal aliens to obtain driver’s licenses. She proposed the idea a year ago — and again during a special session last fall — but the Legislature so far hasn’t addressed it. The item was tabled again last week and Democrats are offering an alternative bill that would still allow driver’s licenses to be issued, but on a more limited basis.

Tripp said he expected other bills related to driver’s licenses to come up before the session is complete.

Another hot topic on the governor’s agenda is social promotion — the idea to hold third-grade students back if they fail to meeting reading proficiency levels. While there’s been no movement on that, Tripp and others have said they think third grade is too late.

Another item Gov. Martinez put on call dealing with education is a new formula to fund higher education.

“The recommendation is for additional money for institutions like New Mexico Tech to start the funding formula,” Tripp said. “It’ll be an appropriations bill and move to the Appropriations Committee. We’re waiting to see if there will be additional revenues that can be allocated toward that.”

Tripp said he has introduced a bill, HB 74, that addresses absentee voting for Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District elections. The bill was scheduled to be heard Tuesday, and Tripp was optimistic it would move forward.

“I feel it will do all right,” he said. “It would then go to the Voter and Elections Committee and the Health and Government Affairs Committee.”

The big item on the Legislature’s plate is the budget.

Tripp is a member of the Legislative Finance Committee, which presented a proposed $5.7 billion state budget two weeks prior to the session. Martinez submitted a budget proposal of her own about the same time. Though the budgets weren’t far apart, a difference was that the LFC’s budget called for increased spending of approximately $250 million, while Martinez was looking for a spending bump of $194 million.

Tripp said on Friday that lawmakers were working on a spending bill and it looked as though the final figure might be closer to what Martinez is asking.

“It’s based on $200 million in new money,” he said.

Tripp said he’s hoping a good chuck on that money will be allocated to nursing homes.

“We’re trying to help out entities like Good Sam’s who have suffered shortfalls in recent years,” he said.

There hasn’t been any capital outlay money to distribute the past two years, but Tripp said he’s hopeful there might be some this year.

“It’s on and off, depending on revenues,” he said. “We won’t know too much about that until almost the end of the session.”

Sen. David Ulibarri

Capital outlay is something Sen. David Ulibarri (D-Grants) is pushing for.

“This state has so many needs,” he said. “There are lots of projects. We keep hearing about jobs, jobs, jobs, but capital outlay is important.”

In addition to major projects such as roads and infrastructure, capital outlay can pay for projects such things such as police cars and ambulances — smaller items that can make a big difference in rural communities, Ulibarri said.

“We’re lucky if we get a million,” he said of any capital outlay appropriation, “but $25,000 can make an impact.”

Ulibarri said he hopes the budget the Legislature approves and passes on to the governor will include some capital outlay.

“If nothing else, she can veto it,” he said.

Ulibarri is one who was glad to see Martinez pull back on some of the issues she first put on call.

“The proclamation was wide open,” he said. “We started with a lot of issues and now we can cut back. We only have 30 days, as it is.”

As co-chairman of the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, Ulibarri is an advocate for veterans. He and Rep. Ben Lujan (D-Santa Fe) have introduced identical bills that would give veterans preference to resident contractors during the bidding process.

“It would give veterans a 5 percent preference. We have to give veterans an edge on this,” he said.

Ulibarri said he’s also working on a bill that would give tax credits to veterans.

“It would give a 25 percent exemption on personal income tax for retirees,” he said. “We have quite a few military bases in New Mexico, and I think this will attract more people to retire in New Mexico. So we’re giving them an incentive.”

As for the budget, “The LFC and executive budgets aren’t that far apart,” he said. “Sometimes they’re not even close, so this time it’s very workable.”

Ulibarri said he expects things to accelerate over the last two weeks of the session.

“We’re just starting to see things really roll,” he said. “The next week is all tax bills. I think that (the session) is just about to get legs.”

Sen. Howie Morales

For Sen. Howie Morales (D-Silver City), things are already rolling.

“It’s probably the busiest session since 2008,” he said, adding that most of the action to date have been in committee.

As a member of the Finance Committee, Morales said his main focus as been there. Unlike the past two years when the Legislature was faced with budget deficits, there’s a surplus this year.

“This year there are available funds that we haven’t seen in the past. Now there are some available, so we’ll see what can be done with it,” he said.

Morales was also hopeful that there would be capital outlay money available for cities and counties. He said he was working with Rep. Tripp on trying to restore funding for Socorro County’s extension service, which is in danger of losing its agent.

Also of local interest, Morales is sponsoring SB 131, which amends the law to allow expenditures from the Law Enforcement Protection Fund to go toward police vests for police dogs. Socorro resident Susie Jean is a national advocate for the cause and has been successful in securing vests for hundreds of police dogs around the country.

The item has been brought to the Legislature the past several years, but has yet to make it to the governor’s desk.

Morales said he’s also made compensation for state employees a priority. In recent years state employees have faced salary cuts or been forced to go on furlough. He’s trying to get extra money to get them back to 2008 compensation levels.

“My proposal would eliminate those cuts,” he said. “The governor stated they are raises, but I have a different opinion. I see them as stabilizing schools, which employ a lot of people … My concern is other states have rebounded, and they’ll come recruiting, whether for researchers or kindergarten teachers.”

The current session runs through Feb. 15. Bills that pass both the House and Senate are passed on to the governor for her approval.

 


-- Email the author at tslast@dchieftain.com.