Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, NM)

A Fresh Start.(New Mexico & The West)

Byline: Loie Fecteau Journal Politics Writer

Changes build hopes for cooperation between Democrats, governor

SANTA FE No one is predicting a walk in the park, but there are forecasts this year of more cooperation between the New Mexico Legislature's majority Democrats and Republican Gov. Gary Johnson.

Still, the operative word is "maybe" as the Legislature prepares to convene its 60-day session with a State of the State address from Johnson at noon Tuesday.

Creating this new opportunity is a mix of ingredients:

* More than $400 million in new money for lawmakers to spend;

* A new House speaker, following the defeat of longtime Democratic Speaker Raymond Sanchez in the November election;

* 25 freshman legislators elected in November; and

* A "new" Johnson, who promises to communicate more with legislative leaders.

State budget and education issues are expected to top the agenda of the latest lawmaking session. Other prominent issues probably will include health care, tax cuts and economic development.

However, because it's one of New Mexico's so-called "long sessions" of the Legislature, it will be wide open to any issue.

The state's 112 legislators probably also will consider topics ranging from buying the two private prisons in Hobbs and Santa Rosa to campaign finance reform to getting rid of the death penalty.

They will try to do all this before a constitutional deadline for ending the regular session at noon March 17.

Potential showstoppers include Johnson's controversial push to reform drug laws and the unresolved issue of Indian gambling.

Electricity deregulation will be back on the legislative scene, as will finding a long-term solution for paying for public school construction.

The underlying and all-important budget battle is expected to rage along familiar turf.

Competing interests will include how much of a pay raise to give public school teachers and whether there is enough extra money to enact Johnson's $75 million personal income tax cut proposal.

Democratic legislative leaders said they hope to reach agreement on the budget with Johnson during the regular session, avoiding the familiar development of a subsequent special session.

"We're hopeful," said Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon, D-Albuquerque. "We're going to work real hard to get it (the budget) up there in time for him to sign within the session."

Johnson has not been shy about butting heads with Democratic legislative leaders, nor about wielding his veto pen, during the six years he's been in office. However, Johnson said last week that he is more optimistic than ever before about the upcoming session.

"I'm going to predict the best session of all sessions when it comes to tone," the governor said. "Outcome may not be any different, but, with regard to tone, I think that this will be the best session."

Johnson said he is particularly encouraged that the House will have a new speaker because of the defeat of Sanchez in House District 15. …

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