By Barry Massey and Russell Contreras
The Associated Press
SANTA FE — As the New Mexico Legislature returned to work Tuesday, Gov. Susana Martinez used her State of the State address to press lawmakers to focus on boosting New Mexico’s struggling economy.
Martinez spoke to a joint session of the House and Senate after legislators convened for a 60-day session, taking the opportunity to say that diversifying New Mexico’s economy was needed to protect the state from a federal government that she called “dysfunctional.”
“The national economy is stagnant. It’s hardly growing,” Martinez said. “And the federal government — on which our state has become so dependent over the years — is faltering, weighed down by $16 trillion in debt.”
Economic and budget issues were possible common ground for the Republican governor and the Democrat-controlled Legislature. New Mexico has lost about 4,800 jobs in the past year — a drop of 0.6 percent — and potential federal budget cuts could deliver another blow to the state’s economy.
Martinez asked the Legislature to approve a reduction in the corporate income tax rate, as well as other economic development incentives to make New Mexico more competitive with neighboring states in recruiting and retaining private businesses.
Martinez and lawmakers agree that New Mexico needs to diversify what has long been an economy that depends heavily on government spending, including funding for military installations as well as Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories.
Martinez, however, said federal government jobs in the state were declining.
“The opportunity to forge a new path and shape our destiny is before us. It’s an opportunity defined not by decisions made in Washington, but by the hard work and ingenuity of New Mexicans.”
Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said Democrats were willing to work with the governor on strengthening the economy but would not support tax cuts the benefit non-New Mexico companies. He also said Democrats could not support tax breaks for the wealthy that would potentially decrease education funding.
“Building a more attractive business climate takes more than tax breaks,” said Sanchez.
In addition, Sanchez said state lawmakers passed a series of economic initiatives during the previous session, only to see them vetoed by the governor. He vowed to push for state employee pension overhauls and a pay a raise for state employees, including public school teachers.
Martinez also said she plans to renew several proposals that Democrats have blocked in the past two years, including a measure to stop the state from issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and to hold back third-graders if they aren’t reading proficiently.
Her request to reintroduce a repeal of the driver’s license law — which she said has a majority of the support of state residents — draw a long standing ovation from Republican lawmakers. Immigrant right groups, however, have vowed to oppose any repeal attempt and said lawmakers should focus on ending fraud instead.
Sanchez said Democrats were willing to compromise on the issue. He said, however, that Martinez and Republicans were “playing politics” by bringing up a proposal that has failed twice. He dismissed the measure as a “wedge issue” meant to stir up emotions rather than solve problems. Sanchez also said other states were considering an immigrant driver’s license bill similar to the one in New Mexico.
The governor also intends to push for merit pay for teachers and school administrators who succeed in boosting student performance. To highlight her efforts toward stronger reading scores in schools, the governor invited a first-grader to read a portion of his book called “The Governor Rocks.” He read to lawmakers that he wanted to be a news reporter or police officer.
Nearly a third of House and Senate members are new to their posts. Democrats hold a 38-32 majority in the House and a 27-15 advantage in the Senate.