Inside the Capitol

Monday, March 16, 2009

3-18 The Final Days

WED, 3-18-09

SANTA FE - With the final days of the 2009 Legislature staring us in the face, it is now obvious where most everything is headed.
Budget decisions have been made but await a special session in the spring or summer if the economy changes more than expected. New Mexico's cuts won't be as great as in states that had more booming economies.
Teachers and state employees will be required to assume a larger portion of their employers' retirement contributions. That means their take home pay will decrease. The state budget surplus remains at a healthy 13 percent.
As for other major or well-publicized items, ethics will get its usual short shrift. As with other important items, such as education and health care, everyone talks about ethics but somehow little ever happens. It is difficult to believe most lawmakers care nothing about ethics, so the fault must be with legislative leaders.
The public's desire for a legislative and political system that is open and honest should be a no-brainer. But despite predictions from legislative leaders, who oppose ethics legislation, that significant improvements will be made this year in spite of them, very little is happening.
As usual, a small tidbit is tossed out so everyone can brag. A bill establishing limits on political contributions passed the Senate with only one dissenting vote and should easily clear the House.
The $2,300 limit is low for a gubernatorial candidate but ridiculously high for legislative candidates. They don't often receive that much but it will now become a goal.
The bill, as passed by the Senate, does nothing to prohibit contributions from lobbyists or contractors doing business with the state, so it doesn't solve any immediate problems.
But while going easy on themselves, lawmakers have enthusiastically tackled the new nonprofit groups that ended some longtime legislative careers last year. Senate Bill 652 would allow citizens or politicians to go to court to block the political activity of any organization until that organization discloses the source of its funding.
Webcasting of legislative proceedings is another sure bet, even though legislative leaders don't want it. They got outflanked by independent reporters who are having great fun. They have announced plans to continue, unhampered by legislative rules.
To head that off, the Senate passed a bill unanimously to do the webcasting itself and impose many rules. If the restrictions get too ridiculous, the independents are sure to be back in business again next year.
If the House passes the Senate version, only one camera will be used. It will be in the back of the room. It can't focus on lawmakers' desks and the transmissions will not be archived. They don't want anyone using recordings for future political ads.
Reportedly the opposition to efforts to encourage smaller school buildings is coming from the Albuquerque Public Schools. Admittedly, it will be difficult for large districts with large buildings to cut back. But reasonable-sounding alternatives have been proposed.
Students in buildings that already are overly large can be broken down into smaller learning communities. Some big schools in other larger cities already are doing that with noticeable improvements in discipline, dropouts and student performance.
If it works, why not give it a chance? Many of New Mexico's larger districts say they're willing to give it a go. But Albuquerque continues to drag its feet. In fact, it has announced that it plans to build a third football stadium despite its tight financial situation.
Obviously diehard athletic supporters are hard to change but Albuquerque's problem may be different. It is one of the 50 largest school districts in the nation. And proud of it. Very proud of it. So proud that even the mention of the word "smaller" sends shivers down its spine.
The current effort has nothing to do with splitting up the Albuquerque Public Schools, but one would never know it from the APS actions.

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