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Legislature: New Members, Old Issues

Santa Fe Roundhouse
Santa Fe Roundhouse
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SANTA FE – Fresh off a bruising election season, New Mexico’s 112 part-time legislators arrive at the state Capitol this week for a 60-day session that promises new faces in key leadership positions, debate over how to spend “new money” and renewed battles over Gov. Susana Martinez’s agenda.

Martinez, a Republican, will enter her third regular session with a Legislature still controlled by Democrats, as it has been for decades.

Although Martinez has pledged to work with Democratic lawmakers, some legislative veterans are wary and say New Mexicans are growing impatient with partisan battles over high-profile issues, such as education and public safety.

“If we start looking the way Congress does – we just block and (Martinez) just vetoes – it’s going to be a pox on both our houses,” said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque.

(See Deborah Baker’s roundup of what’s on the menu)

The Martinez administration argues that New Mexico has struggled in key areas, such as education, under Democratic control and that lawmakers should be more receptive to new ideas.

“I don’t need a poll to tell me that we need to do better and that for the last decade we’ve been doing things the same way and there’s been no improvement,” Martinez told the Journal in a recent interview. “It’s common sense that there has to be reform and there has to be reform now for our kids to start benefiting in the near future.”

Awaiting lawmakers’ action are a wide range of proposals, including solvency fixes for the state’s cash-strapped public retirement systems, tax cuts for state businesses, tougher anti-DWI laws and more money for early childhood education.

The governor’s push to require third-grade students who do not show adequate reading proficiency to repeat the grade level will be debated once again, after being stymied during the last two regular sessions.

Also in line for renewed debate is the fate of the controversial 2003 law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses.

As always, there is the constitutionally mandated duty to pass a balanced budget for the coming fiscal year. With new revenue projected to be in the pipeline, state spending will likely increase for a second-straight year, following three consecutive years of budget cuts.

“We’ve got 60 days to get the job done, and there’s a point at which that stuff has to be put on the sidelines,” said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, referring to any election fallout and partisan squabbles. “Hopefully, there’s enough dialogue and conversation that we can get that done.”

Meanwhile, 35 new lawmakers – the biggest freshman class in decades – could keep forecasters guessing and might shake up things in the Roundhouse.

There will be 15 new members in the Senate and 20 new members in the House, though two of the newcomers to the Senate are former House members Bill O’Neill of Albuquerque and Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, both Democrats who successfully switched chambers during last year’s election cycle.

New leaders

Changes in leadership in both legislative chambers will mark a new political era and could affect the direction of this year’s 60-day regular session.

In the House, Rep. Ken Martinez of Grants, who has served as the Democratic floor leader, is expected to succeed longtime House Speaker Ben Lujan of Nambé, who died last month after a long battle with lung cancer.

Things are not so clear in the Senate, where a pair of Democrats are vying to take over the office being vacated by Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell. Jennings was defeated in his November re-election bid by Republican Cliff Pirtle.

Sen. Pete Campos of Las Vegas was nominated by Democrats in December to be the next president pro tem. But Sen. Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, a more conservative Democrat, said last week that she has the pledged backing of at least six Democrats, possibly more.

“I have the votes, and they’re firm,” Papen told reporters.

Those Democrats could become part of a bipartisan coalition and vote Papen into office with the support of the 17 Senate Republicans.

Martinez told the Journal last week that she has stayed out of leadership jockeying, but said she believes she could work well with either Papen or Campos.

House Republicans also shuffled their leadership during the buildup to this year’s session, electing Rep. Donald Bratton of Hobbs as their new floor leader and Rep. Nate Gentry of Albuquerque as their whip.

Devil’s in the details

As in most legislative sessions, much of lawmakers’ work will revolve around one thing – money.

Many of the bills – whether they’re new tax breaks for small businesses or salary increases for state government workers – come with a price tag.

That spells competition for the estimated $283 million in “new money” available for the upcoming budget year. The incoming tax revenue is in excess of the $5.6 billion in state spending for the current year.

Both Martinez and the Legislative Finance Committee have laid out spending proposals for the upcoming fiscal year that call for roughly $5.9 billion in state spending.

Some differences in the plans leap out, such as the Legislature’s proposal to give state workers a base salary increase for the first time since 2008, while the governor’s budget has no money for an across-the-board increase.

But details, rather than the total dollar amount, are also likely to trigger disagreements.

For instance, Martinez has proposed a $50 million job-creation package that includes trimming the state’s corporate income tax rate and the tax credits for small businesses. The package is designed to make the state more economically competitive with its neighbors.

Some Democratic lawmakers say they would like to see spending increased in other areas instead.

“I’m certainly not in favor of giving businesses a handout, when we have state agencies and an education system that don’t have enough workers and have had their budgets cut,” said Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.

Pension solvency

Meanwhile, the worsening solvency crunches faced by the state’s two large public retirement systems – the Public Employees Retirement Association and the Educational Retirement Board – could require a bigger injection of state funding.

Burdened by growing future liabilities, both pension funds spent much of last year honing their own solvency plans. Those plans will be debated during the 60-day session, and top-ranking lawmakers say the time has come to take action.

“All of us realize that the quicker you make changes to address those shortfalls, the better off it’s going to be for the long-term solvency of those programs,” GOP House leader Bratton said.

Martinez opposes increasing taxpayer-funded contributions into the retirement programs, but the Governor’s Office is not expected to put forward its own pension reform proposals.

Session dynamics

The Legislature passed 77 bills during the 2012 legislative session, the fewest for a 30-day session since 1976. Martinez then vetoed 13 of those bills, signing the rest of them into law.

Some legislators say a smaller-than-normal bill output could happen again this year, partly because of the philosophical differences between the Governor’s Office and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

New Mexicans can expect the 60-day session to get off to a slow start this year, Stewart said, in large part because of the number of newly elected lawmakers and the need for new legislative leaders to be elected and given time to make committee assignments.

“The challenge you always have when you have a large amount of new people is educating them so they understand the importance of the issues,” Bratton added.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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