By Daniel J. Chacón/The Santa Fe New Mexican
A routine budget bill to pay staff salaries and fund other operations of a legislative session usually sails through both chambers of the Legislature when lawmakers reconvene in Santa Fe every year.
Not this year, though.
The so-called feed bill, the first piece of legislation considered by both chambers, continued to sow division between Republicans and Democrats on Thursday over a $2.5 million special appropriation to fund a study on the feasibility of creating district offices for legislators with full-time staff. As it currently stands, New Mexico is one of only two states without full-time staff assigned to each legislator. Nevada is the other.
Several Republicans said they aren't opposed to the concept of having staffed offices in each of their districts, part of a larger effort to modernize the Legislature. But they argued such an appropriation should be considered in a standalone piece of legislation that would be part of the state's overall budget, not in a bill meant to keep the lights on at the Roundhouse during the 60-day session.
It was an argument made Wednesday by House Republicans and one GOP senators continued to voice Thursday while discussing and debating House Bill 1.
"The feed bill is really just the cost of doing business," said Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte.
"This isn't a divisive bill — at all," added Diamond, who supports the feasibility study but said it should be considered independently. "The concern is that it's given the appearance that we're trying to do something sneaky and inconsistent, and that is exactly what the public hates about politics."
HB 1 passed both chambers with bipartisan support, though several Republicans voted against it.
The $45.7 million bill includes $11.7 million for the cost of the 60-day session, plus year-round expenses for the Legislative Finance Committee, Legislative Council Service and other agencies, as well as the feasibility study and additional one-time expenses.
Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, said the bill should have been approved with unanimous support, as it usually is, but instead the Legislature added something "that did not belong in there."
Diamond accused the House of turning the bill into a partisan issue.
"I just hope that what the House has done by sending this over and creating a divisiveness does not set the tone of the next 60 days of this Legislature," she said.
Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, defended the measure during a Senate Finance Committee meeting. He said the lack of full-time staff for legislators required immediate action.
"New Mexicans are being shortchanged by the fact that they have at this point in time created a part-time volunteer Legislature without any staff to help work through very complex issues, help deliver the best services to New Mexico to help solve the really challenging issues that we need for our kids, for our crises, for our economic development future," he said. "I feel like the reason it's in this bill is so that we can get that funding and get that work started right away."
HB 1 contains an emergency clause, which means it would be enacted as soon as it is signed into law. The state's budget is for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat who is sponsored HB 1, told senators if the funding is approved, a request for proposals would be issued for a consultant, who would do a study of legislatures throughout the country and look at New Mexico's "unique challenges."
"We have districts that are larger than the state of Rhode Island," she said.
During the Senate floor debate, Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, said the feasibility study was unnecessary. He said the money could be better spent to make the Legislature full-time.
"If it's feasible for Oregon and Texas and North Carolina, how could it not be feasible for us?" he asked. "Can we all in the room agree that it's feasible, that we can do it and ... just take the money, and let's do it?"
Schmedes predicted the state would hire a consultant "to tell us what we want to hear."
"We're going to pay someone $2.5 million to tell us that we can do it, so why don't we skip that step and use the $2.5 to just go and do it?" he said. "Let's just do it. It's feasible. OK, I just told you it's feasible. There's the feasibility study."
After the Senate voted 33-5 to pass HB 1, with all five "no" votes from Republicans, Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, joked whether the state would need to cut Schmedes a check for $2.5 million "since he figured out the feasibility."
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