Special Session planned for October

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By Carol A. Clark

SANTA FE – With a bang of his gavel, the Speaker of the House officially ended this year’s 60-day session at about noon Saturday.

A special session will follow in order to tie up a number of loose ends left dangling.

“There will be a special session,” said Gov. Richardson Saturday during his standard 1 p.m. press conference. “The issue will be when. It will be this fall, probably October.”

It was unusual to see the governor alone at Saturday’s post-session press conference. It took place, as always, in his large, fourth-floor cabinet room.

But the lieutenant governor did not sit by his side. Democratic House and Senate leaders did not attend. Rep. Lucky Varela, D-Santa Fe, did walk in shortly after the conference got underway.

House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, actually held his own press conference about the same time, draining the governor’s typically full press coverage.   

In recapping the session, Richardson praised the House for its efforts. He chastised the Senate for its failure to pass several of his initiatives.

Without even a hearing, the Senate Finance Committee killed legislation authorizing the state to take over the College of Santa Fe, a private institution on the brink of bankruptcy.

Richardson on Saturday announced the formation of a task force including state, county and city officials that will try to figure out what to do next about the college.

Disappointed students had rallied in front of the Capitol Friday, some camping there overnight hoping to influence lawmakers.

The governor called the budget and the repeal of the death penalty the “highlights of the session.”

Legislators managed to carve out a budget some 9 percent smaller than last year for fiscal year 2010, which begins July 1. They did this while avoiding shutdowns, layoffs and forced furloughs in spite of the difficult economy.

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, has said that the lawmakers’ goal was “to do whatever we could do to save jobs and keep people employed.”

The $5.5 billion spending plan is based on “a very precarious revenue base,” Senate Finance Chair John Arthur Smith, D-Deming said.

If the state’s economy, heavily dependent on oil and gas revenues, continues to worsen, lawmakers may have to revisit the budget by the end of 2009 and possibly make more cuts.

Republican Rep. Jeannette Wallace of Los Alamos sits on the powerful Legislative Finance Committee. She expressed concern about New Mexico’s shrinking budget, adding that many of her committee members are worried, too.

Unionized teachers complained the budget for next year is balanced “on the backs of working families and children.”

State workers and teachers will have to pay more to fund their pensions if the governor signs a cost-cutting proposal approved during the session.

If signed by the governor, the unemployed will get a temporary boost from a measure approved Saturday raising benefits for the next couple of years.

Legislators approved the first-ever campaign contribution limits on statewide candidates and lawmakers. Richardson expressed disappointment, however, that a bill creating an independent ethics commission failed.

Senate Republican Whip Bill Payne of Albuquerque agreed, saying New Mexico needs a commission that can investigate whistleblowers’ complaints and pass evidence of illegal activity along to the attorney general.

A Payne-sponsored bill allowing judges to hike fines for public officials convicted of crimes in office, also failed.

Legislation that did pass in an onslaught of final bills includes a mileage reimbursement increase for public employees, a ban on racial profiling by police, a veterans’ museum for Las Cruces and a new Hispanic Affairs Department.

Lawmakers also opened the doors to conference committees, the six-member, bipartisan panels that resolve differences between the two houses and make final decisions on bills including the state budget.

The first of those open meetings was held Saturday even before the bill hit the governor’s desk.

In another first, New Mexicans outside the Roundhouse can now hear House and Senate floor proceedings on webcasts.

Issues tabled to future sessions include stem-cell research, domestic partnerships and tax-increment development districts.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.