Legislature adjourns — for now

Staff and wire reports

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

Capital outlay projects include $3.1 million for Curry County.

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.

“We balanced the budget,” said Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis. “We went through a lot of legislation and did a lot of work.”

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.

As far as appropriations go, “We did about as good as we could do,” said Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis.

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

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.”

Crook said she was “delighted” that no universal health care plan went through.

“I couldn’t find anyone in favor of that at all. It was going in the direction of socialized medicine,” she said.

Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, the minority floor leader, said cost estimates for the governor’s plan range from $150 to $350 million a year for the next three years. He 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.”

Harden 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’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.

— CNJ staff writer Sarah Meyer contributed to this report