Legislature at halfway mark

By Steve Terrell: The New Mexican

With the halfway point of the legislative session coming Wednesday — and with nearly 500 bills in the hopper — lawmakers have passed only one bill. But a couple of tax increase bills that would raise sales tax for everyone and impose a surtax on upper income New Mexicans cleared and important committee Monday and is headed for the House floor.

The tax bills are designed to deal with the $600-million budget shortfall

The one bill that has passed so far was House Bill 1, the “Feed Bill,” which pays for the session. It passed both the House and Senate and was signed — with some line-item vetoes by Gov. Bill Richardson.

Then there’s HB64, a non-controversial school-funding measure that unanimously passed the House and went on to the Senate. The Senate, by Monday had yet to pass any Senate bills.

Though this might seem like inaction to the naked eye, it’s fairly typical in a 30-day session. Usually in any session the real action doesn’t come until the final days.

The House appears headed toward passing two major tax increases to deal with the budget crunch.

House Speaker Ben Lujan’s HB 119, which would raise temporarily the state gross receipts tax by one-half cent to 5.5 percent — which would provide an estimated $238 million next year — was given a do-pass recommendation Monday by the House Tax and Revenue Committee. This rate would decline each year until it returns to 5 percent starting in mid 2014.The same committee on Monday also recommended a bill, Rep. Ed Sandoval’s HB9, that would impose a surtax on upper-income New Mexicans. This bill is estimated to raise $66 million next year by charging a 1.5 percent surtax on couples with taxable income of more than $200,000 if they file joint returns. It would remain in place for three years.

But such measures, which passed the committee by party-line votes are sure to face a rougher time in the more conservative Senate.

“People around the country are focused on limiting the size and scope of government,” Sen. Rod Adair, R-Roswell, told a reporter Monday. The majority of the House of Representatives may be the only segment of New Mexico that has not heard that message.”

Meanwhile other tax proposals — including some that Gov. Bill Richardson has said he could back — have been picked off.

“The committees have not been receptive to narrow taxes,” said Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.

Some tax bills that have died:

• HB34, which would have increased tax on alcoholic beverages and HB35, which would have raised the taxes on tobacco both were tabled — which means effectively killed — in the House Business & Industry Committee. Both bills were sponsored by Egolf.

• A bill that would have imposed sales tax on Internet sales, HB50, sponsored by Rep. Eleanor Chavez, also was tabled by Business & Industry.

• HB184, which would have imposed a 25 percent excise tax on medical marijuana, sponsored by Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, was tabled by a 14-1 vote of the House Taxation & Revenue Committee.

• A bill sponsored by Rep. Dennis Kintig, R-Roswell (HB52), to repeal tax credits for film productions, was tabled by the House Labor Committee.

Among the bills that still are alive are Egolf’s proposal for the state to pull its money — about $1.4 billion — in a Bank of America account and invest it in New Mexico banks. House Joint Memorial 23 is expected to be heard soon in the House Business & Industry Committee.

Other issues will be tested soon. Senate Bill 183, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, which would establish domestic partnerships for unmarried couples today will be the subject of a joint hearing between the Senate Public Affairs and Judiciary Committee. The Public Affairs panel, which recommended a domestic-partnership bill last year, might vote on the measure today.

Last year the domestic partnership bill was killed in a Senate floor votes. Even backers of the bill, including Richardson, have not been overly optimistic about SB183’s chances.

Also being heard in a House Committee today is an ethics bill, HB 118. This legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jose Campos, D-Santa Rosa and pushed by the think tank Think New Mexico, would prohibit lobbyists and government contractors from making political contributions to state candidates or to political committees. It’s being heard by the House Voters and Elections Committee.

Also still alive and making their way through committees are HB17, sponsored by Rep. Nate Cote, D-Las Cruces, which would prohibit those convicted of domestic violence from becoming police officers. This bill is headed to the House Judiciary Committee.

And headed for the Senate Judiciary Committee is SB40, sponsored by Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, to allow people with concealed-carry licenses to take their guns into restaurants with beer-and-wine licenses.