By Barry Massey: The Associated Press
SANTA FE — Gov. Bill Richardson appealed to legislators on Tuesday to approve a proposal for universal health care, saying the “most expensive choice is to do nothing” and stick with the current system that leaves many New Mexicans without medical insurance.
Richardson outlined his agenda for the Legislature in a State of the State address shortly after lawmakers convened for a 30-day session. The governor’s top priority is his plan to phase in health care coverage for the nearly 20 percent of New Mexicans who lack insurance. Only Texas has a higher uninsured rate.
“Some may say we cannot afford to take on this task in a 30-day session. I ask, ’How can we afford not to?’ The time for universal health care coverage is now,” Richardson told a joint session of the House and Senate.
Richardson said he had limited his agenda to about 60 bills. In 2006, during the last 30-day session, 1,624 bills were introduced and 112 became law.
The governor asked legislators to approve:
—Domestic partnerships to give certain unmarried couples, homosexual or heterosexual, the same rights and benefits as married couples.
—Ethics and campaign finance reforms such as limits on campaign contributions and an independent commission to investigate allegations of ethical misconduct.
—Energy conservation measures, including a tax credit for people who buy energy-efficient heating and cooling systems.
—Anti-drunken driving proposals such as penalties for tampering with ignition interlocks.
—Increased penalties for repeat domestic violence offenders.
The governor’s speech came not quite a week after he withdrew from the Democratic presidential race.
“It’s good to be back,” Richardson told lawmakers.
The governor wants to phase in health care coverage for all New Mexicans through a combination of private insurance and government programs. Employers with six or more workers would have to contribute to a state-run fund that will help pay for covering the uninsured. Individuals would need to obtain coverage by buying private insurance, enrolling in a taxpayer-subsidized program or showing they can pay for their health care expenses.
The governor said his plan “lays out a common sense strategy and pragmatic approach to address our health care challenges.”
“Doing nothing means more uninsured, more expensive health care and more of the state budget dedicated to health costs and less for everything else,” said Richardson. “It also means that those with insurance will pay more to keep it.”
The governor proposes establishing a new agency — the Health Coverage Authority — to make decisions about benefits and who will qualify for state subsidized coverage.
Under Richardson’s proposal, the agency would be under the control of the governor because cabinet-level department secretaries and gubernatorial appointees represent a majority of the authority’s governing board. The governor would appoint the authority’s executive director.
The structure and powers of the authority will be hotly debated in the Legislature because some lawmakers and health care advocates want a more independent agency.
Republican lawmakers said they would seek common ground with the Democratic governor on health care, but that they worried about his proposal’s bottom line.
“We’ve got to take a real hard look at some of these costs,” said Senate Republican Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales. He said 30 days isn’t enough time to give health care reform enough scrutiny.
“We do not want to be left with another boondoggle like the Rail Runner,” Ingle said, referring to the Richardson administration’s $400 million-plus commuter rail service.
“The most expensive choice is to do nothing,” Richardson said. “I believe that’s not a choice this Legislature will make. It’s not a choice this governor will accept. And it’s not a choice our people can afford.”
Shortly after the Legislature convened, House Speaker Ben Lujan called for lawmakers to tackle the difficult issue of health care coverage.
“Addressing health care needs for all New Mexicans is a compelling issue. We must seek to create a consumer-centered health care system that provides comprehensive, affordable, accessible … high quality care for every New Mexican, especially the most vulnerable,” Lujan said in remarks to House members.
Republicans criticized the domestic partnership proposal, calling it divisive. House GOP Whip Dan Foley of Roswell suggested the highly charged legislation be left for late in the session, but Lujan said he intended to act swiftly on the measure.
The opening day of the Legislature typically is filled with ceremony and highlighted by the governor’s speech to lawmakers.
The Senate elected a new top leader. Sen. Tim Jennings, a Roswell Democrat, will serve as president pro tem. He succeeds Ben Altamirano, who died last month.