By most area legislators’ accounts, the 2013 state legislative session started slow and rushed to the finish, but in the end, things went the best they could have.
After a weekend of fast frenzy and heavy compromise, Gov. Susana Martinez said she will sign the $5.9 billion budget passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives and forgo a special session, following the Legislature’s approval, at the last possible minute, of a tax plan that will lower the state’s corporate income tax rate from 7.6 percent to 5.9 percent over the next five years.
Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said in a statement the plan will “send a message that if you come to this state, we are going to be on your side.” There were a number of problems that needed fixing this session, Ingle said, “and the Senate worked hard to tackle them.
“Some of the fixes will become law and some will need to be addressed at future sessions,” he said.
Two of the proposed fixes on the way to the governor’s desk are bills that would increase employee contributions of public educators and state employees to ensure pension solvency.
Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said the plans may not be ideal “but unless we do something now, both funds would have been strapped for cash.”
Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo, agreed that both parties may not have liked the proposals, but said both were a compromise made possible by “realizing the severity of (the) problem and how best to approach it.”
Should the governor sign them, “public employees can rest assured that plans will be in place for many years to come,” he said.
If approved, the pension legislation “will take a lot of years,” said Rep. Bob Wooley, R-Roswell, “but this will bring it back to a stable position.”
A bill sponsored by Wooley that would increase the salary limit for elected county officials awaits the governor’s signature. He said he has great hopes that she will sign it because, unlike last year, there is enough money in the state budget. Elected officials of Chaves County haven’t had a raise in eight years, he said.
Wooley and others also are glad to see legislation going to the governor for a state-run health insurance exchange that would allow options for health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act. However, he and many others were disappointed the issue of state driver’s licenses couldn’t be settled this session.
“Even though we tried mightily, we could not get that done,” Ezzell said.
Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said there “was too much of a gap” on the issue of driver’s licenses and legislators are “going to have to find a compromise or resolution to that.”
One of Kernan’s bills en route to Martinez would give public school districts a year of flexibility to deal with budget shortfalls. It may be the last year such waivers are possible and some are weary of it, she said, “but I think it is necessary for one more year.”
The issue of gun control was another hotly debated topic that ultimately went unsolved. Burt said gun control would not solve the problem behind gun violence.
“While I think there is concern about what has happened recently, firearms were the tool, but the source problem is mental health,” he said. “Until we’re serious about looking at mental health in this country, we’re not going to solve anything with gun control.”
Ezzell said a problem in the Legislature this session involved people wanting to “shut down oil and gas.
“What these people don’t realize is that’s what fuels over a third of our budget; it builds schools, hospitals and libraries; paves roads, pays teachers, creates jobs and boosts the economy,” she said.
Many of the legislators from bigger cities, Ezzell said, “can’t seem to think out of the box. … Rural areas play a big part in the state’s economy; you can’t put all the money in Albuquerque and Las Cruces,” she said.
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, also noticed the divide, saying rather than “Democrats vs. Republicans, it was urban vs. rural.”
“Quite a few times I had to stand up and remind everyone that what’s best for Sante Fe and Albuquerque isn’t best for rural communities,” he said.
This was Pirtle’s first session and it was “definitely a learning experience,” he said.
“I have a lot of good friends now,” he said. “I really had a great group of people who helped me along and showed me the ins and outs of legislation.
“It’s definitely worth it, being able to work for the people, but it’s a long process.”
One of his bills regarding qualified employees of certain farm-related service industries to obtain restricted commercial driver’s licenses without a test is going to the governor.
“Hopefully, it gets signed,” he said. “It would be great to know I had something to do with making New Mexico a little more friendly for business.”
He and other legislators stressed the importance of hearing from constituents. “I’m really thankful to people when they contact me,” Pirtle said. “Being in Santa Fe, you’re not at home.”
Ezzell encouraged constituents throughout the state to “get involved and stay on top of it.
“We are the last true citizen legislature in the nation and we’re supposed to be their voice,” she said.