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Legislative Finance Committee members meet on September 29.
Steven Hsieh

Confused About the Special Session?

UPDATE: Gov. Martinez Officially Proclaims Special Session

September 29, 2016, 12:00 am

What is a special session?

A special session is a legislative meeting held in addition to New Mexico’s annual January sessions. These meetings typically occur when there is something that needs to be addressed immediately. Only the governor may call a special session. She also gets to control the agenda.

Although the state constitution allows special sessions to go on for 30 days, our lawmakers usually finish business in a few days or less. New Mexico last held a special session in 2015 to address a capital spending bill. It took a day.

What’s on the agenda for the session beginning Friday? 

According to the governor's proclamation, lawmakers will address two general issues: 

1. Finding a fix for New Mexico’s massive budget deficit

2. Crime bills, including a proposal to bring back the death penalty

How big is the deficit?

The short answer is hundreds of millions. The long answer depends on how you look at the numbers, and for those who don’t regularly read legislative finance reports, it depends on where you get your news. The Santa Fe New Mexican reports a $220 million deficit for the fiscal year ending in June, with a potential $430 million shortfall between expected revenues and planned spending for the next fiscal year, which began in July. The Albuquerque Journal, meanwhile, says we’re about $130 million in the hole, and facing another $458 million deficit in the next fiscal year. 

We asked Sen. John Arthur Smith (D-Deming), who chairs the Legislative Finance Committee, about this discrepancy. He says they’re both right. The $130 million figure likely assumes a fix that’s been bandied about already: that the Legislature will approve a transfer of money from a pool of cash called the Tobacco Settlement Permanent Fund to cover last year’s gap and a bit of this year’s.

How do lawmakers plan to get us out of this hole moving forward?

That’s hard to say, because they’re still working out a deal as I write this. But it’ll likely be some combination of budget cuts and closing tax loopholes.

Smith tells SFR that education, both public and higher ed, will probably take a significant hit, as it accounts for about roughly half of all appropriations. The question is how big that hit will be. Very generally speaking, House Republicans and the Martinez administration seem more inclined to cut more than Democrats and Senate Republicans. Democrats have also indicated that they want to limit cuts to social services like veterans' programs and the Child, Youth and Families Department.

Along with cuts, lawmakers are looking at ways to bring in more revenue, primarily through closing tax loopholes. Sen. Carlos Cisneros (D-Questa) gives the example of a tax credit for employers who pay high wages. Another potential source would be limiting a tax credit for health practitioners in rural areas. On the Republican side, Rep. Conrad James (R-Bernalillo), who sits on the House Finance and Appropriations Committee, tells SFR that some of his colleagues are looking at capping a tax incentive for film production companies.

What is the crime component of the special session?

In addition to addressing the budget deficit, the governor plans to put a number of bills on the agenda that would increase penalties for people who commit crimes.

The big one, of course, is reinstating the death penalty, which has been off the books since 2009. Another bill would expand a law that makes life sentences eligible for people who commit three or more violent felonies. Finally, legislators will also discuss a bill that would impose a mandatory life sentence for anyone convicted of intentional child abuse that results in death.  

Why can’t they discuss these crime bills during the regular legislative session?

Good question. When talks of convening a special session popped up in July, the focus was solely on responding to the state’s budget crisis. But the killing of a police officer in Roswell in July, as well as the rape and murder of 10-year-old Victoria Martens last month, helped fuel discussions over bringing back the death penalty. Martinez, a former state prosecutor, led the charge. She announced this month that capital punishment would be on the special session agenda.

Democrats right away accused Martinez of attempting to distract from the state’s budget crisis. They suspect that the governor wants to force them to vote against tough-on-crime measures before November. Nationally, states are moving away from the death penalty and so-called “three-strikes” laws.

Oh yeah. The election.

Oh, that. Some of the state lawmakers who have to drop everything and come to Santa Fe for an unknown amount of time are fending off challengers for their seats. They won’t be able to raise funds during the session. Send that extra campaign cash to the state coffers? Couldn’t hurt. Might help.


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