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Loose Ends Left As Session Wraps Up - Lawmakers Fail To Set Congressional Districts

Albuquerque Journal (NM) - Sunday, September 25, 2011
Author: Deborah Baker and Dan Boyd Journal Staff Writers
SANTA FE — A special New Mexico legislative session on redistricting ended Saturday, mired in the partisan rancor that marked it throughout 19 days. 

The House sniped at the Senate. Republicans and Democrats sniped at one another. The Senate packed its bags and went home early Saturday, leaving the House alone in the Capitol until it adjourned in the afternoon. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez said she was “very disappointed” with the outcome. 

The 112 part-time lawmakers did not act finally on congressional redistricting, an unemployment insurance solvency plan nor a repeal of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, among other proposals. 

The next stop for some of the special session issues could be court. 

The Legislature sent Martinez bills to redraw state House and Senate legislative districts, which she plans to veto, as well as bills redrawing the districts of the Public Regulation Commission and Public Education Commission, which a spokesman said the governor was reviewing. 

Lawmakers never took final action on a redistricting plan for New Mexico’s three U.S. House seats, Senate Bill 22. That redistricting job — along with vetoed House and Senate redistricting plans — would apparently be among the issues falling to the courts. 

“The voters should be disappointed that the Legislature didn’t do its job,” said House Republican Whip Donald Bratton of Hobbs. 

“I don’t think everyone was happy with what we did, but I think we largely did what we needed to do, except with the congressional redistricting,” said House Judiciary Chairman Al Park, an Albuquerque Democrat. 

The Legislature did not deal with several initiatives Martinez sought, including the illegal immigrant driver’s license repeal, prohibiting the promotion of third-graders who can’t read proficiently and giving government more authority to ban fireworks. 

“Some of those wedge and divisive issues we felt didn’t have any business in the special session,” said House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Nambé, repeating the view of Democratic leaders that the special session had to be held only for the once-a-decade task of redistricting. 

Martinez said the Legislature’s Democratic leaders “chose to do little more than stonewall job creation and reform, while protecting themselves from the voters of New Mexico.” 

Her spokesman, Scott Darnell, said the governor has no plans to ask lawmakers to return to the Capitol for another special session on the same issues. Republicans and Democrats blamed one another for refusing to compromise. 

Finger-pointing 

“What’s been done thus far could have been done in a day or two,” Bratton said. “We didn’t have to stay this long and spend a million dollars to get to this point.” 

T he Senate adjou r ned abruptly and headed home just after 1 a.m. Saturday, leaving the House to accept in full, or reject, legislation that the Senate had already passed. 

“It’s wrong, but that’s our predicament,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, told his colleagues. “The Senate has gone home, guys. They shirked their responsibility to the people of New Mexico, but we cannot.” 

The House wrangled at length Saturday over repeated Republican-led efforts to adjourn without voting on any Senate-passed bills, but finally approved 68-1 a paredback $86.5 million capital projects bill. 

Vetoes vowed 

Left undone by the House were two other measures passed by the Senate: a redistricting plan for New Mexico’s three congressional districts, and a plan to shore up the state’s unemployment compensation fund — although not the version the governor had wanted. 

“We have accomplished a majority of our duty to apportion the state, but unfortunately some critical issues have been left stranded by Republican procedural maneuvering and game-playing,” said Lujan, the House speaker. 

The bills Martinez has said she will veto would redraw the 70 districts in the state House, House Bill 39 substitute, and the 42 districts in the state Senate, Senate Bill 33 substitute. Republicans complained that the plans favor Democrats and would ensure a Democratic lock on the two chambers for the next decade. 

Democrats currently have 36 House members and Republicans 33; there is one independent. The Democratic edge over Republicans in the Senate is 27-15. 

The GOP is hoping to get a better shake in court than it did in the plans passed by the Legislature. 

Capital outlay 

The pared-back, $86.5 million package of public works projects includes funding for new State Police vehicles, new air conditioning and heating for three state-run prisons and renovations of several state government buildings. 

“These are things that will create jobs,” said Rep. Ed Sandoval, D-Albuquerque. “Once these jobs are created, people go out into the communities and make purchases.” 

Martinez had pushed for a $213 million list of capital outlay projects — which are funded by bonds backed by oil and natural gas taxes — but a key Senate committee trimmed the package’s price tag due to concerns over possible future needs and the state’s debt level. 

Last-ditch attempts from business and labor groups to expand the list of projects to its original size were unsuccessful. 

Senators also rejected a bipartisan attempt by Albuquerque lawmakers to earmark $30 million for renovation of the congested Paseo del Norte interchange with Interstate 25. 

However, another package of public works projects is expected to submitted for approval when the Legislature convenes in January. 

Unemployment fund 

Under the Senate-passed measure to shore up the state’s dwindling unemployment fund, Senate Bill 29 substitute, employers would have been assured of no increase in their contribution rates — or taxes — next year but would have had to pay at least $15 million more into the fund in 2013. 

Meanwhile, Martinez had proposed legislation that would have locked in the current tax rates businesses pay and used state money to bolster the fund. The first-term governor line-item vetoed a bill approved by the Legislature in March that would have increased business tax rates by $128 million next year. 

Six Democratic lawmakers subsequently took Martinez to the Supreme Court over the veto and the court could be forced into making a ruling after the Legislature’s failure to approve new legislation on the subject. 

House Democrats blamed Republicans for not allowing a vote on the Senate-backed measure. “We were ready to solve it and the Republicans didn’t let us do it,” said Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. Inside 

At a glance: what lawmakers did and didn’t do in the special session 

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SOURCE: Research & Polling, Inc. Lawmakers passed and sent Gov. Susana Martinez a redistricting plan for the state’s five Public Regulation Commission districts, which the governor says she will review.