Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The New Mexico Roundhouse has been a grim citadel for much of the past two years, as lawmakers have grappled with persistent revenue shortfalls and dug battle lines over hot-button issues.
But with a 30-day session set to begin Tuesday, the state’s 112 legislators can put away the budget scalpels as an improving fiscal situation has brightened spirits and led to renewed talk of bipartisan collaboration.
“I have not felt like either side of the aisle, or the executive, is gearing up for a fight,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, in a recent interview. “I think it would be great if we can show the people of New Mexico that government can work and not just light each other up with (negative) tweets.”
This year’s session marks Gov. Susana Martinez’s final regular session in office – she is barred from seeking a third consecutive term – and the two-term Republican governor has identified education, economic competitiveness and public safety as her top priorities.
While many of her initiatives, including a push to reimpose New Mexico’s death penalty for certain violent offenses, have stalled in recent years due to resistance from the Democratic-controlled Legislature, the governor says she does not plan to relent in her last year.
In a recent interview, she expressed optimism that her final session would be a productive one, but vowed to hold lawmakers accountable if they try to derail legislation to deny her political victories.
“I will make sure the people know what they did and what they didn’t do,” Martinez told the Journal.
However, the governor has also rolled out a $6.3 billion spending plan for the coming year that features many of the same elements as a legislative budget recommendation, including pay raises for state employees and teachers, more funding for Medicaid and public schools and an increased investment in child care assistance and other early childhood programs.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers will likely be keeping an eye on the horizon, as the 30-day session will play out at the start of a busy election year.
All 70 House seats will be up for election in November, though state senators will not be up for re-election. In addition, voters will pick a new governor and cast ballots for other statewide offices – including attorney general, auditor, treasurer and land commissioner.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said some big-ticket issues will likely be on hold until 2019, including a comprehensive update of the state’s criminal code.
“The idea that you just pass penalty bills is not a solution I support,” Wirth said, while describing the push to bring back the death penalty as a “nonstarter” for the coming session.
As in most legislative sessions, money is expected to play a prominent role.
After two consecutive years of lower-than-expected revenue collections, legislators will have an estimated $199 million in “new” money available for the budget year starting in July. That figure could go even higher when new estimates are released about halfway through the session.
At least some of the available dollars are expected to be used to replenish the state’s depleted cash reserves, but there should be enough money to backfill some state programs and funds that were raided in recent years.
“The biggest issue in the last several years was solvency,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairwoman of the Legislative Finance Committee. “We were looking under every cabbage leaf and at every possible pot of money.”
Much of the state’s economic turnaround has been driven by an increase in oil and natural gas production in southeastern New Mexico, though the Governor’s Office has touted growth in other sectors as proof that efforts to diversify the state’s economy have been successful.
While some lawmakers dispute that claim, there’s a sense of general relief that additional spending cuts won’t be necessary, at least for now.
“It will be a little easier than it has been, because we won’t have to cut budgets,” said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, a Portales Republican.
“We’re not going to go on a big spending spree, but having more revenue certainly makes everyone happier,” Wirth said.
Lawmakers are also expected to resume a debate about overhauling the state’s gross receipts tax code, which some have likened to “Swiss cheese” because of its numerous allowable exemptions and deductions.
But previous attempts to enact tax overhaul have failed, due largely to the complexity of the tax code and concern that enacting changes could lead to unforeseen consequences.
“The specifics of what a comprehensive tax bill might include will involve a lot of discussions,” Gov. Martinez acknowledged in a recent interview.
However, she said lawmakers should not treat tax overhaul like a “new subject” after many hours of debate on the issue during last year’s legislative session.
240 bills pre-filed
More than 240 pieces of legislation had been filed as of late Friday, but many bills won’t be debated, let alone enacted into law.
That’s because the 30-day legislative sessions held in even-numbered years are, for the most part, limited in scope to budget-related bills and legislation the governor adds to lawmakers’ to-do list.
One bill that is expected to move quickly is legislation to adopt a multistate compact that allows nurses licensed elsewhere to work in New Mexico.
The state faces a deadline of Friday – three days into the legislative session – to sign on to the new compact, and Martinez has said she wants the bill on her desk as soon as possible to sign into law.
Lawmakers appear poised to make that happen, as Wirth indicated that the legislation could be approved by the full Senate as soon as Wednesday, the session’s second day. It would then have to be ratified by the House.
Supporters say approval is critical because nurses working under the multistate compact fill as much as 80 percent of the workforce at some hospitals, especially in rural and border areas.
“This is vital to the health of New Mexicans,” said Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, one of the bill’s sponsors. “We don’t have enough nurses in New Mexico, so nurses from other states give us more access to care.”
Several legislators rose to new leadership positions last year – a shuffling prompted by 2016 election results – and there has been more legislative upheaval in recent months.
Sen. Michael Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat, was stripped of his leadership post last month due to decade-old sexual harassment allegations that stemmed from his tenure running Albuquerque’s emergency call center.
Senate Democrats are slated to elect a new whip on Monday, and at least three senators are vying for the position.
The larger issue of sexual misconduct at the Roundhouse has also come under scrutiny, as female lobbyists and legislators have described the state Capitol as a minefield of inappropriate comments, leering looks and sexual propositions.
Legislative leaders are working to revise their anti-harassment policy, and legislators are being required to attend sexual harassment training on Monday. It will mark the first time since 2004 that such training has been offered to lawmakers.