SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez announced Wednesday she will convene a special session of the Legislature to try and plug a budget shortfall linked a downturn in oil and natural gas markets and also push for a vote on whether to reinstate the death penalty.
A spokesman for the governor said the Legislature will meet Friday, after more than 60 days of unfruitful negotiations between the governor and Democratic lawmakers over just how to restore depleted operating reserves and fix a projected general fund deficit for the current year.
“It appears that Senate Democrats would rather play political games that could shut down the government rather than solve our budget challenges,” spokesman Mike Lonergan said in a statement. “The governor believes we need to act now.”
The decision sets the stage for public debate on taxes and government spending and the emotionally charged issue of capital punishment less than six weeks ahead of November general elections that could shift the balance of power in the New Mexico Legislature. Republicans are defending a House majority, and Democrats control the Senate.
New Mexico depends on oil and natural gas revenues more than almost any other state and has watched its operating reserves dwindle into negative territory amid a sustained downturn in energy prices.
Martinez opposes any tax increases and has directed agencies under her control to decrease spending during the current budget year by 5 percent, without yet outlining details of proposed cuts publicly. State economists say the 5 percent cuts won’t be enough to bridge the shortfall, and a Senate Democrat at the helm of budget negotiations says new revenue streams are likely needed.
Moody’s Investors Services has placed the state’s finances under review for a possible downgrade of debt ratings — a move that could lead to higher borrowing costs on projects including school construction.
Where some energy-dependent states have increased taxes or tapped into rainy-day funds, New Mexico has burned through operating reserves and appears almost certain to tap into a $219 million savings account of settlement funds from major Tobacco companies.
The state continues to scour agency and even school district accounts for idle cash, and appears likely to claw back unspent funds that had been earmarked for capital spending projects.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, the Democratic chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee that drafts the state budget, said satisfying credit agencies is “going to take more than frantically digging into the couch cushions for find loose change.”
“Moody’s is looking for structural change,” he wrote this week in a legislative newsletter. “That means new revenue or significant cuts, although the best approach should involve both.”
New Mexico repealed the death penalty in 2009 with the support of Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, replacing lethal injection with a sentence of life in prison. The effort by Martinez to restore capital punishment follows the killings in southern New Mexico of two police officers in separate shootings in August and September by wanted fugitives, plus last month’s horrific sexual assault, killing and dismemberment of 10-year-old girl Victoria Martens in Albuquerque.
The governor’s spokesman expressed hope that the special session will be brief.
“But that all depends on whether the Senate will take our pressing challenges seriously, including crime issues, or if they will continue to play games,” he wrote.
Martinez also will call for consideration of three-strikes legislation that would impose life sentences on those who commit three violent felonies, as well as an expansion of mandatory life sentencing against those convicted of intentional child abuse resulting in death that raises the maximum age for victims to from 12 to 17.