Legislature vicious in final few hours

By David Irvin: Freedom Newspapers

The battleground was the floor of the New Mexico Legislature, and according to one area representative, the battle was viscous.

Lawmakers thrashed through hundreds of bills over the last 60 days, but some of the most recognizable issues —including a bed tax credit and capital outlay requests — weren’t resolved until the last hour of the 47th Legislative session.

“We certainly took our share of abuse,” said Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis. “It was one of the most stressful sessions that I have experienced. We just got beat up everyday.”

As the Saturday noon deadline approached, Crook and other representatives were able to strike a deal to pass a $2,800 tax exemption on medical expenses for people over 65. In part, this was a response to a bill passed earlier Saturday to repeal a bed tax credit that was under federal scrutiny. As a result, private-pay nursing patients will pay an additional $9 per day, but may recoup part of that money through the tax exemption.

“We did not feel like it really was a true fix,” she said, but a victory in the final hour of the session when debate over the bed tax repeal tied up the House floor and could have stopped the capital outlay bill from passing the Legislature.

The state will collect an additional $2 million by eliminating the bed tax credit and prevent the loss of $15 million to $17 million in federal matching money for Medicaid.

By passing the capital outlay bill Saturday, area lawmakers possibly secured millions of dollars to repair roads, fund the 467 overpass, establish a business enterprise center, youth wellness center and assist many other projects.

Crook said the Republicans, who are the minority at the New Mexico legislature, were outvoted by the Democratic majority on a number of occasions and had to deal with amendments placed on bills that stalled or killed plenty of legislation.

But area representatives on the other side of the aisle had battles to fight as well.

Just last week, Jose Campos, D-Santa Rosa, requested the resignation of Secretary of Environment Department Ron Curry, who Campos said intimidated an expert witness on Feb. 21.

“I was trying to get a surface quality bill out, and I took on the Environment Department,” Campos said. “The secretary of the department threatened one of my expert witnesses, and she lost her job.”

Campos said democracy is in danger if a witness at a legislative session can be intimidated.

“Overall, if it wasn’t for that one situation, I would have thought it was a good session,” Campos said.

The atmosphere was a little less stressful in the Senate, according to Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, who represents Curry and Roosevelt counties.

“Being a member of the minority party, one of the things I’ve learned is it’s real important to get to know the people across the aisle,” she said. “There’s absolutely no way we can win anything unless we go across the aisle and get a couple of votes.”

Despite the difficulties and late nights — Kernan said she was on the Senate floor until about 4 a.m. Saturday — area lawmakers were able to push through legislation important to the area and allocate capital outlay money as the clock ticked down.

Kernan initially had reservations about the creation of a higher education department to oversee colleges such as Eastern New Mexico University and Clovis Community College.

“Moving all that under one department I think is going to be a bit of a change,” Kernan said. “I had mixed feelings about that, but I ended up supporting it in the end. I am hopeful that it will be a good thing.”

Crook warned that Gov. Bill Richardson must still sign the bills into law.

“Nothing’s ever done till its done,” she said. “Whether the governor signs it or whether he vetoes part of it, it’s just never a done deal.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.