2009 Legislature ends, special session looms

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By Carol A. Clark

SANTA FE – Some loose ends remain following this year’s legislative session, which officially drew to an end at noon Saturday.

Lawmakers passed more than 140 bills in 60 days. The governor signed 22 bills into law. He vetoed one – SB 167 Pre-Kindergarten Program Distribution – and has until April 10 to sign dozens more sitting on his desk.

Rep. Jeannette Wallace, R-Los Alamos, sponsored HB 70 Safer Cigarette & Firefighter Protection Act, which successfully passed the Senate Friday evening.

Los Alamos Assistant Fire Chief/Fire Marshal Michael Thompson was on hand at the state Capitol for the long-awaited announcement, which passed both the house and senate unanimously.

“This bill requires manufacturers to design cigarettes in such a way that when left unattended, they self extinguish. Statistics show 80 percent of fire related deaths are cigarette caused. This bill will greatly reduce that number,” Thompson said. “The Los Alamos Fire Department commends both Rep. Wallace and state Fire Marshal John Standefer for their efforts in getting this bill approved.”

Thompson initially brought the request to Wallace, she said during an interview from the House floor Saturday morning.

“When 40 of the states have the law already it’s easy to realize that it’s an important law,” she said.

Wallace expressed disappointment in the session saying, “I think we’re all a little troubled ... with the lack of money ... Some of us who work with budgets are particularly concerned.”

She expects the governor to call a special session because of areas of the budget that weren’t approved.

“First the rumor was that the special session would be called in the spring and then the rumor moved to the fall,” Wallace said. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Legislators also approved the $5.5 billion budget late Thursday night. The bill maps out next year’s state spending for general government programs and public education.

It allocates state tax money to pay for public schools, the state’s network of colleges and universities as well as operations and services ranging from prisons and courts to Medicaid, which provides health care for the poor and uninsured children.

The next budget year starts in July.

Lawmakers are cutting back state budgets because of a drop in revenue caused by the national economic downturn.

In the current budget year, the state is spending $5.8 billion. The proposed 2010 budget won final approval when the House agreed on a voice vote to accept a Senate-passed version.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he has “never worked on a more fragile budget.”

“We’re somewhat trying to fly in very, very stormy weather because our revenues are still in decline,” Smith told his colleagues when the Senate approved the budget.

The Legislature is using federal money from an economic recovery package to help soften the financial squeeze on schools and health care.

The budget plans on about $330 million in federal money going to public schools and Medicaid care to replace state tax dollars next year.

The proposed budget will keep total governmental spending relatively flat next year when the federal stimulus money is factored in for schools and health care. The spending for next year is more than $500 million lower, some 9 percent, than the initial budget enacted for this year.

However, lawmakers cut spending earlier in the session to close a projected $450 million budget deficit this year.

On Friday Richardson signed two domestic violence bills. One bill is tougher on stalking and addresses new forms of stalking like cyber stalking. The second bill allows victims of domestic violence to take time off from work to seek an order of protection or attend court proceedings without risking their employment.

“We must continue to break down the barriers that prevent victims of domestic abuse from reporting abuse and from leaving violent relationships,” Domestic Violence Czar Sharon Pino said. “Over 71 percent of the domestic violence homicides in New Mexico occur after a victim has left the relationship, and in nearly 60 percent of these cases the victim is stalked prior to the murder.”

Other bills awaiting the governor’s signature include HB 170 that would allow nurses to sign death certificates, HB 389 establishing a state cowboy song and SB 112 providing permanent jury duty exemption at age 75.

Next year’s legislative session is scheduled to begin Jan. 19 and to run for 30 days.

For details of every bill that passed the house and senate, access http://legis.state.nm.us/lcs/legRpt/legpassboth.aspx?year=09.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com or (505) 662-4186 ext. 25. Read her blog at www.newsextras.wordpress.com.