This year's 30-day Legislative Session wrapped up last Thursday at noon and was by many acccounts more tense and chaotic than usual. Many of the bills on Gov. Bill Richardson's agenda failed to pass, and it remains to be seen whether he'll call a Special Session. The next regular session takes place in January. In the meantime, here are some highlights from this year. Most bills passed will go into effect on May 17. For further details on any of the bills for this session, visit legis.state.nm.us/
A budget that deals with over $5 billion and, among other things, raises the wages of teachers and state employees passed through the Legislature this session, as did the approval of $900 million in capital outlay for construction projects, such as schools, water projects and a spaceport. $90 million will be doled out for new public schools in the most overcrowded areas around the state (i.e. Albuquerque's Westside, which will need a whole lot more than that to get on its feet). The spaceport, as predicted, gets $100 million.
Republican filibusters ate up the final hour or so of the session. With two minutes left until noon (when the session was required by law to end), there was no time to get final votes on tax relief. See “Ortiz y Pino” this week for more details.
New Mexicans with McJobs won't be seeing a rise in their McWages anytime soon. Months after an increase failed to pass in Albuquerque during the October municipal election, an increase was once again a failure at the state level after it died in the House. The bill would have raised the minimum wage from the national level of $5.15 an hour to $6.75 in 2007, $7.50 in 2008 and indexed the wage to inflation in 2009. Another bill, SB 449, would have raised the minimum wage to $7.50 over three years but was so watered down with amendments that the governor vowed to give it a veto. That bill never made it to the House floor anyway. Since most folks in New Mexico who make the current minimum wage live below the poverty line, this issue is sure to come up again.
There were five bills dealing with payday loans this year; the other four were Senate bills which didn't make it very far through the legislative process. Payday loans are commonly regarded as a form of “predatory lending” because their interest rates can sometimes climb higher than 1,000 percent and borrowers are typically expected to pay back the loan in a two-week period. New Mexico, along with a few other states, has no limits on interest rates and is therefore one of the last frontiers for payday loans. After this year's regular session it still is: A bill that would have changed interest rates to flat fees and extended the payback period was withdrawn by its Senate sponsor under threats of a filibuster due to too many amendments. This may be a good thing because the bill was reportedly a product of heavy lobbying from the payday loan industry and full of compromises.
As it did last year, the Lynn Pierson Compassionate Use Act, which would have allowed doctors to prescribe medical cannabis to New Mexico's sick and dying, itself died in the house. After the bill passed the Judiciary Committee at 4 a.m. Thursday morning with an overwhelming vote, it was never put to a vote in the House. Bummer.
After the scandal in the State Treasurer's Office last year, lawmakers made a mostly failed attempt at campaign finance reform. I say “mostly” because one provision passed that now makes it illegal for businesses to give money to persons seeking a state office while that business is seeking a state contract. You just have to ask why that wasn't already illegal! Contractors are also required to report contributions over $250 from the previous two years. Other bills that would have provided more oversight of the Treasurer's Office and other campaign finance reform did not pass.
When the state gets the chance to convert, New Mexico will no longer use the completely automated voting machines that make some voters uncomfortable. The machines that use paper ballots are still automated but leave a paper record for each vote, instead of a tabulated strip.
Ever find yourself saying, “If only the state would credit my income tax for harnessing the free energy coming from the sky”? Well, buddy, you're in luck!
The state will now extract DNA from everyone arrested for a felony. In other felon news, felons can no longer serve on state juries. So much for paying your debt to society.