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New Mexico Legislature returns to work

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 21, 2014 at 2:13 pm •  Published: January 21, 2014
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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The Legislature returned to work Tuesday for a 30-day session heavy on finances, education and politics in an election year in which Republican Gov. Susana Martinez is seeking a second term.

Lawmakers convened at noon, and the governor will outline her legislative priorities in a State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate.

The session is limited to budget, taxes and proposals placed on the agenda by the governor.

Martinez plans to focus on initiatives to improve public schools, economic development and public safety proposals, including a measure she's unsuccessfully pushed the past three years to stop the state from issuing driver's licenses to immigrants illegally in the country.

The session opened against a tragic backdrop, a week after a shooting at a public school in Roswell in southeastern New Mexico. A seventh-grader opened fire in a crowded gym, wounding a 12-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl.

The main assignment for the Legislature is approving a $6 billion budget to finance state government and public schools in the fiscal year starting in July. Public schools represent the largest share of state spending.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature and governor are likely to clash over educational policies.

Martinez advocates merit pay for teachers and wants to require schools to hold back third-graders who can't read proficiently. Educational groups and many Democrats oppose both measures.

Democrats and social advocacy groups are pushing a proposed constitutional amendment to use a state permanent fund to provide a dedicated source of money for early childhood programs. The proposal has stalled in previous legislative sessions because of concerns that it would slow the growth of the fund, providing less money in the future for public schools and other state institutions that currently receive a share of the endowment's annual payout.

New Mexico ranks worst in the nation in child well-being, according to a report released last year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Constitutional amendments, if approved by the Legislature, go to voters for a final decision. The governor can veto bills approved by lawmakers, but not a proposed change in the state constitution.

However, Martinez opposes the measure to finance early childhood education programs through the permanent fund.

"My problem is we cannot be spending our grandchildren's saving account," Martinez said in an interview in advance of the legislative session.

The fund receives royalties from oil and natural gas production and other income from land given to the state by the federal government. It was established as a permanent fund to allow future generations to benefit from the state's oil, gas and other natural resources that will decline over time.

Democratic lawmakers plan to introduce several high-profile constitutional amendments, including one to legalize the possession and use of marijuana by people 21 and older and a measure to raise the minimum wage, which has been $7.50 since 2009. State Democratic Party officials want lawmakers to push the wage rate to at least $10 an hour.

Martinez last year signaled that she would accept a minimum wage increase to $7.80 an hour. The governor said she remains open to considering a higher wage rate, but won't make a decision on whether to back a proposal until seeing the details. She opposes having the state's minimum wage indexed to inflation so that it increases automatically each year.

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Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP


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