Legislature wraps it up

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Gov. Susana Martinez wrapped up her first legislative session Saturday, having made good on campaign promises to reach agreement on a balanced budget, trim state spending and crack down on criminals.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature handed the freshman Republican executive some key victories in the waning hours of the 60-day session as they worked through a flurry of bills.

Absent though was any agreement on a package that would have financed $240 million in capital improvements, including millions of dollars for Native American water rights settlements, state highway improvements and projects at colleges and universities. The Senate decided not to act on the capital outlay bill because member were upset that the House had earmarked money for what one Democratic senator said were the “personal pet projects” of House members.

Also languishing in the final hours was legislation to end the state’s practice of issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. A conference committee of six House and Senate members met for 45 minutes but failed to resolve differences over the legislation. The four Democrats opposed adopting a House-passed measure that would end the state’s licensing policy.

A bill backed by the governor that would stop third-graders from advancing to the next class if they can’t read adequately, ending a practice called “social promotion,” also died in the final hour.

Lawmakers acknowledged that many bills never found their way to the House or Senate floor after getting caught up in the committee process and part of the reason stems from a change in the dynamics at the state Capitol with a new conservative governor in control and more Republican lawmakers in both chambers. Martinez wasn’t shy about pressing her agenda through a series of radio advertisements and other pleas to voters that resulted in a flood of calls and emails to legislators.

“The governor told everybody what she wanted. We knew what the priorities were,” said Rep. Larry Larranaga, R-Albuquerque. “We got some of the reforms she wanted … but being a governor who’s on the minority side, the majority always has to test that person to find out what kind of backbone she has.”

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said election-year politics pervaded much of the session. The governor’s staff videoed legislative proceedings on issues that the administration was advocating, such as ending licenses for illegal immigrants.

The votes of legislators on hot-button issues probably will become campaign issues during the 2012 election, when all 112 House and Senate members are up for election.

“With the filming stuff going on, it’s not discrete. It’s very obvious. That’s probably the most politics I’ve observed taking place during a session that I’ve been cognizant of,” said Smith, who was one of two Democrats who backed the governor’s immigrant license proposal.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said it was a productive session and that Senate Democrats were more unified because there was a Republican governor.

“The Democrats, in my opinion, stood up for what they believed in and I’m really proud of our Democrats,” he said.

Martinez didn’t back down either. What she did get was consensus on a measure that allows for grades from A to F to be assigned to New Mexico’s public schools based on standardized tests taken by students. The grades are also based on growth of student performance in reading and mathematics and other factors such as high school graduation rate.

The Legislature also approved expansion of DNA testing for those arrested for any felony, a measure that has been a top priority of the governor. The legislation expands what’s called “Katie’s Law” in memory of Kathryn Sepich, a New Mexico State University student who was raped and murdered in 2003. Sepich’s killer was identified more than three years later with DNA evidence after he was convicted of another crime.

Under a compromise worked out late Friday, a DNA sample would be taken upon booking and remain unanalyzed until probable cause is established or the defendant fails to appear in court.

Among the other bills winning final approval in the Legislature’s closing hours:

— Establish a health insurance exchange to serve as a supermarket for individuals and small businesses to buy health insurance. It’s intended to provide more price competition. States have the option of going with a federally run exchange or establish a state-based operation that would open for business in 2014.

—Provide $1.25 million for an economic development program that pays for part of the cost of training workers for businesses moving to the state or expanding their operations.

— A proposal to review each year more than 100 carve-outs in the tax code that make up an estimated $1 billion in uncollected annual taxes. Supporters said the measure allows budget officials and the governor to more accurately measure the costs and benefits of the tax breaks.

— An option for people facing certain drug possession charges to undergo substance abuse treatment rather than time in jail. If a defendant fails to complete the treatment, the state would be able to resume its prosecution.

Several of the governor’s other initiatives failed to be revived in the final hours of the session. That included her proposals to reinstate the death penalty and provide tax credits for people who make donations to nonprofits giving scholarships to students to attend private schools.

The Senate also failed to confirm some of Martinez’s cabinet appointments, including Public Education Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera and John Bemis, who was nominated to lead the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. However, the secretaries can retain their positions despite the lack of confirmation.