- Associated Press - Thursday, October 6, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico lawmakers sent a package of state agency spending cuts and budget measures to the governor on Thursday and scuttled efforts by Republicans, including Gov. Susana Martinez, to reinstate the death penalty.

The legislation would shore up the state’s general fund with cuts to agency spending of $171 million, or nearly 3 percent overall, and by sweeping idle cash from agency accounts, collecting money from stalled local construction projects and closing tax-incentive loopholes.

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.

The Legislature’s budget plan would restore operating reserves to an estimated $56 million, or 1 percent - down from more than $700 million in mid-2015.

“We’re in the black now,” said Rep. Nate Gentry, the Republican majority leader in the House, where fractious budget negotiations lasted nearly a week. “We will be back in session in three months, and if we continue to see a decline in revenues, we can certainly address that issue then.”

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. Opponents of the crime initiatives say they are 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 bill to restore death by lethal injection as a 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. The Senate also declined to consider two House-approved bills to expand mandatory life sentencing under New Mexico’s three-strikes law for criminals with three or more violent felony convictions and for people convicted of intentional child abuse resulting in death regardless of a child’s age.

Martinez said in a statement Thursday that “to not even grant a hearing or a vote on these crime bills reeks of arrogance and cowardice.”

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.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, predicted the House vote on capital punishment would quickly become political fodder on the fall campaign trail. The entire Legislature is up for re-election in November.

“It’s going to be used as a sword. This is all about scoring political points,” said Ivey-Soto, a former prosecutor who has supported prior efforts to expand three-strikes sentencing and this year sponsored a law giving judges greater access to juvenile criminal records.

Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, voted for the repeal in 2009. Hall said he has changed his mind because of “heinous crimes against children and police” and concerns about ineffective sentencing decisions.

The Legislature’s budget plan included spending cuts of 5.5 at most executive agencies, with no cuts planned at departments overseeing public safety and child welfare services. Funding for the Judiciary and legislative offices both would decrease by about 3 percent.

Over the objections of Democrats, House Republicans rejected Senate proposals to freeze gradual reductions to the corporate income tax rates or to collect taxes on internet sales from out-of-state companies like Amazon. Approved taxation changes would boost state revenues by $10 million this year and $27 million next year.

The budget would cut spending to public schools by $90 million, or 3.3 percent, and trim funding for higher education by $42 million, or 5 percent.

Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith, a lead budget negotiator in the Senate, blamed the governor for extending the state’s shaky fiscal condition by closing off options to increase state revenues.

“I don’t think Moody’s will be satisfied,” he said, referring to a credit rating agency. “I think that goes to the fact that this administration has not been responsible enough to build the reserves that we need.”

Martinez opposes any tax increases and applauded continued funding for business-expansion incentives that help pay for job training and infrastructure upgrades. The governor’s office highlighted a continued shortfall between recurring revenue streams and state spending.

“I’m pleased that, at the end of the day, legislators chose not to raise taxes, strip our job creation programs, or peel back vital improvements to our tax code and business friendliness,” she said in a statement, without indicating whether she would sign the entire legislative package. “Instead, we tightened our belts.”

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