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Several issues iffy in Santa Fe


January 17, 2009

As if the state's budget crunch wasn't enough, lawmakers in the session starting Tuesday will tackle issues from the death penalty to gay marriage.

Here's a look at some key issues and their chances of surviving the next 60 days.

Ethics reform

It's a hot topic — again — given questions about campaign contributions to a Gov. Bill Richardson PAC by a company that did business with the state as well as other scandals in the news.

Expect proposals on limiting campaign contributions, creating an independent ethics commission and more transparent and frequent campaign reporting. Also, bet on a measure to better protect whistle-blowers in state government. Attorney General Gary King said he also wants to improve the state's Inspection of Public Records Act.

Prognosis: Iffy. The Senate didn't pass significant ethics reform after the kickback scandal that eventually put two state treasurers in prison. They did even less after former Sen. Manny Aragon was charged (later to be convicted) in another scandal. Will the recent pay-to-play scandals be enough to push ethics reform through?

Crime fighting

Never a topic that gets ignored by legislators.

Expect bills that would prohibit the sale of alcohol to anyone with an ignition interlock installed on their car. Other measures would step up enforcement of underage drinking, DWI and methamphetamine.

Prognosis: Depends on the proposal, but the Legislature pretty much every year passes some amendment to current criminal statutes, usually at least one related to DWI and domestic violence.

Health care

It was the topic in 2008. Not anymore. Advocates say they still hope lawmakers will reform the state's health care system, but with so little money available, that doesn't seem to be a priority of the Gov. Bill Richardson administration.

And part of Richardson's budget proposal would deauthorize $32.5 million approved in last fall's special session on health care that would have added 17,000 additional children to Medicaid.

Prognosis: Some bills with no major costs attached have a chance, including the Electronic Medical Records Act, so look for the more minor reforms to have the most traction.

Housing authority reform

Lt. Gov. Diane Denish is pushing measures to establish better financial oversight and audits for these authorities. One part of what she's supporting would eliminate the authorities' ability to issue bonds while another would strengthen conflict of interest prohibitions.

Prognosis: Good. Given last year's uproar over the state of some of the authorities around the state, and the current reported investigation by a grand jury, expect action on this topic, maybe early in the session.

Domestic partners

Advocates have come close in the past to passing a measure that would allow any couple, including same-sex couples, to enjoy all rights and responsibilities state law gives to married couples.

But many say this is the year.

Prognosis: Expect big turnout on both sides, but look for the measure to pass, in part because of a number of new lawmakers who support the idea.

Death penalty

Those against it have worked to repeal it for years, drawing some of the larger crowds to the Capitol during the sessions. But with a host of new legislators, this measure, also, could become law.

Prognosis: Close vote expected if the bill can survive committee hearings. Richardson, who would have to sign the bill, is on the record in favor of keeping the death penalty. But unlike two years ago, he's not running for president, so perhaps he could have a change of heart.

School funding

For the second straight year, school advocates are calling for a new school funding formula that could cost an additional $350 million. The measure was approved by the House last year, but died in a Senate committee.

Prognosis: Not good. In fact, advocates already have recognized that getting additional money this year is highly unlikely and have proposed a 1 percent increase in the gross receipts tax to collect the additional money. Voters will get the final say about that.

Teacher class loads

Richardson recently proposed removing the caps on class loads for teachers in middle and high schools to allow districts to save money.

Prognosis: Unlikely. School folks in Santa Fe, at least, don't like the idea. Cramming more kids into classrooms, they said, would make things harder on teachers, and students would also suffer. Funding cuts should be handled at the local level, superintendents say.

Highlands/College of Santa Fe

New Mexico Highlands University has already started a formal process to take over the financially ailing College of Santa Fe. The boards of both schools have agreed on an outline for the takeover, but the deal will need approval from legislators, who will decide whether they want to fund yet another public college.

Prognosis: Unknown. With Santa Fe legislators and the governor behind the proposal, it's got a chance, but with most agencies facing cuts, will they be able to justify spending in this case?

Oil and gas drilling

A bill limiting the authority of cities and counties to place regulations on oil and gas development in the future has strong support from the industry and a Jal legislator who believes the state's regulations are already strict enough and more rules will hurt the state's bottom line.

But competing bills would give more entities, not fewer, power over how oil and gas are produced. One would require disclosure of the ownership of mineral rights in cases of split ownership and give surface owners 30 days to negotiate purchasing the rights before they could be leased to a production company. The other would allow municipalities more authority to protect watersheds through bonding requirements.

Prognosis: Mixed. The bill restricting regulation by cities and counties is unlikely to pass.

Cultural affairs

Bills to create a veterans museum in Las Cruces, a music commission and a literary acquisitions fund to collect and build an archive of writings/documents/literary papers related to New Mexico and by New Mexican authors, for the new History Museum are expected.

Prognosis: Unknown.

Reporters Steve Terrell, John Sena, Phaedra Haywood and Robert Nott contributed to this report.


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