State legislature approves capital outlay package

Staff and wire reports

The Legislature adjourned Thursday after approving a $348 million capital improvement package to replace one vetoed by the governor, but a special session loomed large as lawmakers headed home.

Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson blasted lawmakers for what he described as “the least productive session since I have been governor.”

“The results are mediocre, at best,” Richardson said in a statement shortly after the session ended.

Local legislators disagree.

Minority Floor Leader Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said he was overall, pretty pleased with the session. He took the governor’s bluster in stride, indicating he may cool down a little after he’s had a chance to talk to the leadership of the legislature.

“Basically I think the legislature got done what we’re supposed to get done in the 30-day session — that’s pass a budget,” Ingle said.

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said she felt good about the budget. Legislators also got a House capital outlay bill to the governor, after he vetoed a Senate version, she said.

Rep. Keith Gardner, R-Roswell, agreed that passing the budget was the big concern and he felt legislators had done a good job.

“Overall it was strange session, very different than any other I’ve been involved in,” Gardner said. “I think we accomplished a lot of positive things.”

Richardson plans to call lawmakers back to work in a special session but the timing remains undecided.

“I know he’s pretty frustrated with us,” Gardner said. “But that’s the beauty of it, one branch doesn’t run roughshod over another.”

The Legislature left the governor empty-handed on many of his proposals: universal health care; domestic partnerships; ethics reforms; authorization for embryonic stem cell research; and a regional transit district to operate and pay for the Rail Runner Express commuter train.

The governor’s top priority was a plan to expand health coverage to all New Mexicans, but that ran into trouble early in the session and even a watered-down version stalled in the Legislature.

Kernan said legislators are “very cautious about jumping into health care.”

Ingle said the estimates for the governor’s plan range from $150 to $350 million a year for the next three years. He said that margin was too wide and needed to be narrowed more. He also said legislators need a better revenue picture for the future before passing health care and education reforms.

“That’s a huge commitment for several years down the road and we can’t deficit spend,” Ingle said. “We need to make sure where we’re going financially before we act.”

Gardner said the thought of a special session to deal with health care was one he didn’t relish.

“I think we were successful in that we’ve educated a lot more of the 112 legislators on the issues (with universal health care),” Gardner said. “But there were some serious flaws in that bill.”

Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis, said legislators approved $91 million in new funds for Medicaid. That will be matched by an additional $270 million in federal funds.

“That’s a lot of new money to provide health care insurance for the very, very poor,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”

A must-do piece of business for lawmakers was the financing of nearly 2,000 capital improvement projects across New Mexico, including many in the home areas of House and Senate members.

Richardson vetoed the Legislature’s first version of the $348 million capital outlay package on Wednesday, but lawmakers had a replacement ready.

A few hours before adjournment, the House gave final approval to a duplicate $348 million financing measure and sent it to Richardson. However, the bill could become a huge political stick for the governor.

He will have until March 5 to sign or veto the legislation. If Richardson decides to call a special session before then, the capital projects could become a bargaining chip for the governor to pressure individual legislators to back any of his proposals — particularly on health care.

The governor contended his deadline was Thursday morning. His aides said he acted on the bills early because he didn’t want the deadline dispute to be a distraction from other pending issues, such as health care.

The governor’s health coverage bill was stalled in a Senate committee. He said if it didn’t pass in the form he wanted it, he likely would call lawmakers into a special session later in the year.

The bill already had been significantly weakened. The governor wanted lawmakers to enact major changes in the health care system, including mandating health coverage and requiring businesses to contribute. Those provisions were removed.

In the bill that remained, a health care authority was created, with an executive director to be hired by the authority. The governor wants to hire the executive director, and he wanted the Senate to make that change.

Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for the governor, said Richardson vetoed the capital outlay bill because he didn’t have enough time to carefully review the thousands of projects and decide which ones should be funded or rejected.

Lawmakers and Richardson agreed on what many consider the main annual assignment of the Legislature: a budget to provide $6 billion to pay for operations of public education and general government operations next year. The governor signed the budget on Tuesday.

The replacement capital outlay bill is SB471. The vetoed capital outlay bill is HB43. The capital outlay reauthorization bill is SB352.