- Associated Press - Monday, January 16, 2017

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico lawmakers are confronting budget shortfalls, frustration over a weak economy, and concerns about violent crime and school performance as they convene for a 60-day session.

The session begins Tuesday with a fresh slate of Democratic majority leaders in the House of Representatives, where Republicans lost majority control in November elections, and the Senate.

Policymakers are preparing to extend recent agency budget cuts into the coming year to address a deficit and plunging tax revenues linked to a downturn in the oil and natural gas industry.

GOP Gov. Susana Martinez and allied lawmakers are insisting the budget crunch can be resolved without raising taxes by streamlining government and reducing government pension contributions.

House Democrats are promising a slate of proposals designed to spur economic growth, while seeking a statewide minimum wage.

Lawmakers also are taking up hot-button issues of gun control and could join efforts to overhaul the presidential electoral college in response to Donald Trump’s victory.

Some big issues coming up in the session:

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BUDGET CRISIS

The governor has proposed sweeping school district cash balances to help restore reserves and protect the state’s credit rating. Democratic lawmakers have given a cold reception to Martinez’s proposal to reduce take-home pay among 80,000 state workers and teachers to avoid possible furloughs or salary cuts.

The governor and lawmakers are largely in agreement on extending recent agency spending cuts and preserving spending on public safety, child protective services and early education programs.

Proposals to shore up state revenues include a gas-tax increase, taxing online sales by out-of-state retailers and restoring taxes on food. A wide array of tax incentives and loopholes are under review for possible repeal.

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THE ECONOMY

Efforts are underway to create a statewide minimum wage that would exceed the federal minimum wage. The Albuquerque area, Santa Fe and Las Cruces already have minimum hourly pay requirements.

The Legislature will consider legalizing marijuana and taxing it. Martinez opposes legalizing recreational marijuana, but a proposed constitutional amendment could put the decision directly to voters.

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EDUCATION

Two proposals would increase distributions from the state’s $15 billion Permanent Land Grant Fund to spend more on early education and home visits with parents of newborns and toddlers. Supporters say budget pressures on public schools lend urgency to the perennial debate about how much to divert from the fund each year.

A debate is being rekindled about whether to hold back third graders if they are unable to read at grade level. Other legislative initiatives would put a moratorium on new charter schools, and replace the state’s education secretary with an elected board of education.

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PUBLIC SAFETY

The long list of criminal justice proposals includes enhanced penalties for felons found in possession of a firearm, for reckless driving resulting in death to discourage drag racing and for repeat DWI offenders.

A proposal from House Republicans would reinstate the death penalty for the killing of police, children and corrections officers.

Carrying a concealed handgun would no longer require a license under constitutional changes proposed by one Republican lawmaker. Other legislators want to extend background checks to nearly all gun transactions to close the so-called gun-show loophole.

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ETHICS AND CAMPAIGN FINANCE

Several efforts are underway to create an independent ethics commission to review complaints concerning campaign finances and the conduct of public officials, lobbyists and contractors. Funding approval still is pending for an overhaul of the state’s online campaign finance system that would make it easier to track political donations and gifts.

Frustrations with primary and general elections in 2016 could give way to other reform proposals. One would open primary elections for major party candidates to voters not affiliated with the GOP or Democratic Party, while another seeks to ensure presidents are elected by popular vote.

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ENVIRONMENT

A proposal backed by the state land commissioner would clean up illegal trash dumps on trust land by setting aside a small slice of income and interest from land leases. Coyote killing contests could become a thing of the past under a bipartisan proposal that raises humanitarian objections to culling the animals using prizes and awards.

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