NM lawmakers rush to finish as adjournment nears

February 16, 2012 • State News

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Lawmakers raced Wednesday to complete [auth] their work as the deadline loomed for New Mexico’s 30-day legislative session.

The Legislature adjourns Thursday and there’s a long list of pending business, including proposals to finance about $260 million in capital improvement projects across the state as well as educational and tax-cutting measures advocated by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

The governor said she remained hopeful that lawmakers will approve many of her proposals.

“It seems like everything starts to happen in the last 72 hours,” Martinez said of the frenzied, final days of the closing stretch of the session.

The House approved a proposal sought by Martinez to improve student achievement by holding back third-graders if they can’t read proficiently.

Parents currently can override the recommendations of a school to hold back their child rather than promoting them to the next grade. Supporters say the third grade is a critical crossroads and students who can’t read by then are likely to struggle in the future and potentially drop out.

“It is time for this state to quit pointing fingers anywhere and to reform,” said Rep. Nora Espinoza, a Roswell Republican.

The bill requires schools to identify students struggling in reading in kindergarten through grade 3, and to provide intensive assistance to improve their skills.

A state budget proposal provides about $8 million for reading programs in early grades, but opponents of the bill warned that more than $80 million could be needed if New Mexico implements the student retention measure.

Rep. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and a retired teacher, said the legislation won’t improve student performance and could hurt the self-esteem of those who are held back, putting them at greater risk of dropping out of school.

“We’re not paying attention to 50 years of research on retention. Retention damages children. That is the poison pill in this bill,” said Stewart.

She said the measure was politically motivated. All 112 seats in the Legislature are up for election this year.

“Why we’re doing this is because it makes us feel better and we think we’re doing something,” said Stewart. “We think we’re improving schools and we want to run on that.”

The proposal, approved on a 47-23 vote, faces a difficult path with time running short in the session.

The House and Senate must approve the same bill before it clears the Legislature and goes to the governor to be signed into law or vetoed. The student retention measure will need approval of the Senate if it passes the House. The Senate earlier this week approved a nearly identical bill, but the House hasn’t voted on it.

A similar problem faces a Martinez proposal to establish a new system for evaluating principals and teachers. It’s passed the House but still needs Senate approval.

“We’re going to keep fighting,” Martinez said.

But the governor, like many legislators, has her eye on the adjournment deadline of noon Thursday.

“I’m glad it’s almost over,” said Martinez.

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