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Progressive Democrats may not get all they want in session

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – After a blue wave washed over New Mexico Nov. 6, Democrats will go into next year’s 60-day session with decisive majorities in both legislative chambers and control of the Governor’s Office for the first time in eight years.

But the new legislative landscape might not guarantee quick passage of a progressive agenda – including legalization of recreational marijuana, a higher minimum wage and more money for early childhood programs from the state’s largest permanent fund.

In large part, that’s because conservative Democrats still hold influential positions in the state Senate and have expressed little appetite for fast-tracking such measures.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in an interview this week that the Senate won’t be swayed by outside pressure.

“We have a committee process here in the Senate, and I subscribe to it,” Smith said.

The influential lawmaker, who has served in the Senate since 1989, also cast doubt on the need to take more money from the state Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood programs, an idea that Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham supports.

Total spending on prekindergarten, home-visiting and other similar programs has already increased from $136.5 million in the 2012 budget year to $306.1 million in this year’s budget.

And the state’s current budget situation – with an estimated $1.2 billion in “new” money available in the coming fiscal year – could allow for additional increases while keeping permanent fund distributions at their current level, he said.

“I can’t understand why you’re wanting to rob the gold out of Fort Knox,” Smith said.

Another moderate Senate Democrat expressed similar views.

Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, the chairman of the Senate Corporations Committee, said he’s hoping to find common ground with the new governor and state House leaders on budgetary and other issues.

“There’s always pressure, but the Senate will do what we need to do,” Sanchez said. “I’m not going to worry too much about what progressives’ views are.”

He also said such progressive policies are being pushed primarily by groups in the Albuquerque and Santa Fe metro areas.

Lujan Grisham, who will take office Jan. 1, said in a recent interview that she plans to listen to feedback from legislators and not merely attempt to jam her agenda through both chambers of the Roundhouse.

“I expect this to be a participatory process and not a top-down one,” she told the Journal.

She also pointed out that Lt. Gov.-elect Howie Morales is a state senator who has served on the Senate Finance Committee and has good relationships with many fellow senators. He’s expected to resign his Senate seat shortly after being sworn in as lieutenant governor.

Mandate for Democrats

This year’s general election saw Democrats win a clean sweep of statewide races, including the governor’s race, and they also appear to be on track to pick up eight seats in the state House, pending automatic recounts in several races.

That would leave Democrats with a 46-24 advantage in the chamber, their largest since 1996.

Former state Sen. Eric Griego of Albuquerque said this year’s decisive election results represent a mandate for Democrats to push progressive policies that many of their candidates campaigned on, including a minimum wage increase, expanded health care options, automatic voter registration, increased early childhood education funding and changes to the state’s tax code.

He also suggested that attempts by conservative Senate Democrats to derail such legislation could lead to their facing primary election challenges in two years.

“If they try to hold up some of these policies, they could find themselves squarely in the crosshairs in 2020,” said Griego, who is the state director of the New Mexico Working Families Party, a progressive advocacy group.

But House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, warned that majority Democrats will have to face the consequences if they pass legislation that hurts New Mexicans’ pocketbooks.

“In reality, they could bankrupt the state if they just give in to their base,” Montoya said.

He also said the fate of some high-profile bills could hinge on which committees they are assigned to by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, who represents one of the state’s most Democratic-heavy districts.

Big bunch of bills

While Roundhouse insiders are fond of saying that each legislative session takes on a life of its own, the combination of a new governor and the state’s cash-flush situation could, in the upcoming session, lead to the most bills introduced and passed in years.

Other bills that majority Democrats are expected to push include legislation dealing with renewable energy standards, an expired solar tax credit and the current $50 million annual cap on state film rebate spending.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said top lawmakers are also planning to put together a package of bills made up of legislation that passed decisively in recent years but were vetoed by outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez. Such a package could move quickly during the upcoming session, he said.

Egolf also said he plans to seek out bipartisan solutions, even with his caucus’s expanded majority.

“I think it’s important to show that people can work together in Santa Fe and it’s not like Washington, D.C.,” he said.

But Egolf also said the Democrats’ expanded majority in the House could make it easier to secure approval for increased funding for the state’s public school system. A retired District Court judge ruled in July that the state was violating the constitutional rights of Hispanic, Native American and other “at-risk” students and gave the Legislature and the new governor until next spring to come up with a plan.

For now, fresh off the big election night win, Egolf also said he’s not concerned about the possibility of looming roadblocks in the state Senate.

“People in both chambers are very focused on delivering results,” Egolf said. “We’ll take issues as they come.”

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