Lawmakers brace for busy 30 days

By Deborah Baker and Barry Massey

SANTA FE — Gov. Bill Richardson called on the Legislature Tuesday to phase in an increase in the state’s minimum wage to $7.50 an hour and repeal a tax on nursing home beds.

In a state of the state speech on the opening day of the Legislature’s 30-day session, Richardson outlined his agenda for lawmakers and touched on themes that will resurface later this year during his campaign for re-election.

“At the end of four years, I want the people of New Mexico to know — without a doubt — that I delivered on my promise to move our state forward,” Richardson said in his prepared remarks. “I was elected to make a difference and to create opportunities for New Mexicans. And that’s what we’ve done — the governor and the Legislature — together.”

The governor described his list of legislative proposals as an “agenda of relentless action.”

Most of the proposals he has previously outlined and include a tax credit targeting the working poor, money for a needs-based college scholarship program and expansion of a newly implemented pilot program of pre-kindergarten.
Richardson also used the speech to unveil his proposal for a higher minimum wage. The governor previously expressed support for boosting the state’s wage floor but hadn’t released details.

Currently, the state’s minimum wage is $5.15 an hour — the same as the federal wage floor.

The governor also proposed the repeal of a nearly $9-a-day tax on nursing home beds, which was enacted in 2004 as part of a Medicaid-financing package. Republicans have criticized Richardson for the tax increase.

Short sessions in even-numbered years are restricted to budget and financial matters and whatever else the governor decides should be pursued.

On the eve of the session, Richardson was still poring over pleas from legislators and interest groups, including a last-minute request — conveyed in a full-page newspaper ad — to put legalized access to medical marijuana on the list.

Richardson supports the proposal — which has been considered several times — but said he was hesitant to put it on the short session’s agenda because it’s controversial and time is so limited.

House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, said the issue would be better left for a 60-day session. He asked the governor not to include it this year.

Lujan and other leaders of the Democrat-majority House pledged to carefully consider how to spend the huge pool of money available this year: $529 million in new revenue that could be used to expand programs or cut taxes next year, and more than $1 billion in surplus revenues and bond financing that can go for local and state projects.

According to a report released Monday by the Legislative Finance Committee, the state does a poor job of planning and establishing priorities for capital projects, and then doesn’t adequately oversee whether they’re completed in a timely manner.

Funding for approved projects sometimes sits unused for years, lawmakers were told. About $1.1 billion approved for projects between 1994 and 2005 has not been spent.
Republicans have suggested some of the hefty revenue surplus be used for tax cuts rather than expanded programs.

“I can’t believe anyone wants another half a billion spent on state government,” said Sen. Leonard Lee Rawson, R-Las Cruces, the minority whip. “Let the people spend their own money.”

Facing re-election this year and with an eye toward running for president in 2008, the Democratic governor wants to cap his first term with spending in a variety of areas key to his administration’s agenda.

Richardson has dubbed 2006 the “year of the child” and has proposed expanded health coverage for children,new schools in fast-growing communities and a $17 million income tax credit to put extra money in the pockets of lower-income families.

Other major issues facing the Legislature include funding a southern New Mexico spaceport and crime-related proposals such as mandatory treatment and tougher penalties for domestic violence offenders.