State lawmakers pass budget fix, no raising of taxes; Death penalty, other crime bills die at special session
SANTA FE — After an all-night session in the House debating heavy issues such as whether to reinstate the death penalty, Roswell’s state lawmakers returned to the city Thursday after legislators sent a package of state agency spending cuts and budget measures to the governor, minus the three crime bills pushed by Gov. Susana Martinez.
Senate Republican Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said the Legislature accomplished its task in the special session to fix the state’s budget crisis without raising taxes.
“We made some adjustments in the current budget and we balanced last year’s fiscal problems without raising taxes. These things needed to get done before the budget problems got any worse,” Ingle said. “Now we have the checkbook balanced, hopefully we will have more money in reserves. We wanted to get as much done on the budget shortfalls as we could right now, before we head into next year.”
The state’s budget shortfall was largely due to falling oil and gas prices along with shortfalls in other taxes such as gross receipts taxes. The budget-balancing fix did not include raising taxes and included such items as transferring tobacco settlement funds into the general fund, closing tax-incentive loopholes, moving or sweeping unspent funds into the general fund and reducing spending throughout state government. The budget legislation would shore up the state’s general fund with cuts to agency spending of $172 million, or nearly 3 percent overall.
However, Ingle said Senate Democrats, who control the chamber, voted to adjourn instead of considering important crime bills, including the bill passed by the Republican-controlled House early Thursday to reinstate the death penalty. Ingle referenced an Albuquerque Journal poll released this week that said 65 percent of New Mexicans favor reinstating the death penalty, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents.
“These crime bills needed to be heard, they needed to be fixed now,” Ingle said. “Others say the crime bills can wait until the next session, I say these are crime bills that could mean the difference between life or death and they don’t wait, they don’t wait at all. If we had a death penalty back on the books, maybe some of the recent heinous crimes would have not been committed, just maybe.”
New Mexico’s operating reserves have dipped into negative territory as a sustained downturn in oil and natural markets undermines royalties and tax receipts, rippling through an economy where employment lags behind most states. The state’s credit rating recently was placed under review for a possible downgrade that would increase borrowing costs.
Martinez and Republican allies in the House used the special session to seek stricter criminal sentencing in response to the recent killing of two police officers, and the August sexual assault, killing and mutilation of 10-year-old Victoria Martens in Albuquerque.
All three crime bills, including reinstating the death penalty, were passed by the House, but blocked by Senate Democrats.
Opponents of the crime initiatives say they were being rushed through a special session without sufficient public debate, criticizing the timing of final House deliberations on the death penalty that began after midnight on Thursday and culminated in a pre-dawn vote.
The House voted 36-30 in favor of the death penalty bill, with unanimous support from Roswell’s legislative delegation, to restore death by lethal injection as a possible punishment for convicted killers of police, children and corrections officers. The Senate adjourned Thursday without discussing the measure, after quickly signing off on House budget amendments.
New Mexico repealed the death penalty under Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson in 2009. Republican supporters of the reinstatement bill say they are responding to a groundswell of public concern about violent crime, while Democrats in both the House and Senate say it would be wrong to hastily decide on a costly, life-and-death issue as legislators discuss steep agency budget cuts.
Looming over the discussion were fall legislative elections for both the House and Senate, with out-of-state groups pouring money into several campaigns for part-time, unsalaried lawmakers. Campaign mailers have gone out in at least one competitive legislative race that highlights positions on the death penalty.
The two other crime bills passed the House easily, before running into the Senate roadblock.
The House voted 61-1 to expand Brianna’s law, to include all children under the age of 18, for those who intentionally abuse a child who then dies.
Currently, individuals who intentionally abuse a child resulting in the death of the child face life in prison only if the child is under the age of 12. The law is named after Brianna Lopez, an infant who was killed by members of her family in 2002. Brianna’s mother was convicted and sentenced under an old law. She was recently released after only serving 13 years for her role in Brianna’s death.
The House voted 49-14 to add more violent felonies to the current three-strikes law.
Lilly’s Law would expand the list of violent felony crimes that would make an offender eligible for mandatory life sentencing. No defendant has been convicted under the current three-strikes law because the list of crimes included in the law is extremely narrow. The bill was named for Lilly Garcia, a 4-year-old girl who was the victim of a violent road rage incident in Albuquerque last year.
All of the Senate Democrats voted to adjourn around a half hour after Thursday’s session began, in a party line vote, with 22 Democrats voting to leave without hearing the crime bills and all 16 Republicans at the special session voting to stay so the crime bills could have been debated and voted on.
The governor called the special session Friday to address the state’s financial crisis and to address the recent rash of crimes in the state.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.