Governor to hold legislative meeting

Staff and Wire Reports

ALBUQUERQUE — Gov. Bill Richardson will meet with legislators this week to discuss whether to call a special session — a move that could provide consumer relief to high gasoline prices and home heating costs.

The proposed session, dubbed the Gas and Home Relief Special Session, would be aimed at stemming gasoline prices and home heating costs, which are projected to reach all-time highs this winter in New Mexico.

“Like most New Mexicans, I am outraged that ordinary citizens are shouldering most of the burden of extremely high gasoline and home heating costs,” Richardson said in a news release. “I expect the state of New Mexico to help ease that burden. The oil and gas industry should help as well — in a meaningful way.”

Some are reluctant to act, however, partly out of concern for the states’ bottom lines.

Richardson is considering whether to suspend sales taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel — 17 cents per gallon in New Mexico.

Rep. Joe Campos, D-Santa Rosa, feels the move would only be a “band-aid” for New Mexico and only move the problems elsewhere in the state’s budget.

“I don’t think we need short-term answers,” Campos said. “This thing of short term relief is not going to help us out and it’s just going to create greater problems for the Transportation Department. Their budget is tight as it is.”

Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, felt Richardson’s plan was easier said than done.

“It’s easy to talk about taking those (taxes) off, but we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the replacements on those (monies for) bonds,” Ingle said. “We’ve got to get those 17 cents replaced from a solid source.”

The taxes pay for highway construction and operations of the state Transportation Department. Seventy-six percent of the 17-cent gasoline tax goes to the state’s road fund. That, combined with federal funding, supports state bonds.

“There’s some question how much people will notice the difference if we suspend that gas tax,” said Gilbert Gallegos, a Richardson spokesman.

The governor of Georgia has lifted that state’s gasoline tax through the end of September.

Another option Richardson is considering would provide motorists with a gasoline price rebate.

Gallegos said the governor is learning toward that choice. The state would supplement that loss with extra revenue from the state severance tax on natural gas.

Gallegos couldn’t provide the amount of revenue from the severance tax that is surplus, but said it would be more than enough to cover consumer relief.

“There probably is still a possibility to do it differently, but it would be complicated, and that’s what the governor is considering,” Gallegos said.

Richardson is hoping lawmakers also would consider passing anti-price gouging legislation during the special session.

He appointed a task force earlier this month to develop legislation that would provide the state with more power to protect consumers against market abuses — not only with gasoline prices but other commodities.

The law would allow the state to investigate and punish companies that gouge after a tragedy or natural disaster.
Ingle felt such legislation would be tough to enforce in interstate commerce.

“It’s really difficult for the state of New Mexico to say, ‘Mr. Refiner in Texas, you’re charging too much for gasoline,’” Ingle said. “It’s really easy to talk about some of these things, but sometimes the state Legislature has trouble showing where it has the authority to help.”

Richardson also wants to increase funding to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. More than 600,000 low-income and elderly residents would receive cash relief for their heating bills.

“They are hurting the most,” Gallegos said.

Public Service Company of New Mexico officials have predicted an average 54 percent increase in home heating costs this winter. An especially cold winter could boost demand and worsen prices.

The fourth element of the special session would be to provide emergency cash for public schools and the New Mexico Department of Safety to cover transportation costs for students.

A decision on whether to call a special session is expected this week. Any laws that are passed would take immediate effect.

“What’s important is they are looking at something that would provide the most immediate relief for New Mexicans,” Gallegos said.

What Campos wants is some showing of a federal effort.

“We’ve got some serious issues and the federal government hasn’t done anything for the average citizen,” Campos said. They’re getting the squeeze, and their wages have not increased to help them with the increases.”