Special Session begins strangely

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By Carol A. Clark

SANTA FE — The second session of the 48th Legislature called by Gov. Bill Richardson convened about 12:30 p.m. Friday and recessed a short time later. Democratic Legislators left the floor to caucus and the House reconvened later in the day.

“We caucused in the morning,” said Republican Rep. Jeannette Wallace, Los Alamos, Santa Fe and Sandoval counties, “so we sat around and waited for them to finish. We’re not moving very fast, we didn’t start at noon, there were no proclamations and no bills – it was a strange beginning.”

The agenda Richardson wants lawmakers to tackle in this special session includes health care expansion, tax rebates, road construction funding, funding for the secretary of state to operate this year’s general election and disaster money for flood ravaged Ruidoso.

The governor is asking the Legislature to spend more than $400 million to provide tax breaks and other economic assistance to New Mexicans, pay for highway construction and expand health care coverage for children.

About $171 million of the governor’s proposals, including a tax rebate and some highway financing, would be covered by a projected $208 million revenue windfall during the current budget year.

About $79 million in spending would come out $373 million expected to be available for budget increases in the next fiscal year, which starts in July 2009.

The governor proposed $200 million for highway projects that have been stalled because of a transportation funding shortfall. Of that, $150 million would come from bonds backed by severance tax revenues and $50 million from one-time moneys in the state’s general budget account over two years — with $25 million potentially out of this year’s revenue windfall, according to Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught. The $50 million would become available only if the state has ample cash reserves, however.

Wallace described an uneasiness with the way the bills are being loaded with items for 2010.

“We do the budget in the January session and that’s a more appropriate time to consider these items,” said Wallace, who is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “Deciding this now takes the appropriating process away from us and it spends money for the future when we don’t even know how much money we’ll have then.”

Wallace indicated she isn’t sure whether the health care package will pass. The bill is similar to what was passed in the House in January, she said, “but it has the governor appointing a director to oversee it for five years and we’ve always had a problem with who’s doing the appointing.”

No one knows how long the session will last but with the high cost of hotel rates this time of year, not to mention gasoline, lawmakers hope it ends quickly. Lawmakers began calling for lodging as soon as the special session date was announced and found rooms were outrageously priced, Wallace said, adding this is the money-making season for lodgers and they told legislators that they can’t give them special rates at this time of year.

The feed bill allocates almost $587,000 for costs of up to a 10-day session. The money will come out of cash reserves maintained by the Legislature.

“We passed the feed bill for 10 days, we can extend it but there’s no willingness to do so,” Wallace said. “Everyone wants to be out of here.”

Lawmakers are not paid a salary but receive a $144 daily expense reimbursement.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.