Lawmakers paint brighter Legislature picture

By Robin Fornoff: FNM content editor

What a difference a year makes.

This time around the tone from lawmakers is radically different than it was just a year ago, as they tune up for a January budgeting session of the Legislature.

“Last year we started at $240 million in the hole and were in some pretty dire straits,” state Rep. Dennis Roch of Texico said Wednesday at a special legislative forum in Clovis.

This year, Roch said, New Mexico is looking at a surplus instead of a deficit, and “we’re hoping it will be a session of no cuts.”

Veteran state Rep. Anna Crook of Clovis noted minutes later, however, that while the state does have about $120 million in new revenue, fixing a shortfall in Medicaid assistance will probably take it all.

Roch and Crook were among four state representatives featured in a forum sponsored by the Eastern Plains Council of Governments and held at the Clovis-Carver Public Library. State senators Clint Harden of Clovis and Stuart Ingle of Portales were unable to attend.

Representatives for the state’s Congressional delegation were also on hand for the forum attended by about 60 elected or appointed leaders from within the seven counties EPCOG serves: Curry, De Baca, Guadalupe, Harding, Quay, Roosevelt and Union.

The more than two-hour exchange between local and state leaders included a call by Curry County Commissioner Dan Stoddard that the Legislature consider help counties eliminate problems at jails.

Stoddard said Curry County isn’t the only jail in the state dealing with growing populations of more violent criminals. He suggested the Legislature create regional jails run by private companies.

“This is a huge burden on a lot of counties,” said Stoddard. He also said the solution isn’t building more and bigger jails but changing the system and “stop doing it the same way we have for the last 100 years.”

Crook said another way to cut jail populations or at least stop having to build new jails might be re-examining how courts deal with less violent offenders and offering alternatives to incarceration. She noted the reason Harden was unable to attend the forum was because he was invited to Washington to work on just that kind of reform at a national level.

Ron Wilmot, a spokesman for Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, said the congressman is also concerned about the Postal Service’s plan to close a regional mail processing center in Clovis and some 50 post offices — most of them in rural areas — across the state. He compared the New Mexico closings to just 10 planned in Arizona, saying it didn’t make sense and promising Lujan plans to dig deeper into the issue.

Roch, Crook and state Rep. George Dodge of Santa Rosa speculated the 30-day session of the Legislature, while limited to budgeting concerns, would also include issues close to Gov. Susana Martinez’ heart.

Crook said she expects to see another push by the governor to end issuing drivers licenses to undocumented individuals.

The governor’s attempt to change the law and require proof of citizenship was defeated in a special session of the Legislature earlier this year. Crook called the failure “mystifying,” saying polls show 95 percent of her constituents “are against issuing licenses to illegals.”

Crook said one of her priorities will be finding a way to fix deteriorating streets and highways. She said state roads are “in dire straits … and we just don’t have the funding to fix them.”

Crook suggested designating a portion of state excise taxes for road repair.

Since the Legislature will be consumed by budgeting and capital outlay, Roch said he would like to see a change in how the state distributes money to local communities.

Roch, assistant superintendent at Texico schools, suggested a new system similar to how the state funds schools.

He said the state scores schools based on needs, then distributes money based on those scores. Those schools with the most needs get a larger percentage of cash.

Distributing capital outlay money to communities in the state is now largely based only on political clout, Roch said.

EPCOG Executive Director Sandy Chancey said Martinez seems to be is looking for capital outlay reform. Chancey said EPCOG and six similar organizations in the state were recently asked by Martinez to submit ideas such as Roch’s for changing New Mexico’s system of capital outlay.

“I don’t look for any change this year,” said Chancey. “But I do see some capital outlay reforms coming down the pike.”