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Early 2013 bills take aim at corruption, drunken driving [The Santa Fe New Mexican]

By Steve Terrell, The Santa Fe New Mexican
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Dec. 30--Hundreds of bills will be considered in next year's Legislature, a few of which already have been pre-filed.

As of Friday afternoon, according to the Legislature's website, 35 bills had been filed by House members, while another 22 had been filed by senators. In addition, lawmakers already have filed a handful of non-binding memorials and resolutions.

The 2013 Legislature convenes Tuesday, Jan. 15. The session this year is 60 days.

Here's a look at some of the legislation already on the table.

Tackling corruption: Once again, Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, is sponsoring a bill aimed at discouraging bribery, kickbacks and other shady activities that have caused scandal in state government in the past several years. His House Bill 13 is similar to previous bills Gentry sponsored that passed the House but died in the Senate.

Gentry's bill would allow judges to add a year to the sentences of public officials convicted of specified corruption-related crimes. It also would prohibit officials convicted of these crimes from ever becoming lobbyists or being awarded government contracts.

Qualifications for public regulation commissioners: Speaking of scandals and corruption, voters in November passed a constitutional amendment requiring the Legislature to establish minimum requirements for members of the Public Regulation Commission, which in recent years has suffered many scandals -- most notably former Commissioner Jerome Block Jr., who resigned after pleading guilty to several felonies, including fraud.

Senate Bill 13, sponsored by Sen. Tim Keller, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Farmington, would require commissioners to have a college degree ("an institution of higher learning that is accredited by a regional or national accrediting body and that requires face-to-face contact between its students and instructors prior to completion of the academic program") as well as at least seven years experience in a field including areas regulated by the commission: engineering, finance, economics, law, accounting or consumer protection and advocacy.

While the bill currently would require both a college degree and seven years of work experience, Keller said last week that he expects that before the bill clears the Legislature, it will be amended to require a college degree or the years of work experience.

Expect more bills dealing with the regulatory commission. In addition to the qualifications amendment, voters also passed amendments to move the corporations division of the commission to the Secretary of State's Office and to make the Insurance Division an independent agency. Both of these will require legislation.

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Other controversial state agencies: Other bills that originated in scandals are those dealing with state agencies that oversee large amounts of money.

First, there is the New Mexico Finance Authority, which is responsible for financing large projects for state and local governments. The agency was shaken this year when it was discovered that Greg Campbell, who was in charge of its accounting operations, had submitted a fake audit. Campbell, who resigned in June, pleaded guilty to forgery and securities fraud in November and received a sentence of five years of probation.

Keller said SB 12, co-sponsored by Rep. Jim White, R-Albuquerque, would overhaul how members are chosen. The bill would require members of the 11-member board that oversees the authority to have 10 years work experience in fields including banking, accounting, law, public planning or engineering. Members would serve staggered terms to assure institutional memory. "When this fake audit was submitted, the board was all brand new," Keller said. And while the governor would appoint the majority of members, the leaders of the Legislature would get to appoint four members, Keller said.

The State Investment Council, which oversees $15 billion of the state's permanent funds, has stabilized in recent years, but beginning in 2009 the council became the center of federal investigations over millions of dollars in finder's fees paid to broker Marc Correra, son of a political ally of then-Gov. Bill Richardson. Correra, who left the country, never was charged with any crime.

SB 9, sponsored by Sen. Steve Neville, R-Farmington and co-sponsored by Keller, would remove all elected officials from the council, which currently includes the governor, the state treasurer and the state land commissioner. Neville and Keller have carried similar bills in the past, but no governor has ever signed them.

Drunken driving: Creating harsher laws dealing with intoxicated drivers is a near-perennial issue for lawmakers. HB 32, sponsored by Rep. Tim Lewis, R-Rio Rancho, would increase the penalties for repeat DWI offenders.

Under this bill, someone convicted of a fourth drunken-driving charge would get a mandatory sentence of 30 months in prison, 18 months of which could not be deferred or suspended. Currently, the sentence is 18 months in prison, six months of which cannot be deferred or suspended.

Sentences for fifth, sixth and seventh convictions also would require more mandatory prison time than the current law requires. And someone convicted of an eighth or subsequent offense would be guilty of a second-degree felony and serve at least 10 years in prison.

Texting and driving: Another driving safety bill that has been pre-filed is one aimed at texting while driving. SB 17, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, would prohibit people reading, viewing or typing messages on a "mobile communication device," such as a cellphone, while operating a motor vehicle.

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Though some experts say that drivers who are reading or sending text messages are as dangerous as drunken drivers, previous bills outlawing the practice have failed to pass the Legislature.

Taxing matters: Once again, Wirth also will attempt to pass a bill he and other proponents say would make out-of-state corporations pay their fair share of taxes. Wirth's SB 13 would change the way corporations are taxed while actually lowering the rate at which they are taxed. Last year, Wirth was successful in passing a similar bill, though it was amended so it would have applied only to "big box stores." However, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed that bill.

Meanwhile, Keller and Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, D-Santa Fe, are sponsoring a bill to require the executive to compile an annual "tax expenditure budget" analyzing the effect of deductions, credits and exemptions in the state tax code. The Legislature has passed such bills in the past, but both Martinez and her predecessor, Richardson, have vetoed them. Last year, Martinez ordered a tax expenditure report be performed. But Keller and others were critical of the report that was published earlier this year, saying that less than half of the tax expenditures were analyzed and that the report didn't specify how many jobs had been created by each tax incentive.

Keller said that SB 7 is different from previous bills in that the administration would look at the total number of tax expenditures over a five-year period -- analyzing 20 percent of the total each year.

Campaign finance disclosure: Wirth is sponsoring SB 15, which would require independent-expenditure groups such as political action committees to disclose their contributors. Wirth has carried similar bills during the two previous sessions. Both times, Wirth has been successful in the Senate, getting strong bipartisan support. However, both years the bill died in the House.

Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at www.roundhouseroundup.com.

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(c)2012 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

Visit The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) at www.santafenewmexican.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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