Legislature approves capital improvement bill

The Associated Press

SANTA FE — The Legislature moved toward adjournment Thursday by approving a $348 million capital improvement package to replace one vetoed by Gov. Bill Richardson, but the threat of a special session loomed large as lawmakers looked homeward.
Richardson was empty-handed on his top legislative priority with time running out on the 30-day session.

The governor wanted lawmakers to approve a plan to expand health coverage to all New Mexicans, but that ran into trouble early in the session and even a watered-down version of his proposal stalled in the Legislature.

For lawmakers, a top priority was the financing of nearly 2,000 capital improvement projects across New Mexico, including many in the home areas of House and Senate members.

Curry County had about $3.1 million riding on the capital outlay bill, including $850,000 for construction of a Special Events Center and $350,000 for a communications building that would house emergency management personnel.

Roosevelt County was looking for $2.2 million, including $495,000 for county road improvements and $350,000 for a weight training facility at Eastern New Mexico University.

Richardson vetoed the Legislature’s first version of the $348 million capital outlay package on Wednesday, but lawmakers had a replacement ready.

Hours before adjournment, the House gave final approval to a duplicate $348 million financing measure and sent it to Richardson. However, the bill could become a huge political stick for the governor.

He will have until March 5 to sign or veto the legislation. If Richardson decides to call a special session before then, the capital projects could become a bargaining chip for the governor to pressure individual legislators to back any of his proposals — particularly on health care.

Even before adjournment, several other Richardson initiatives appeared dead. They included domestic partnership legislation, and authorization for embryonic stem cell research to be conducted in the state.

On Wednesday, administration officials denied that Richardson was trying to pressure legislators by vetoing the capital bill. They said the governor didn’t have enough time to properly scrutinize the big spending package by his deadline to sign it.

In the waning hours of the session, the governor also vetoed some projects in a $21 million budget measure. But he left most of that bill substantially intact — “a gesture of goodwill,” he said.

The governor’s action Wednesday evening on the two bills averted possible legal fight over what his deadline was to act on those measures.

The Legislature claimed — and the attorney general agreed — the deadline was Wednesday evening. Just after 6 p.m., the legislation would “automatically become law” if the governor didn’t act, Attorney General Gary King had said.

The governor contended his deadline was Thursday morning. His aides said he acted on the bills early because he didn’t want the deadline dispute to be a distraction from other pending issues, such as health care.

The governor’s health coverage bill was stalled in a Senate committee. He said if it didn’t pass in the form he wanted it, he likely would call lawmakers into a special session later in the year.

The bill already had been significantly weakened. The governor wanted lawmakers to enact major changes in the health care system, including mandating health coverage and requiring businesses to contribute. Those provisions were removed.

In the bill that remained, a health care authority was created, with an executive director to be hired by the authority. The governor wants to hire the executive director, and he wanted the Senate to make that change.

Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for the governor, said Richardson vetoed the capital outlay bill because he didn’t have enough time to carefully review the thousands of projects and decide which ones should be funded or rejected.

“It is unreasonable for the Legislature, which took four weeks to pass the capital outlay bill, to demand that the governor review and take action on it in just three days,” especially while he had other budget measures to review, Gallegos said.

Lawmakers and Richardson agreed on what many consider the main annual assignment of the Legislature: a budget to provide $6 billion to pay for operations of public education and general government operations next year. The governor signed the budget on Tuesday.

The replacement capital outlay bill is SB471. The vetoed capital outlay bill is HB43.
On the Net:
Legislature: www.legis.state.nm.us