SANTA FE – A year ago, with New Mexico’s budget running on fumes, Democrats and Republicans clashed over state finances, crime and gun control.
But a much different story is playing out in this year’s legislative session.
From the budget to crime, Republicans and Democrats are finding common ground inside the Roundhouse. They even sent a substantial bill – adopting a multistate licensing compact for nurses – to Republican Gov. Susana Martinez by the session’s third day.
“I think that’s foreshadowing what’s to come,” Democratic Sen. Bill O’Neill of Albuquerque said. “The instinct is here to work together.”
Democrats hold a 38-32 majority in the House – usually the more partisan of the two chambers – and a 26-16 edge in the Senate.
But there’s no shortage of legislation picking up bipartisan support:
• A $6.3 billion budget cleared the House on a 65-3 vote Wednesday. The massive proposal is the top priority in this year’s session, which is generally dedicated to budget and tax measures.
In last year’s regular session, by contrast, a budget and tax package narrowly passed the House along party lines.
This year’s debate isn’t over. The proposal is now in hands of the Senate, where substantial changes are possible.
And the Martinez administration has already blasted the budget as “soft on crime” and full of “pork projects.”
• An omnibus crime bill, supported by the highest-ranking Democrat and Republican in the House, won approval 66-1 in that chamber Friday and now moves to the Senate.
The proposal would increase penalties for violent felons caught with firearms, provide retention bonuses to veteran police officers and reclassify certain nonviolent offenses.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, worked on the legislation, which takes several anti-crime bills proposed by Republicans and Democrats and combines them into one proposal.
• Without a dissenting vote, the Senate and House passed a measure signing New Mexico on to a multistate compact allowing nurses licensed elsewhere to continue practicing here.
The bill was sponsored by Republican Sen. Gay Kernan of Hobbs; Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales; and Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City.
“This is the way, I think, state government should operate,” Gov. Martinez said as she signed the bill.
Of course, there’s plenty of time left for partisan combat. The 30-day session is moving into its last two weeks, when the intense workload requires quick decision-making as the fate of most bills is determined.
Already, some tension has surfaced. A proposal to tap into New Mexico’s Land Grant Permanent Fund – with most of the revenue dedicated to early childhood programs – advanced through two House committees along party lines, with Democrats in favor.
And a few Republican lawmakers will push today to reinstate the death penalty and pass a parental notification law for abortion – measures that Democrats have rejected in the past.
Some Democrats, in turn, are pushing for increases in gas and cigarette taxes – proposals that have drawn Republican opposition in the past.
Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, warned that much work remains to be done as time is running out. As lawmakers focus on big, bipartisan bills, she said, “the rest of the work is being tabled.”
Nonetheless, many lawmakers say this year’s session has featured plenty of bipartisanship.
Whether it’s having more money to work with – drastic cuts were necessary last year – or a shared priority to address crime, bipartisan votes are common this year.
“I think there’s a recognition that if we’re going to move New Mexico forward,” Republican Rep. Jim Dines of Albuquerque said, “we’re going to have to work together.”
Egolf, who was elected House speaker last year, said he and other Democrats made it a point between legislative sessions to tour Republican areas of the state, giving them an appreciation for the needs faced by constituents in Carlsbad, Roswell and elsewhere.
And that’s helped both sides find common ground, he said.
“When I started as speaker,” Egolf said, “I was disgusted by what I saw in D.C., and I was very disappointed in a lot of the politics I saw in New Mexico.”
He said he wanted to help change that, and he has found an ally this session in Gentry, the Republican minority leader.