Gov. Susana Martinez is calling legislators back to the Roundhouse for a special session Friday to address the state’s budget deficit, criminal sentencing and a proposal to reinstate capital punishment.
The Governor’s Office formally announced the agenda late Wednesday after weeks of anticipation amid discussions between her administration and legislative leaders about a fiscal crisis. A projected deficit of up to $650 million for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 has prompted calls for further cuts in government spending and closing tax loopholes. It also threatens to knock down the state’s bond rating.
New Mexico has a deficit of about $220 million from the fiscal year that ended in June and is expected to face an even greater shortfall, perhaps as high as $430 million, by the end of the current fiscal year.
But agreement on a plan to balance the state’s budget was still elusive Wednesday night, and partisan rancor showed no signs of abating.
House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said there is “absolutely no agreement or even a framework for an agreement on the budget.”
Calling a session when legislators cannot agree on the state’s finances and then stacking the agenda with controversial criminal justice bills, including reinstating the death penalty, is “purely political,” Egolf said.
A spokesman for the governor blamed Democrats in the state Senate for the failure to reach an agreement on the budget.
“The Governor has worked for over 60 days to negotiate a budget deal with Senate Democrats,” Mike Lonergan said in an email. “However, it appears that Senate Democrats would rather play political games that could shut down the government rather than solve our budget challenges.”
Legislators continued to negotiate Wednesday over proposed cuts to state government, with some lawmakers considering slashing higher education funding by up to 7 percent and funding for the state’s judiciary by up to 5 percent.
Some House Republicans, meanwhile, are considering slashing tax incentives for the film industry.
In addition, legislators in both chambers are eyeing unspent cash from various accounts.
But some of those funds now rest in the reserves of local school districts. The Senate is considering taking $125 million of that money to shore up the general fund for fiscal 2017. House Republicans are mulling a similar, though smaller, grab.
House Democrats disapprove.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said the state required school districts to save the funds. If legislators take the savings, school districts may have to slash their budgets to restore reserves, she argued.
“They’re looking at very, very deep cuts to build up the reserves,” Lundstrom said.
Egolf said his caucus will never support taking $125 million from school districts.
There seemed to be emerging bipartisan agreement on at least one facet of a budget deal, however.
Sen. Steven P. Neville, a Republican from Aztec who serves on the Senate Finance Committee, said the governor has agreed on “tweaking” some tax loopholes, which he said could bring in an additional $50 million to $60 million for state government almost immediately and ensure more revenue each fiscal year.
The Governor’s Office has rejected raising state taxes, but Neville said Republicans see revenue as one part of any solution to balancing the state’s books.
And one presumption, lawmakers and staffers said Wednesday, is that any deal to cover last fiscal year’s budget shortfall will involve virtually draining an investment account that holds funds from a legal settlement with several major tobacco companies.
In addition to fixing the budgets for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, the governor also is calling on legislators to consider a bill reinstating the death penalty.
Legislators and then-Gov. Bill Richardson repealed the death penalty in 2009. Though Martinez called to reinstate capital punishment when she took office in 2011, subsequent bills to bring back the death penalty languished early in her first term.
The governor has revived the issue in the last month, however, following the shooting death of a Hatch Police Department officer and the grisly murder of a 10-year-old Albuquerque girl this summer.
The session will also include a tougher “three-strikes” law intended to send more repeat offenders to prison for life sentences. Similar legislation died in the Senate this year, and a growing number of states are abandoning such policies amid a bipartisan wave of criminal justice reform.
And on Wednesday night, the governor announced that the special session agenda will include legislation to expand an existing statute known as “Baby Brianna’s Law” to require a mandatory life sentence for anyone charged with intentional child abuse that results in death, regardless of the child’s age.
Democrats have accused Martinez of attempting to distract from the state’s budget deficit and rising unemployment rate while seeking to force legislators into votes on highly controversial issues shortly before an election.
The session comes amid a campaign season when Democrats are angling to win a majority in the state House of Representatives and Republicans are trying to unseat leading Democrats in the Senate ahead of the governor’s final 60-day legislative session, the last best chance to push her policy agenda.
Returning to Santa Fe for a special session will not only pull legislators off the campaign trail. Sitting lawmakers and candidates for the Legislature will be banned from fundraising from the moment Martinez signs a proclamation declaring the session until it adjourns. The ban includes Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Roswell, who is running for secretary of state. Her opponent and other candidates not serving in or running for the Legislature can continue raising money, however.
The cost of convening the Legislature outside its usual session has cost from $30,000 to more than $50,000 each day. A special session last year spanning a single afternoon cost about $54,000, according to the Legislative Council Service. The Legislature cost taxpayers nearly $300,000 when it convened for a weeklong session in 2009.
Correction: This story has been updated to note that candidates for the Legislature are barred from fundraising during a special session.