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SANTA FE (AP) — A plateful of problems, including a weak economy and struggling schools, awaits New Mexico’s lawmakers when they return to work for an election-year legislative session.
The Legislature’s 30-day session convenes Tuesday against a potentially divisive political backdrop.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez is seeking re-election, and two of her Democratic challengers serve in the Senate. All 70 members of the House are up for election, and the Democratic majority has narrowed to 37-33 because the governor appointed a Republican late last year to fill a vacant seat that had been held by a Democrat. Senators don’t run for election until 2016.
The legislative session by law is limited to the budget, taxes and measures the governor places on the agenda, which will include another attempt by Martinez to stop the state from issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.
Lawmakers also can consider constitutional amendments. Proposals to legalize marijuana and ban gay marriage are expected, but those will face strong opposition. Constitutional amendments go to voters if approved by lawmakers. The governor can’t veto a proposed change in the state constitution, providing lawmakers a way to get around Martinez on thorny issues.
The governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature are looking to rev up the state’s economy and improve schools to boost student performance. Senate President Mary Kay Papen said bipartisanship is critical.
“To me, we need to work like a good team of horses — everybody pulling their weight,” said Papen, a Las Cruces Democrat.
The challenges are plentiful. New Mexico lags behind its neighboring states in job growth. Thirty percent of students fail to graduate from high school, and the state was ranked worst in the country for child well-being last year by a national charitable foundation.
Martinez has outlined initiatives to expand the health care workforce. She also wants to more than triple spending on a program that can serve as a “closing fund” to attract companies to the state and provide them with needed infrastructure.
House Speaker W. Ken Martinez, a Grants Democrat, favors increasing the state’s minimum wage.
“I think that’s one of the best things we could possibly do this session,” he said. “When you put dollars in the working man’s hands, that money immediately goes into the economy.”
The governor vetoed legislation last year to boost the wage rate from $7.50 to $8.50 an hour, and instead backed a proposal that would have moved it to $7.80, which at the time was the same as neighboring Arizona.
The governor maintains she and Democrats can work together on education, the economy and other issues because of their shared frustration with problems facing New Mexico.
“I would guarantee there isn’t a single legislator — Democrat or Republican — that is happy that we are 49th and 50th in the country in reference to our children. There can’t be a single one that is pleased. And so the fact that we agree on that, allows us to move forward,” the governor said in announcing her budget plan. Lawmakers and the governor have suggested focusing more on early childhood education, but they disagree over precisely what to do. Martinez, the House leader, supports a constitutional amendment to ensure early childhood programs, such as pre-kindergarten, receive part of the yearly payout from a state permanent fund. The governor opposes that, contending it would slow the future growth of the fund.