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Lea lawmakers review 60-day session

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SANTA FE — The first session of the 54th New Mexico Legislature closed Saturday, leaving lawmakers representing Lea County voters both pragmatic and disappointed.

Largely due to the booming oil and gas industry, the 2019 session started with a record budget surplus, a projected billion-dollar surplus for this year, and more than a billion dollars anticipated above this year’s for next year.

Just two years ago, the state faced a budget crisis and Rep. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, hopes oil prices don’t take a drop in the next two years.

“The money’s gone to education, which we really need, but it was too fast, too far, too soon,” Gallegos said. “If oil were to drop in the next two years, we’ll be back to taking money from education because we offered it without having anything in place to sustain it. Hopefully, we won’t go there again.”

He pointed out the Republicans were far outnumbered by the Democrats during this session, 46 to 24.

“They’ve got the numbers with both houses and the governor, so it was very hard to slow them down,” Gallegos said. “The whole thing will just give the residents of New Mexico some more heartburn.”

Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell, evaluated this 60-day session in the same light.

“The progressives carried the day and the conservatives suffered losses across the board. The biggest budget of $7.1 billion passed on top of the biggest surplus ever and was capped with a large increase in taxes,” Anderson said. “The governor’s quote was to the effect that you fix your roof when the sun shines, but I say to myself it’s better not to fix something that isn’t broken. It’s a difference of opinion and their opinion won.”

The only positive side of the session Anderson could address was money for education.

“Public school education was a big winner and I hope our local school boards will make good decisions with the new funding,” he said.

Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, still fuming Monday over the defensive stance Republicans had to take during the 2019 session, said he had only one re s p o n s e before a sit down interview.

He said of the session, “For a conservative legislator, it was pretty brutal.”

Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said at the close of the 2019 legislative session he was generally happy with the session and gave the Senate credit for applying brakes to some House measures.

“I would have done things differently if I had the majority vote,” Ingle said. “The Senate did take measures to make sure we did not overspend, we have heavy reserves, which are needed in case the price of oil drops overnight, and with the strife around the world, that is always a possibility. There is a lot of money going to h i g h way repair that we desperately need in the state, and there is a lot of money going to capital projects.”

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, listed highway repairs as one of her goals going into the legislative session.

“I had two objectives. One was to do everything possible to secure funding for roads in southeast New Mexico. We were successful,” she said. “They put a significant amount of money into roads this year. In the tax reform bill, there’s some good and bad. They moved 1 percent of the excise tax to the road fund and dedicated the first two years of that, about $50 million a year, to southeast New Mexico. That’s really significant and if (the governor) keeps that in place, that’s going to really help.”

Her second objective was to protect the oil and gas industry, also generally successful, such as keeping a fracking ban bill in committee. On the negative side, the Legislature passed a bill that allows the Oil Conservation Division to levy fines up to $200,000 without court approval for any violation in the oil field.

“It’s still a difficult thing. It’s not going to be helpful to the independents,” Kernan said.

Sen. Gregg Fulfer, R-Jal, in his first Senate session since his appointment to the seat, agreed with Ke r n a n’ s assessment of the “Fine Bill,” as he called the le gislation that began as Senate Bill 186.

“The negative side was they passed a penalty where they can charge up to $2,500 a day for any violation and you can’t even fight it through a court until it reaches $200,000,” Fulfer said. “That’s going to hurt the small operators. I think we’re going to see the small operators disappear.”

A bill that provides for computerizing oilfield permits, however, garnered his approval because he anticipates the turnaround time for permit applications will shorten.

Fulfer, assigned to the Senate Education Committee, joined others in applauding the increased funding for public education in New Mexico.

Generally, his assessment of the 2019 legislative session was, “It was an intense session. It started very quickly with that rocket docket. That started the session off in a hurry and it didn’t really slow down.”

The so-called rocket docket was a stack of bills that had been approved unanimously or almost unanimously by recent sessions of the legislature, but which former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez had vetoed.

CURTIS C. WYNNE may be contacted at reporter3@ hobbsnews.com.

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