Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – When Susana Martinez was sworn into office in 2011, she told a crowd of about 1,000 people – huddled together in rare single-digit weather – that New Mexicans could no longer endure misfortune and “wait for our luck to change.”
But with her eight-year tenure as New Mexico governor coming to an end, Martinez faces a complex political legacy defined by court battles, far-reaching vetoes, expanded webcasting of state board meetings, multiple attempts at education reform, hard-hitting campaign tactics – and little luck, until recently, when it comes to the state’s economy.
Martinez, a Republican, will hand over the reins of state government to Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, at a time of unprecedented incoming revenue – driven primarily by an oil boom in southeastern New Mexico – but her time presiding over the state was dominated by years of modest growth and two significant revenue downturns.
In a Journal interview, Martinez said her economic record is strong and includes the recruitment of major new employers, including Facebook and Netflix. But factors outside her control – automatic federal budget cuts, the Great Recession and a crash in oil and gas prices – have squeezed state finances at times, she said.
“No other state has had those three headwinds,” Martinez said.
The former prosecutor’s time in office was also marked by clashes with a Legislature controlled by Democrats for most of her tenure – Republicans had a majority for two years in the House – and she encountered staunch opposition from labor unions, especially teachers unions, that filed multiple lawsuits seeking to block her initiatives.
Lawmakers also took her to court on several occasions, including a 2017 lawsuit that ended with the Supreme Court invalidating some of the governor’s vetoes.
Martinez, for her part, describes legislative sessions as among her toughest days in office because of the amount of time and money wasted on ceremonies and nonbinding legislation rather than real work, in her view.
It was particularly difficult, she said, to deal with lawmakers who would tell her one thing privately then vote a different way in public.
Martinez said she hopes, by contrast, to be remembered as someone who kept her word.
“I don’t want to be known as a politician who will say what you need to say to get elected and then do something different once you’re in office,” Martinez said. “I hope I’m remembered for fighting for the things I said I would fight for – and keeping my word.”
State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said Martinez misunderstood her 2010 election victory as a mandate and failed to communicate effectively with legislators.
“I see it as a squandered opportunity,” he said.
He also said there’s little evidence to suggest the corporate income tax cuts pushed by the Martinez administration have led to new jobs in New Mexico, while adding that many local governments have had to raise their tax rates to offset a gradual loss in state dollars mandated by the 2013 tax package.
“A lot of cities and counties raised their gross receipts tax to pay for the corporate tax cut,” Cervantes said. “I’m sure the average New Mexican is not thinking their pocketbook is much better eight years later, if at all.”
Martinez was first elected governor in 2010, defeating then-Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, a Democrat, after vowing to curb corruption and streamline state government.
She largely succeeded in reining in state government, as spending levels increased by only about 2 percent annually under her watch – from $5.4 billion in the 2012 budget year to $6.3 billion in the current fiscal year.
“I think New Mexico benefited greatly from the tight fiscal ship she ran,” said Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.
However, the Martinez administration faced ethics scandals of its own during the governor’s tenure, including embezzlement charges being filed this year against former Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla and a federal grand jury investigation into how money was raised and spent for Martinez’s 2010 inaugural celebration. The investigation ended with no criminal charges being filed.
In addition, state revenue collections plummeted for a roughly two-year stretch starting in 2015, prompting sweeping budget cuts, reductions in some state services and other budget-balancing maneuvers.
“We lived within our means, knowing we had to prioritize,” Martinez said.
Cole said Martinez inherited a difficult budget situation but enacted changes that have strengthened the state’s economy.
Such changes included beefing up funding for the Local Economic Development Act – also known as the state’s “closing fund” – which is used to help lure out-of-state companies to New Mexico.
That program was instrumental, Cole said, in helping the state land a massive Facebook data center near Los Lunas in 2016 and a deal to bring Netflix’s first U.S. production hub to Albuquerque.
“I think there’s clear evidence those policies have worked and are working,” Cole said.
“You don’t get to choose the times you govern,” she added.
Overall, the number of New Mexico state workers has decreased since Martinez took office – there are about 17,000 rank-and-file employees currently – and more workers have been leaving state government than have been hired for three consecutive years.
As a result, some state agencies have struggled with high vacancy rates that critics say have led to high overtime rates and poor morale. The statewide vacancy rate is currently 19 percent, according to the State Personnel Office.
Martinez said that before she took office, the state workforce had ballooned to the point that it wasn’t even clear what some employees did.
“We saw too many government employees for the mission of the state,” she said.
But she said her administration also worked to boost staffing where needed – in public safety, child protective services and the Department of Corrections, for example.
“We didn’t just cut,” Martinez said.
Carter Bundy, the legislative and political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union in New Mexico, said the tax cuts signed by Martinez have not had their intended impact and have instead created a structural deficit that’s currently masked by the oil production boom in the Permian Basin.
He also criticized Martinez for vetoing several bills seeking to increase the state’s $7.50-per-hour minimum wage, which has not been changed since 2009. However, Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces have all enacted higher minimum wages.
“From a perspective of providing services to the people of New Mexico, her legacy will be very poor,” Bundy said. “She’s done real damage to the state of New Mexico.”
However, he did credit the outgoing governor for keeping an open mind on the subject of pension solvency legislation and for her 2013 decision to expand the state’s Medicaid rolls under the federal Affordable Care Act, which allowed thousands of low-income residents of a state with one of the nation’s highest poverty rates to qualify for the joint federal-state health care program.
Throughout her tenure, Martinez clashed repeatedly with teachers unions and Democratic lawmakers, especially on education policy.
She launched the A-F grading system for public schools and established teacher evaluations that factor in students’ scores on standardized tests, among other factors.
In her final days in office, the Martinez administration released numbers showing that New Mexico’s high school graduation rate had hit an all-time high of 73 percent. She has also touted a recent decline in the number of college-bound students taking remedial courses in college. The state Public Education Department credits the improvements in part to the implementation of a standardized test called PARCC, which the department said raised the bar for high school graduates.
But she had setbacks, too.
Lawmakers blocked her legislative proposals to require third-graders to be proficient in reading before moving on.
In a blistering decision in July, a state judge ruled that New Mexico is violating the constitutional rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a sufficient education. The court ordered the governor and the Legislature to establish a funding system that meets constitutional requirements by April 15, 2019.
When it came to transparency, Martinez’s vow to open up state government to the public proved easier said than done.
Martinez launched a webcasting initiative in 2011 that provided public access to legislative hearings, angering some lawmakers in the process, before lawmakers enacted their own webcasting and archiving functions. The Governor’s Office also webcasts the meetings of various state boards and commissions.
“We have more transparency in New Mexico than ever in the history of the state,” Martinez said in a recent interview.
However, the governor also faced several lawsuits over her handling of open records requests, including a 2013 lawsuit filed by The Associated Press over information about Martinez’s work and travel schedules, cellphone calls and expenses of the security officers who travel with the governor.
That lawsuit was settled in 2015 after the Martinez administration agreed to release some of the requested information.
Martinez also faced a 2013 lawsuit by the Santa Fe Reporter, a weekly newspaper, alleging that her office discriminated against the paper and delayed public records requests.
A district judge in Santa Fe ruled last year that the Martinez administration did not violate constitutional rights by not providing information to the newspaper, but she did rule that the Governor’s Office violated the Inspection of Public Records Act.
Martinez said that in general, her administration has pushed to release what it can legally, but the state is sometimes bound by confidentiality provisions in state law.
With a Democratic governor set to take office Tuesday, it’s unclear how much of Martinez’s policies will remain intact.
Cervantes predicted most of the governor’s education initiatives, including teacher evaluations and an A-F public school grading system, would be rolled back under the Lujan Grisham administration.
Martinez, for her part, said she hopes New Mexico doesn’t return to failed education policies. Under her administration, she said, the state’s graduation rate hit a record high, more funding is going into classrooms rather than administration and more high school students are taking Advanced Placement courses, which provide college credit.
Part of Martinez’s legacy may end up being her hard-hitting communication style, which some critics said resembled a never-ending political campaign.
The Governor’s Office repeatedly referred to one former top-ranking Democratic lawmaker as a “Senate boss” and derisively referred to current House Speaker Brian Egolf and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth as “Santa Fe trial lawyers.”
Some top state GOP officials also grumbled privately about Martinez and her political adviser, Jay McCleskey.
“She clashed just as much with Republicans in the Legislature – they just kept their mouths shut,” Cervantes said.
‘The right things’
Martinez, 59, said she isn’t sure what’s next. She had once expected to care for her older brother, Jake, after leaving office, but he died this month of a rare neurological disease.
Martinez said she expects to provide for her sister-in-law and for her sister, Lettie, who is developmentally disabled.
“The plan is certainly to keep working,” Martinez said. “I’m not the kind to stay home.”
She said she doesn’t have any plans to run for office and hasn’t met with any private companies or government agencies about the possibility of a job yet.
She said she will leave it to others to define her legacy as governor.
“I think history will determine whether or not I was fighting for the right things – the fight for children, their safety, their education, their opportunities,” Martinez said. “I really do believe history will be the one to define it, and not me.”