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NM lawmakers face tough budget year

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By Barry Massey

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico lawmakers return to work next week to deal with a troublesome election-year assignment: potentially raising taxes, cutting money for schools and slashing government services to balance the state budget.

The Legislature convenes Tuesday for a 30-day session that offers Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson a last chance to shape his political legacy with changes in state law. Richardson's second term expires at the end of the year. He can't run for a third term because of term limits.

"They should not treat me as a lame duck because I am not going to be a lame duck," Richardson said.

If dealing with budget problems wasn't enough work, Richardson will ask lawmakers to consider an ambitious and potentially contentious package of proposals ranging from domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, creating a governmental ethics commission and mandatory jail time for first-time drunken driving convictions.

Under the state Constitution, 30-day sessions are limited to budget and revenue measures and those proposals added to the agenda by the governor.

Domestic partnerships failed in last year's Legislature, as did an ethics commission, but Richardson said they're "unfinished business" for his final year in office.

The budget looms as the biggest headache for lawmakers and Richardson. The recession and low energy prices have eroded state revenues. New Mexico expects to collect about $5.1 billion in the coming year.

However, the state is spending far more this year — about $5.7 billion on public education and other government programs.

To balance next year's budget, lawmakers must decide how deeply to reduce spending and to raise taxes — if at all — to provide more revenue.

A tax increase will be a tough sell.

All 70-House members are up for election in November. Senators don't have to run until 2012.

"It's an election year. People in New Mexico are all having a tough time in some segments of the economy, and a tax increase, whether you are a Democrat or Republican, doesn't sound like a real good idea," said House GOP Leader Tom Taylor of Farmington.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and chairman of the Senate committee that handles tax and budget issues, said: "If the Senate had to take a vote right now, there wouldn't be any tax increases."

House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, said a combination of taxes and spending cuts will be necessary to deal with the budget.

Education accounts for the largest share of state spending, but Lujan said lawmakers will need to carefully trim money for public schools.

"It's important that we fund them in a manner that they can provide a top-notch education for our children," said Lujan, who opposes a proposal to reduce teacher salaries to save money.

Lawmakers — particularly Democrats — face pressure from unions and social advocacy groups to raise taxes rather than cut schools, health care and government services for the needy.

The American Federation of Teachers-New Mexico favors raising personal income taxes on the wealthy — a proposal Richardson opposes because it would roll back tax rate cuts he championed in 2003 to help recruit businesses to the state.

But Christine Trujillo, the union's president, is delivering a blunt message to legislators.

"We have a huge political outreach program," Trujillo said. "We're not going to endorse. We're telling our folks that we're not returning anybody to Santa Fe or we will work real hard not to return them to Santa Fe if they don't start considering people that are middle income and low income."