The Associated Press March 18, 2011, 4:27PM ET

NM Legislature approaches finish line of session

Having finished work on a critical budget package, the New Mexico Legislature approached the finish line of the session with several of Gov. Susana Martinez's initiatives still unresolved.

With adjournment looming on Saturday, lawmakers hurried to deal with long lists of bills awaiting final votes in the House and Senate. The two chambers were expected to meet late into the night Friday to debate measures.

Still undecided were the governor's educational reform and crime-fighting proposals to:

-- Expand DNA testing to anyone arrested for a felony.

-- Assign grades A-to-F to public schools based on student performance.

-- Stop third-graders from advancing to the next class if they can't read adequately, ending a practice called "social promotion."

-- Evaluate teachers based on the achievement of their students. It's a measure that lays the groundwork for merit pay for educators.

For lawmakers, the budget was considered the top assignment for the session. Without it, agencies and schools will have no money to operate starting in July.

Lawmakers have sent the governor a blueprint for spending $5.4 billion next year on education and governmental programs, ranging from prisons and courts to health care for the poor. The measure cuts spending by 2.7 percent, or about $152 million, from currently budgeted amounts.

Martinez has until early April to sign or veto bills passed during the closing stretch of the Legislature's 60-day session. That includes a package of measures that lawmakers approved to balance the budget next year.

Scott Darnell, a spokesman for the governor, said Friday that Martinez "is encouraged that the Legislature has passed a budget that does not raise taxes and trims the film subsidy in order to protect classroom spending and health care for those most in need."

But Darnell said, "The governor is concerned that the budget relies on temporary savings and will review the measure in detail to evaluate whether enough permanent spending cuts exist to balance the budget over the long-term."

A critical piece of the budget package will save $111 million next year by lowering government contributions to public employee pensions while state workers and educators offset that by paying more into their retirement programs. The measure also allows the government to skip making higher contributions to an educational pension program. The higher payments were mandated by a 2005 law.

Lawmakers also have agreed to a bill capping rebates at $50 million a year for film production in New Mexico. The measure frees up $23 million that went into the budget for schools, health care and public safety programs.

Several of the governor's initiatives appeared dead with a day left in the session. That included her proposals to stop driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, reinstate the death penalty and provide tax credits for people who make donations to nonprofits giving scholarships to students to attend private schools.

The Senate rejected the governor's immigrant license proposal last week after it had passed the House.

Final approval of the pension savings bill came late Thursday -- shortly before midnight -- when the House did an about-face and voted 35-34 to accept a Senate passed version. The House had turned down the measure nearly 24 hours earlier, but several lawmakers changed their minds over a prospect that the budget would have a more than $100 million hole without the pension savings.


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