*Editor’s Note: Story updated to reflect new proposed rebate estimates.
SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – For the second year in a row, unfinished business is drawing New Mexico’s lawmakers back to the Roundhouse almost immediately after they finished a regular session. This time, amid a controversial veto from the Governor, high gas prices, and inflationary pressure, lawmakers are considering two high-dollar items — one of which could put cash payouts of $500 to $1,000 into New Mexican’s pockets.
Legislators will meet for a special session starting today, April 5. It comes just 47 days after a contentious end to the 2022 regular session, where Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham vetoed a $50.4 million spending package.
Following the veto, lawmakers considered the possibility of calling an “extraordinary session” to re-work the vetoed bill. That would have meant that three-fifths of the lawmakers decided to call the entire legislature back into session. Such an extraordinary session only happened one other time in recent memory — back in 2002.
Before lawmakers called an extraordinary session, the Governor called a “special session,” meaning the governor, not the legislators, has the say in what topics the session covers. This time around, lawmakers will gather at the Roundhouse to reconsider the spending package, often referred to as the “junior bill.” They’ll also consider economic relief from high gas prices and inflation, which could result in New Mexicans possibly receiving hundreds of dollars each.
The big “junior bill”
During the 2022 regular legislative session, lawmakers passed a $50.4 million spending package they hoped would support New Mexicans throughout the state. The funds were intended for projects ranging from food security programs and homelessness aid to new equipment for various police departments throughout New Mexico. And the bill made it all the way through the legislative process only to be vetoed by the Governor.
“Despite its nickname, SB 48 [the junior bill] is anything but ‘junior,’ Governor Grisham wrote in her veto message to the New Mexico State Senate. “It is littered with tens of millions of appropriations.”
The final, vetoed version of the bill has a long list of expenditures. In fact, there are 499 individual projects funded in the bill.
How does that compare to last year’s junior bill? Well, it depends on how you look at it.
A simple total of every appropriation in the 2021 junior bill adds up to more than $200 million — about three times as much as the failed 2022 bill.
But, that’s because the 2021 bill had a few huge expenses tacked on. For example, it included $75 million in nonrecurring funds for broadband and another $100 million to repay federal unemployment trust fund loans, according to a Legislative Finance Committee fiscal impact report.
Without those, the 2021 bill authorized more than $37 million in appropriations. About $9.4 million of that is recurring.
Generally, the expenses within the junior bill are requested by legislators across New Mexico. They submit funding requests for projects within their districts. Then, the requests are compiled into the bill. In the vetoed 2022 bill, legislators asked for a wide range of projects, big and small.
For example, had the junior bill passed, the New Mexico Department of Health was slated to get $760,000 for sexually transmitted infection and reproductive care. The Public Education Department was on the list for $160,000 to work with a nonprofit to expand career paths for New Mexican students entering the film industry. The Department of Environment was set to get $300,000 to protect the public from per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS), just to name a few projects.
On the smaller end of the list of projects, the Crime Victim Reparations Commission was set to get $50,000 for the treatment of sexual assault victims. Another $50,000 would have gone to the Anthony Library in Doña Ana County.
Many of the projects could still be funded. The Governor recently said that she’s willing to work with legislators to pass a new junior bill if legislators are transparent about the money.
“We’re going to put another $50 million [in a junior bill],” she said to constituents during a public appearance on April 1. “As long as [legislators] tell New Mexicans where their money is going.”
But Senator George Munoz (D-Cibola, McKinley, and San Juan) told KRQE News 13 that the bill was already “more than transparent.” And that the veto caught legislators off-guard.
“It was a surprise,” he says. “It was really harsh for legislators to work hard on projects and to meet with constituents and try to solve the needs in the state.” But, he expects a new version to sail through the special session without too much trouble.
“Money in pockets” rebates
On top of re-considering the junior bill, legislators will consider ways to give New Mexicans economic relief.
Monday afternoon, Democratic leadership in the New Mexico House and Senate unveiled their expected proposal for rebate checks, giving some insight into what this relief might look like. Representative Christine Chandler (D-Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, Sandoval and Santa Fe) said that individuals could likely expect a total of $500 split between two payments.
People filing their taxes jointly can expect twice that amount, $1,000, she added. One payment will likely come in the spring, the other in the fall.
House Speaker Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe), said those amounts were calculated in relation to gasoline prices and the average amount of driving New Mexicans do. And non-tax filers will likely also have a chance to get a payout, he says, through some sort of application. Still, the exact details — and perhaps even the exact amounts of the rebates — have to be worked out during the special session.
Some New Mexicans will already be getting a tax rebate in July thanks to House Bill 163, passed in the 2022 session. That gives single or married individuals filing separately a $250 tax rebate if they make less than $75,000 a year. Married individuals and some other New Mexicans are eligible for a $500 rebate if they make less than $150,000 a year. But the Governor says there may be more money coming via the special session.
“It’s about getting money back in the hands and pockets of New Mexicans — money in pockets,” she said. “We’re gonna spend a day figuring out ways to give you back the money that you’ve been giving us successfully, so that we can invest in New Mexico.”
In the eyes of some legislators, a key hardship for New Mexicans has been the recent high gas prices and rising inflation across the state. And they’re hoping to provide some help during the special session. After all, the state has recently seen an increase in funds due to higher gas prices. That’s because each time oil is pumped out of the New Mexico earth, the state collects severance tax money. And a 2021 report estimates that severance tax collections will exceed $1.3 billion in the fiscal year 2022.
“We’re at a point in New Mexico, where we ought to think about returning a significant portion of this severance tax money back to New Mexicans like many other energy-producing states like Alaska,” says Representative Jim Townsend (R-Chaves, Eddy and Otero). And while it’s not clear exactly how legislation might play out in the special session, he says that any bill that sends money back to New Mexicans is likely to receive wide support, so long as there aren’t too many restrictions on the money.