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Gov. grateful for legislative victories

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60-day session ended Saturday

By Barry Massey and Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press

SANTA FE — Gov. Susana Martinez wrapped up her first legislative session Saturday, feeling grateful that she was able to make good on at least some of her campaign promises to trim state spending, crack down on criminals and start reforming New Mexico’s education system.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature handed the Republican executive some key victories in the waning hours of the 60-day session as they worked through a flurry of bills. Consensus was reached on a measure that allows for grades from A to F to be assigned to New Mexico’s public schools based on student performance, as well as on a bill to expand DNA testing to any felony arrestees.

Absent though was agreement on a package that would have financed $240 million in capital improvements, including millions of dollars for Native American water rights settlements, the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, state highway improvements and projects at colleges and universities.

Legislation that also languished included bills increasing penalties for public officials convicted of corruption, ending social promotion in grade schools and reversing course on the state’s practice of issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

Martinez vowed to continue pushing the initiatives and blamed their failure on politics in the Senate.

Martinez herself was accused of playing politics during the session, a charge she flatly denied.

“To fight for the majority of New Mexicans and what they are demanding of their elected officials is not politics. It’s doing the people’s business, and I intend to continue to do so,” she said, flanked by a group of school children outside a Santa Fe elementary school blocks from the state Capitol.

Lawmakers acknowledged that many bills never made it to the House or Senate floor after getting caught in the committee process. They said part of the reason stemmed from a change in the dynamics at the state Capitol with a new conservative governor in control and more Republicans in both chambers.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said it was a productive session and that Senate Democrats were more unified because there was a Republican governor.

“The Democrats, in my opinion, stood up for what they believed in, and I’m really proud of our Democrats,” he said.

Martinez didn’t back down either, and claimed three large victories:

• A locomotive fuel tax deduction targeted to the Union Pacific Railroad, which plans to spend more than $400 million for a rail yard project in Santa Teresa. The project was expected to result in more than 600 permanent jobs.

• School grading based on standardized tests taken by students, the growth of student performance in reading and mathematics, and other factors such as high school graduation rate. Supporters contend the measure will make schools more accountable and help parents understand where their child’s school can make improvements.

• Expansion of “Katie’s Law,” named in memory of Kathryn Sepich, a New Mexico State University student who was raped and murdered in 2003. Sepich’s killer was identified more than three years later with DNA evidence after he was convicted of another crime. Under a compromise worked out late Friday, a DNA sample would be taken upon booking and remain unanalyzed until probable cause is established or the defendant fails to appear in court.

Several of the governor’s other initiatives failed to be revived in the final hours of the session. Those included proposals to reinstate the death penalty and to provide tax credits for people who donate to nonprofits giving private-school scholarships.

The Senate also failed to confirm four of Martinez’s cabinet appointments: Hanna Skandera, Public Education Department; Jon Barela, Economic Development Department; John Bemis, Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department; and Retta Ward, Aging and Long-term Services Department. The secretaries can retain their positions despite the lack of confirmation.

Much of the work done during the session revolved around crafting a blueprint for spending $5.4 billion next year on education and governmental programs.

A critical piece of the budget package will save $111 million next year by lowering government contributions to public employee pensions while state workers and educators offset that by paying more into their retirement programs. The measure also allows the government to skip making higher contributions to an educational pension program.

The other key piece capped rebates at $50 million a year for film production in New Mexico.

Martinez said she will review the budget proposal line and continue to look for permanent savings.

The governor also said she planned to veto a tax increase on employers that is aimed at shoring up the state’s unemployment compensation program. The unemployment fund is projected to run out of money by next March without any changes, but Martinez believes the state has time to change the environment in New Mexico to bring in more jobs and reduce the number of people drawing benefits from the fund.

“The best thing we can do is make sure people get back to work,” she said.