Dispute looms over NM governor’s tax cut proposals

January 15, 2012 • State News

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — When the Legislature convenes Tuesday, lawmakers and Gov. Susana Martinez will consider doing what was unthinkable in the past three years because of New Mexico’s sour economy: Cutting taxes.

With the economy on the mend, the governor is proposing $55 million in tax cuts to boost businesses and encourage them to create jobs. But those tax reductions likely will turn into one of the biggest disputes between the Republican governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature, which has been forced to slash state spending since 2009 to balance the budget. Many Democrats hoped this year’s session would allow them to restore recent cutbacks in programs and services.

House Speaker Ben Lujan, a Santa Fe Democrat, said tax cuts “wouldn’t be smart to do at this time” because of uncertainty over the economy in New Mexico and the rest of the nation.

But taxes won’t be the only source of friction between Democrats and the governor.

The 30-day session is taking place during an election year in which Republicans see an opportunity to win a majority in the House for the first time since the 1950s. Democrats hold a 36-33 advantage in the House, which also has one independent.

Against that backdrop, Martinez wants lawmakers to consider several politically charged proposals, [auth] including an end to driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and requiring schools to hold back third-graders who can’t read proficiently. The governor advocates merit pay for teachers and requiring student achievement to be a factor in assessing teacher performance.

Many lawmakers already are on edge because of the looming election and the need to run in new districts. A judge has redrawn the boundaries of districts for the 70-member House, and Democrats worry that new districts have given Republicans a political advantage in upcoming races in several areas of the state. A court decision in Senate redistricting is expected while the Legislature is in session.

Democratic Rep. Brian Egolf of Santa Fe sees redistricting as a volatile ingredient producing more acrimony in the session and causing long partisan debates as lawmakers are forced to cast votes on issues that could cause them problems in upcoming elections.

“I think everything will be affected by it. Every committee vote — everything,” Egolf said of redistricting. “My guess is that the Republicans will be less likely to want to compromise, more likely to want to push things through.”

House GOP Leader Tom Taylor of Farmington doesn’t consider this year’s political brew that much stronger than in the past.

“When you’re in the House, really, you are running all the time,” said Taylor. House members serve two-year terms.

But redistricting may put some lawmakers on the defensive because they’ll need to woo voters in unfamiliar political territory.

“Certainly those that are interested in re-election will be thinking about how they vote on certain things probably in a different light than they did in the last” session, said Taylor.

Lawmakers are very familiar with the governor’s proposal to stop New Mexico from issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. It was a centerpiece of her 2010 gubernatorial campaign. The measure passed the House last year with the support of eight Democrats, but it died in the Senate.

Martinez said in a recent interview the most surprising part of her first year in office was “that some legislators didn’t expect me to keep the promises that I made for 16 months as I ran for office.

“A couple of legislators, when we were working on the budget, said to me, ‘You need to quit campaigning, and you need to start governing.’ Initially, I didn’t quite understand what they meant,” said Martinez.

She concluded they meant “you shouldn’t keep your word now that you are in office.”

The governor’s response to those lawmakers: “I told them this is the difference between a politician and a leader. A politician will say whatever it takes to get you elected and then forget what you said. A leader will follow through with what they said they were going to do in order to get elected.”

Martinez remains hopeful her immigrant license repeal can clear the Senate this year although Democrats gained an extra seat — giving them a 28-14 advantage — when a Democrat filled a GOP vacancy.

The license measure continues to face opposition from many Democrats, immigrant rights activists and religious groups, including Roman Catholic Church leaders.

Senate President Tim Jennings, a Roswell Democrat, backs an alternative proposal to require immigrants to renew their licenses every two years, subject them to fingerprinting and increased penalties for license fraud, which the Martinez contends is a widespread problem. Immigrant workers, Jennings points out, are an important part of the state’s economy.

“If they’re such bad people, why did we just count them in the census and assess each of them an equal share of representation in the Legislature?” Jennings said of illegal immigrants, who are part of the official population tallies done by the Census Bureau. “Nobody asked them if they were citizens or not, and then we reapportioned our state on that basis.”

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