Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A brisk 30-day legislative session – marked by bipartisan compromise and little appetite for political confrontation – reached the finish line Thursday as New Mexico lawmakers beat a deadline to approve bills that would change the structure of a popular scholarship program and move most nonpartisan elections to November.
The end of this year’s session came with few fireworks, as legislators had already signed off on a $6.3 billion budget bill that calls for state spending to return to pre-recession levels – and for rare pay raises for rank-and-file state workers and teachers.
“We did the job we were brought here to do on the budget,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said shortly after adjournment.
But plenty of significant bills died when the clock hit noon Thursday and the 30-day session ended – including a proposed expansion of “Baby Brianna’s Law,” dealing with child abuse, a priority of Gov. Susana Martinez over the past seven-plus years.
It was also a disappointing end for supporters of a perennial proposal to tap into a $17 billion New Mexico permanent fund to pay for home visiting and other early childhood programs.
Both proposals died quietly – stuck in Senate committees without a hearing as the session expired.
Martinez, a Republican who took office in 2011 and is barred from seeking a third consecutive term as governor this year, told reporters she will not call a special session.
“I am generally pleased with the results and very pleased with the bipartisanship that took place,” the governor said.
However, she voiced disappointment that lawmakers did not pass the child abuse bill, sweeping changes to the state gross receipts tax system and legislation dealing with retention of young public school students struggling to read.
“One thing is for certain: I will spend the next 10½ months continuing to fight for the people of New Mexico,” Martinez said.
With an election cycle approaching, it was an unusually bipartisan month for New Mexico lawmakers.
A package of crime-related legislation that includes penalty and treatment provisions, the $6.3 billion state budget, a multistate nursing compact and a host of other bills won broad bipartisan support.
And the last-minute passage of bills dealing with the state’s guardianship system and Spaceport America also came with overwhelmingly lopsided votes.
Now it’s the governor’s turn to weigh in. Martinez has until March 7 to act on bills passed by the Legislature in the session’s final days.
A year ago, she vetoed more than half of what reached her desk, even some bills that made it through the Legislature without a dissenting vote.
But a cooperative tone dominated much of the session in the House and Senate.
House Republican Leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque thanked House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, for working with Republicans to address issues in their home districts. He cited, for example, bills aimed at helping prevent the collapse of an old brine well in Carlsbad.
“There’s a great deal more civility, and there’s a great deal more camaraderie,” Gentry said Thursday morning, addressing the whole House. “I think the body as it stands now is in a very good place.”
Egolf, in turn, thanked the entire House for its work.
“We started this session wanting to put partisanship aside and focus on doing things that were good for the whole state,” he said. “It took a lot of work – a lot of work from all of you.”
He and other legislators said they worked hard to communicate well with one another – and the Martinez administration – to find common ground.
“When we all act as one,” Egolf said, “that’s when we do our best work.”
Some top-ranking Democratic lawmakers also acknowledged they were already looking ahead to 2019, when a new governor will be in office.
Wirth suggested lawmakers had tired of Martinez’s focus on criminal penalty bills, and other Senate Democrats argued that the governor had failed to show leadership on key issues facing lawmakers.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of frustration about limited engagement” on the governor’s part, Wirth said.
Despite holding a majority in both legislative chambers, Democratic lawmakers did not send Martinez bills dealing with firearm purchases or increasing New Mexico’s $7.50 hourly minimum wage – both Democratic priorities in previous years.
There was also little debate on other issues that could figure prominently on next year’s agenda, including whether New Mexico should join some other Western states in legalizing recreational marijuana use.
The House took frequent breaks during its Thursday floor session as the clock ticked toward adjournment. The atmosphere was relaxed as the chamber waited for messages and bills to be sent over from the Senate.
The Senate side had more action, but the session ended with Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, having launched a mini-filibuster on a nonbinding bill dealing with federal background checks for gun sales.
110 bills passed
Several bills passed before adjournment of the 30-day session could have significant impacts.
If approved by the governor, the local election proposal, House Bill 98, would consolidate most nonpartisan elections into one day in November.
Albuquerque would be forced to move its October election either back to November – a move that would require dropping a voter-approved photo ID requirement – or to March, when most New Mexico cities have their elections.
Officials in the state’s largest city said the measure is impractical because it conflicts with the City Charter and may result in litigation.
Another bill on its way to Martinez’s desk would change how New Mexico Lottery scholarships would work for college students. Right now, the scholarship covers about 60 percent of tuition.
But Senate Bill 140 would set flat dollars amounts of $1,500 per semester for students attending research institutions, $1,020 at comprehensive institutions and $380 for community colleges.
Altogether, 110 bills passed both chambers this session – 10 more than 2016, the last 30-day session.
“When both sides were able to take time to talk,” Egolf said, “it turns out we had more in common than we thought. I think that’s a good lesson for the next session.”