The last day of the legislative session is a little like High School Graduation. After the ceremony ends, there’s absolutely no one left in the building—only an eerie feeling that what just happened may have been a fantasy. I’m still checking on what actually passed and what was left on the table that fateful final day. Ironically, in contrast to what they’re saying in the media about the hang-up being the Senate, a whole lot of bills died on the House floor, due to a Republican filibuster led by Justine Fox-Young and Dan Foley. My own bill to “cost-out” different models of universal health care in New Mexico was a casualty. But the biggest casualty of all was the Medical Marijuana bill, which had been rescued from the House Agriculture Committee and was next on the agenda when the Speaker brought the gavel down.
We had our own filibuster in the Senate against the Pay Day Lending Bill, which was considered too weak by Sen. Leonard Tsosie and Sen. Bernadette Sanchez, who led a tedious discussion of these lending practices as we waited to see whether the huge capital outlay and the GO bonds would roll off the cliff. I’m planning on sending you some vignettes, including my top ten disappointing moments, the curious love fest between the Senate’s most conservative Sen. Rod Adair and its most liberal Sen. Cisco McSorley and more … but I need to regain consciousness first. I’m still recovering from the last night of the session, which, after our 3:30 a.m. adjournment, found me sleeping under my coat on a couch in my office ‘til the gong sounded again at 8: 00 a.m. for the final fray.
I’m attaching the letter I sent to my constituents on Valentine’s Day as my latest update, although obviously it’s a little dated (See postscript):
Feb. 14, 2006 Valentine's Day
Dear Friends, Neighbors and Constituents,
It’s Valentines Day and in two days we will wrap up this year’s legislative session. However, even at this late date, there are still many issues hanging in the balance. Last night the Senate adopted the conference committee report on the budget, which reconciles House, Senate and Governor’s priorities. Hopefully, the House will send up this compromise budget bill, along with another $45million budget bill (affectionately called “Junior”) to the Governor tonight. At that point, we will have accomplished the major task of this short session.
This year’s budget weighs in at $5.15 billion—an 8.9% increase over last year. This increase was made possible by new revenue resulting from high oil and gas prices. But, to the chagrin of some -- who were all over the capitol with requests for new programs and huge capital expenditures -- the legislature did not go hog wild. Instead, it put most of the money into education and healthcare. Also $40 million of recurring revenue went into the water trust fund, which, over time, will help us with the backlog of water needs throughout this dry state.
The new revenue made this a very challenging year for budget makers, but I am generally satisfied with what emerged. The public education budget got an 8.4%boost, with teachers getting a 5% pay raise, educational assistants a 4.5%raise, and with money included to raise the employer contribution to retirement by 1.5 %. Pre-kindergarten programs will also expand with an additional $8million. The higher education budget includes 4.5% pay raises for college employees as well as funding for increased contributions to retirement of 1.5%.UNM Health Sciences Center will get $2 million additional funding from the state each year to help with the uncompensated care they give to so many. State employees will get a 5% salary increase.
Health wise, there have been some significant improvements. The Medicaid budget got a boost of 11.3%, including $4.3 million to cover more kids as well as long-overdue increases in reimbursements for doctors and other health care providers. I am happy to say that the health budget also includes $5 million to serve more people with developmental disabilities, $1.5 million for special needs kids under the FIT program, $3.4 million for trauma services at hospitals around testate, and funds for nursing instructors, mental health and methamphetamine treatment programs.
I was successful in getting more funds for suicide prevention, operations at the Rio Grande Nature Center, and a UNM Med School program to train more doctors for rural areas. Perhaps by the time you read this letter, we’ll know whether these funds “stick.” The Governor will have the final word on all these items — even more so this year, because we did not get the budget to his office in time to force action before adjournment. That means he’s free to “line item” veto appropriations he doesn’t want.
An increase in the minimum wage, which 87% of you said you favored in my constituent survey, has been hotly contested. It’s been greatly reduced from the initial $7.50 per hour, now with a requirement that employees remain with their employers for a year to receive $6.75/hr. or two years to receive $7.50/hr. Under the current proposal, Santa Fe’s minimum wage would be capped at $9.50 per hour and other municipalities would not be permitted to raise their minimum wage above the state’s. With the clock ticking, it looks doubtful that a meaningful increase will result. I hope I’m wrong.
A bill to legalize medical marijuana, which 77% of you said you supported, died in a House committee several days ago. The bill had passed the Senate with more votes than ever before, after compelling testimony from terminally ill people seeking pain relief.
A bill to require paper ballots, which many favor as more foolproof—and Traceable -- than electronic machines, has passed the Senate and is now in the House. The bill has a good chance of passage, although it is opposed by the Bernalillo County Clerk as too costly and impracticable. If it does pass, prepare to sharpen those #2 pencils!
I was involved with a package of ethics and campaign reform measures this session designed to address what I can only call a crisis in confidence in our basic democracy. The results have been mixed. My bill to open legislative conference committees to the public bit the dust last week, but my bid to ban contributions from potential contractors during the procurement period, and require reporting of contributions made during the two years prior, is still alive—and fighting the clock. You’ll know the verdict by the time you get this letter.
Solar Tax Credit
My major priority this session, a solar tax credit that will really make the purchase of solar water heaters and photovoltaics attractive, is poised for passage in the House. I have high hopes for this one. As many of you know, my husband and I built our own solar home here in the North Valley.
Capital Outlay Funds
Meanwhile, back on the home front, I have requested capital outlay funds for open space, nature centers on both sides of the river, schools, museums, trails and neighborhood improvements. There were a huge number of requests this year, but I am confident that I will be able to obtain a substantial allocation. Thanks again to those of you who visited, wrote, e-mailed and called me during the session. Most of all thank you to those of you who filled out my survey and sent me additional comments. I hope some of you got a chance to check out my blog at http://senatorfeldman.typepad.com. I hope to post some additional comments on the session there when the dust has cleared. And if you want to get my electronic newsletter, you can sign up at my web site at www.dedefeldman.com or send me your e-mail address at email@example.com. Once again, I am honored to represent you.
Still, praying for rain - I remain,
Sen. Dede Feldman
P.S. The good news is that my solar tax credit passed, along with my campaign bill to curb contributions by state contractors during the procurement process.