I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
Legislative committee passes cigarette tax hike
But achieving that result took nearly 24 hours, the collective persuasive powers of legislative leaders and Gov. Bill Richardson, a bit of arm-twisting and some last-minute horse trading by two Democratic lawmakers.
The sheer effort to push the bill out of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee gives one a sense of how difficult the New Mexico Legislature is finding it to pass out a state budget.
The cigarette tax bill, which would generate $33 million, is a cornerstone of a state budget deal that lawmakers put together last week and is now before the Legislature.
The bill advanced only after a full-court press on two Democratic representatives who had joined with GOP lawmakers Monday to defeat the bill on an 8-7 vote.
Those two Democrats–Representatives Sandra Jeff of Crownpoint and Andrew Barreras of Tome–changed their minds Tuesday, voting for the bill, but only after legislative leaders agreed to direct $10 million of the $33 million generated by the tax into public education.
“It’s going to go straight to the public education department,” Jeff said before the meeting. “I would think Democrats would come together on this issue because we are concerned about education.”
The proposed budget deal before the Legislature would cut public education by 1.2 percent. The $10 million from the cigarette tax would help cushion that cut, Jeff and Barreras both said prior to Tuesday’s committee meeting.
Before Tuesday’s vote both Jeff and Barreras had promised to not support the tax legislation unless it directed money to public education was added.
Their resolution came after both had met with Richardson, Democratic legislative leaders and tribal leaders who lobbied them to change their votes after their Monday night opposition to the bill.
Jeff summed up their collective message to her as “OK, you’ve made your point, now let’s work together.”
Tuesday’s passage of the cigarette tax bill was viewed as important to the survival of the tentative budget deal. And interest was especially keen on the Senate side, where lawmakers were waiting to hear the news of the legislation’s fate.
“We’re giving them time to reconsider the bill,” Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, had said early Tuesday.
The Legislature is considering several other tax proposals to help close a projected shortfall next year of several hundred million dollars. Those include a quarter-cent increase of the state’s gross receipts tax. The proposed budget also calls for roughly $100 million in cuts.
The interest in the cigarette tax bill was evident by the standing-room only crowd Tuesday afternoon.
“Is this the best show in town,” quipped Taxation and Revenue committee chairman, Rep. Edward Sandoval, R-Albuquerque.
Several audience members responded: “It’s the only show in town.”
Rep. Janice Arnold Jones, R-Albuquerque, who has webcast Taxation and Revenue Committee meetings since last year, said she recorded her second-highest number of viewers, 47. (Some of those were likely watching through The Independent’s live blog, where the video was embedded.)
With Jeff and Barreras voting for the cigarette tax, Democratic lawmakers easily overpowered Republic opposition.
“I know what we are doing here,” said House Minority Whip Keith Gardner, R-Roswell. “We’re trying to say ‘Vote for this tax increase because it would go to schools,’” but he strongly opposed the measure.
For most of Tuesday morning people tried to understand how the cigarette tax bill had gone down to defeat.
Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, the sponsor of the bill, blamed the bill’s rejection Monday night on a full-court press by tobacco lobbyists. The industry sent out e-mails and lobbied lawmakers outside the committee hearings, Chasey said.
But Jeff and Barreras said Tuesday that the tobacco lobby had played no role in their opposition to the cigarette tax bill Monday night. The lawmakers said they were tired of seeing public schools cut and wanted money put back into public schools.
“We have to remember our kids,” Jeff said.