By Todd G. Dickson
The Las Cruces Bulletiin
On Las Cruces Day in Santa Fe, Monday, Feb. 2, state Rep. Terry McMillan, R-Las Cruces, was made honorary speaker of the House as he introduced visiting members of the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce.
The day ended with Las Crucens visiting the governor’s residence attended by Gov. Susana Martinez herself, wrapping up a weekend that gave Chamber members insight to the current 60-day session in which Republicans have control of the House for the first time in more than 60 years.
This early in the session, water appears to be an area of bipartisan concern while a big question hangs over the budget. At a breakfast for Las Cruces Day, state Sen. John Arthur Smith, who chairs the Legislative Finance Committee, said budget considerations are pending a final estimate on oil and gas prices.
The drastic fall in crude oil prices, Smith said, has forced revisions to how much “new money” can be added to the budget – if there is any increase in operational spending at all. Education and the Human Services Departments were poised to get the lion’s share of the “new money,” but that was before the price of crude oil fell to less than $50 a barrel.
To avoid deficit spending, which is prohibited by the state constitution, lawmakers base their revenue projects for two years at a time. Smith said the current year’s budget was based on oil being at $88 a barrel and $66 a barrel next year.
“Right now, we’re trying to figure out what the heck the price of oil is going to be,” he said. “Currently, our oil and natural gas are trending in the wrong direction.” Smith said the best guesses he’s getting from those in the oil industry is the hope that the price of oil will go no lower than $45 a barrel and eventually stabilize at around $50 to $55 a barrel. When the oil prices were much higher last summer, the LFC was anticipating having $280 million in new money, which Smith said resulted in a flurry of requests for improved funding. By December, the estimate was cut in half and Smith said the final number could go well below $100 million. While state government will probably not have to make cuts, Smith said funding increases are currently up in the air. In the opening weeks of the session, the new Republican majority in the House is focused on getting legislation passed on Right to Work – meaning workers don’t have to pay union dues if they don’t want to – and ending the practice of giving driver’s licenses to residents from other countries who are not in the United States legally.
Leadership in the Democratic controlled Senate, however, has announced Right To Work legislation coming from the House as being dead on arrival but they have also called for a statewide minimum wage increase. While the political posturing could portend gridlock, compromise could give both sides victories. For example, Smith said one committee is looking at the possibility of merging a minimum wage increase with Right To Work language for the private sector only. Whether this compromise sees the light of day, however, depends on whether it’s constitutional to merge the issues or to exclude public sector unions from Right To Work legislation.
While there’s not a lot of reaching across the aisle at this point of the session, that can change if the revenue projections get really tight, Smith said.
“When you have no money, you can’t believe how well you agree on things,” Smith said.
While new House Speaker Don Tripp of Socorro is respected as a moderate Republican, Democrats are chafing at the committee level as bills get passed or killed by straight party lines.
During a break between committee meetings Monday, State Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, complained that Republicans on the House Energy, Natural Resources and Environment Committee are tabling – which essentially kills legislation – nearly every bill related to renewable energy. Steinborn said the only renewable energy bill to pass the committee was keeping a solar energy tax credit that made it out of committee with a single GOP vote.
While state Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, probably won’t see the legalization of marijuana debated, he said he is seeing movement on a variety of water legislation, which was his top concern during the campaign.
McMillan said the House Health Committee that he chairs is earnest about addressing behavioral health concerns, such as supporting passage of Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen’s bill to allow courtordered outpatient treatment.
With a couple of the Arizona-based companies leaving – and others expected to follow – maintaining behavioral health services is also a great concern, he said.
Following Virgin Galactic’s test flight crash in late October, there are lawmakers proposing selling it off. That would be a big mistake, said Lt. Gov. John Sanchez. As Virgin regroups its test program, there are other customers interested in working out of Spaceport America, he said.
For New Mexico to improve economically, it needs to embrace business-friendly policies such as tort reform, as well as Right To Work and tax reforms, Sanchez said.
Smith said he would like to see discussion on hard questions such as Medicaid spending and roads. The state has depended too much on borrowing money to build roads, he said, with the debt lasting longer than the road’s useful lifetime. Raising the gasoline tax would bring in real money for road upkeep, he said, but that is something that is politically unpopular.
“I hope the new lawmakers are willing to do what is necessary,” Smith said.