Legislative session ends with some gains, some setbacks

Kevin Wilson

New Mexico legislators left Santa Fe this weekend, and they are assuming they’ll be gone until September.

“But we never know,” said Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs.

The 60-day session closed Saturday, with some legislators touting local gains and bemoaning statewide disappointments.

Legislators did send a $5.4 billion budget with more than $150 million in trims, and got an expansion of Katie’s Law to the desk of Gov. Susana Martinez. But there was disappointment from local Republicans that the issue of driver’s license for illegal immigrants stalled in the Senate.

New Mexico remains with Utah and Washington as the only states to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, and Martinez and former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish said they wanted to halt the practice during the gubernatorial campaign last year.

“It’s a problem we just have to solve,” said Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis, who attempted to introduce the legislation as an amendment in various bills. “Part of it is a federal program. A driver’s license has got to have some value. I’m disappointed that what the governor wanted, we didn’t get fixed.”

Much of the legislation is still on Martinez’ desk, waiting for signatures or vetoes.

Harden said he was happy to get legislation through that would allow the Rural Electric Transmission Authority to issue bonds for infrastructure needs, and Senate Bill 209 would allow the purchase of water for a portion of the Ute Water Project pipeline to deliver water to Curry and Roosevelt counties.

“I think it was a good, healthy piece of legislation,” Harden said. “It’s a short-term fix to a long-term problem.”

Kernan said she was glad to get legislation through that repealed 2009 measures to require schools to have a minimum number of days. She said small schools can meet requirements for hours of instruction, and save money on utilities, by offering four longer school days instead of five shorter ones.

“I’m (also) glad they took a look at the film credits,” Kernan said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re getting our money’s worth.”

District 67 Rep. George Dodge, D-Santa Rosa, didn’t tout or criticize any specific legislation, and said he felt his first session went well.

“I never really paid attention to how government works (before),” Dodge said. “Now that I know, it was a positive learning experience. It seems like chaos at times, but it’s controlled chaos.”

A bill to expand Katie’s Law, named after a slain New Mexico State student, passed that would require DNA samples to be taken from anybody arrested for a felony. The samples can’t be tested until probable cause is determined, or the defendant doesn’t appear in court.

If there is a special session between now and September’s redistricting session, it will likely be for an override of Martinez’ veto on business tax increases to cover unemployment insurance. Martinez says the fund can last through the year, but legislators in both houses passed the measure unanimously.

“That could create a real problem,” Kernan said. “I can see the governor’s perspective that it’s a tax increase (and she made campaign promise not to raise taxes). But if that fund goes belly up, that’s going to create some problems. We don’t want the federal government involved.”

Kernan said if an override is needed, it would be prudent to wait until September. The state wouldn’t incur many additional expenses because the redistricting is already scheduled, and by September legislators could see how the fund is holding up.

One of the biggest disappointments, Harden said, was that a capital outlay bill did not get in before time ran out on the Legislature.

“The bad thing about it is that was that bill set aside money for statewide projects,” Harden said. “Most importantly, there was money for our roads. The roads need some attention. When you can’t drive down the road and drink coffee, it’s a pretty rough road.”