Richardson proposes help for New Mexicans

The Associated Press

SANTA FE — Gov. Bill Richardson is asking lawmakers to approve about $200 million in rebates, tax breaks and other assistance to New Mexico families in a special legislative session that could begin in just a few weeks.

Richardson outlined a wide-ranging spending plan — everything from tax-free refrigerator purchases to road construction — made possible by the state’s oil- and gas-driven budget surplus.

“This is a little bit of relief” for residents grappling with soaring prices at the gasoline pump and facing record-high winter heating bills, he said.

The proposals also could ensure a more productive special session, since the fate of health care reform — the original focus of the session, and still on the agenda — remains uncertain.

The governor had planned to call lawmakers back to Santa Fe in September. But he said Thursday that “people are hurting” and he saw no reason to wait. The session could be as soon as early August, he suggested.

High prices for oil and natural gas have produced a windfall for New Mexico, with revenues expected to be nearly $400 million more in the current budget year than had been projected.

The biggest chunk of the proposed spending — $163 million — would be for one-time income tax rebates averaging about $200 that would go to all taxpayers this fall.

The rebate amount would depend on family size and favor low- and middle-income households.

A single mother with one child and income of $25,000, for example, would get $190.

Under another one-time proposal, holiday shoppers would get some purchases tax-free from Nov. 28 through Dec. 7. Clothing, school supplies, computers and certified energy-efficient appliances would qualify for the tax break.

The annual back-to-school tax holiday will be held as usual this year, Aug. 1-3. But starting in 2009, it would be expanded from three days to 10 days, under the governor’s plan.

Also on the list for CARE — the “cash assistance relief effort” package — are a 25 percent increase in the tax credit for some working families; broadened eligibility for help with child care expenses; $4 million to help low-income families with heating bills; $4 million to help low-income residents weatherize homes and buy more efficient appliances; and $3.2 million for school districts for higher gasoline costs.

All told, the relief package would cost about $191 million in this 2009 budget year, which began July 1. The assistance that would continue next year — the changes to the working families tax credit, child care assistance and the back-to-school tax holiday — would add another $20 million to next year’s budget.

Richardson said he also wants to divert $100 million of this year’s projected $392 million surplus to highway construction, and match that with another $100 million from the issuance of severance tax bonds.

That would allow the completion of previously approved highway projects in rural areas that have been stalled by escalating construction costs and federal funding problems, he said.

Using $191 million for the CARE assistance and $100 million for highways would still leave more than $100 million from this budget year for lawmakers to spend on special projects when they meet in regular session in January, administration officials said.

Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who was not at the governor’s news conference, suggested in a news release that the special session agenda also include measures to control predatory home lending. Richardson said through a spokesman he would consider that.

Richardson wants a universal health coverage plan, but the Legislature refused to go along with it earlier this year. Many lawmakers, including state Senate leaders, said they worried about the ongoing cost of covering the more than 400,000 uninsured New Mexicans.

The governor said Thursday that health coverage remains a major priority and that negotiations with legislators continue. The House has been “very supportive,” while less progress has been made with the Senate, he said.

“I realize I may not get everything I want,” Richardson said.

But the special session could provide “a strong start” to a health coverage program that could be completed next year, he suggested.