Legislature enters final stretch with no budget

February 15, 2014 • State News

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The Legislature is running out of time in its 30-day session as the top issues remain unresolved, including a $6 billion budget to finance public schools and government services starting in July.

The session ends on Thursday, but neither the House nor the Senate have approved a budget. Much of the dispute is over how much control Republican Gov. Susana Martinez should have over money for educational programs such as merit pay for teachers, assistance for struggling schools and initiatives to recruit and retain math and science teachers.

Also pending are proposals to shore up a lottery-financed college scholarship program, pay for capital improvements, raise the minimum wage and overhaul retirement plans for judges. The Legislature hasn’t voted on a new gambling compact to allow the Navajo Nation to operate more casinos.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, a Belen Democrat, said Saturday he was “concerned but [auth] I am not panicked” there’s so much unfinished business with a few days left in the session.

If the Legislature and the governor fail to agree on a budget, lawmakers have no choice but to return to work in a special legislative session.

“I’m the eternal optimist. I know how things can get done here very quickly if we put our minds to it. But compromise is the key word. It’s got to be compromise, not capitulation,” Sanchez said.

The Senate Finance Committee is working to assemble a budget after the House couldn’t finish the task.

A proposed budget in the House failed on a tie vote after Republicans and one Democrat opposed the measure because they said it shortchanged the governor’s school initiatives.

House Democrats later rebuffed a GOP offer for a possible compromise that would have added $17 million for educational programs under the control of the Martinez administration. Most Democrats and school groups favor distributing state aid to schools through a funding formula that leaves it to local districts to decide how to spend the money.

House GOP Leader Donald Bratton of Hobbs said the odds are “no better than 50-50″ that a special session can be avoided.

Agreeing on the budget will be difficult, he said, because some Democrats seem unwilling to fund the governor’s school initiatives.

“It’s a heavy lift because unfortunately sometimes politics becomes power — the power to control the money,” Bratton said.

Election-year politics is unavoidable in a legislative session. Both the governor and all 70 House members are up for election this year. Two Democratic senators are running for governor against Martinez.

Democrats also have struggled with a fragile majority in the House. With two of their members absent from the session because of health problems, Democrats have a 35-33 advantage. But if just one member breaks party ranks, as happened on the budget, then Democrats can’t push through legislation when there’s unified GOP opposition.

Without 36 votes in the House, Democrats also lack the support necessary to approve constitutional amendments such as a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $8.30 next year. The wage proposal passed the Senate with no GOP backing.

The governor’s hand also may be strengthened by the weakened Democratic House majority.

“Because of the numbers in the House, I think the executive is less likely to try and want to compromise,” Sanchez said.

But after the budget stalled in the House, the governor’s office said Democrats were unbending.

“We have negotiated and compromised in good faith on the state budget from day one with leaders from both parties and will continue to do so,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said.

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