New Mexico lawmakers convene to forge budget

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Republican Gov. Susana Martinez called on state lawmakers to crack down on violent crime and put public safety at the top of state priorities as New Mexico's Legislature convened Tuesday for a 30-day budgetary session.

Legislators are tasked with crafting a budget aimed at keeping pace with soaring health care costs for low-income residents, stimulating a sluggish state economy and possibly increasing pay to teachers and police.

With little time to spare, lawmakers already are clamoring to push through major policy initiatives designed to address concerns about public safety and political corruption.

Addressing the Legislature, Martinez described a state under siege from violent criminals, habitual drunken drivers, marauding teens and "turnstile thugs" set loose by the courts. She placed public safety at the top of her agenda, followed by education and jobs programs.

House Republicans are calling for indelible changes to the criminal justice system in response to a string of high-profile cases over the last year, including the shooting deaths of two police officers and a 4-year-old girl killed during a road-rage incident in Albuquerque. Martinez, who has wide discretion over which bills are heard, threw her support behind proposals to expand crimes subject to three-strikes sentencing rules and to allow judges to deny bail to dangerous defendants.

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and state court administrators are backing a constitutional amendment to overhaul New Mexico's bail system not only to give judges more authority to deny bail but also to allow low-risk defendants to be released pending trial if they don't have the means to make bond. Martinez made no mention of the proposal for broadening pre-trial release for nonviolent offenders.

Democratic Senate floor leader Michael Sanchez of Belen characterized the governor's public safety agenda as pro-incarceration and lacking in rehabilitation funding.

"That's contrary to what's going on in the rest of the country, where people don't want to lock people up," Sanchez said.

He said violent crime problems are centered in Albuquerque, where dissatisfaction with the police force runs high.

Martinez welcomed to the House Chambers the widows of slain police officers Nigel Benner and Dan Webster and invoked their pain and sadness in her call for criminal justice reforms.

"We have vicious, heinous criminals among us who are willing to take the lives of our greatest heroes," Martinez said. "Our laws are too lax, our justice system too weak — particularly when it comes to violent, dangerous offenders."

The governor and lawmakers also are under pressure from the federal government to resolve a stalemate over immigrant driver's licenses and the state's failure to comply with the REAL ID Act.

Democrat Senate leaders remain at odds with the governor's proposal to replace driver's licenses for immigrants with a driving privilege card. Some immigrant-rights advocates complain new requirements for immigrants would be onerous and could make them targets for persecution by authorities.

Political stakes will be high during the session, with every legislative seat coming up for election in November. Republicans hope to extend their control of the lower House to the Senate, where Democrats hold 24 out of 42 seats.

Legislative leaders have largely agreed with the governor on priorities for a nearly $6.5 billion budget proposal that increases spending 3.7 percent. A third of new spending would go toward new state Medicaid expenses.

At the same time, political fractures are appearing as revenue estimates tighten unexpectedly because of low crude oil prices linked to state royalties and severance taxes. An influential legislative committee wants to put on hold $77 million in state pay raises primarily for school teachers — over the objections of the executive branch.

The bulk of those pay raises would go to entry-level teachers under the governor's budget recommendations, while leading Democrats favor pay raises for all teachers and support staff. Martinez also wants to expand the ranks of law enforcement and raise pay for State Police, prison guards and child abuse case workers.

House Democrats have urged the governor to call up a raft of proposals for reforming the campaign finance reporting system and creating a statewide ethics commission.

Calls for reform were sparked last year by a scandal that brought down former Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran, who pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds to fuel a gambling spree. She completed a 30-day jail sentence on Sunday.

Martinez touched on campaign finance issues briefly, endorsing a cooling off period for former public officials who go to work as lobbyists and greater disclosures about ties to private clients and infrastructure projects.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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