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Session brings mixed results for governor’s agenda


Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, hugs Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during a news conference after the close of the 60-day session in Santa Fe Saturday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called it a celebration Saturday as she welcomed Democratic lawmakers into her office following her first legislative session.

She didn’t get everything she wanted, she said, and she’s just fine with that.

“If you’re winning every battle,” Lujan Grisham said, “then you’re not taking on tough-enough battles.”

But she had plenty to celebrate. Her administration successfully pushed for passage of complex energy legislation, a higher minimum wage, two gun-control measures and a new early childhood department.

Some of the governor’s priorities, however, didn’t make it out alive before adjournment at noon Saturday. Moderate Democrats in the Senate joined with Republicans to block proposals to repeal a 1969 anti-abortion law and to withdraw more money from New Mexico’s largest permanent fund for early childhood education programs.

But Lujan Grisham said she was happy with lawmakers’ work on the whole.

“This is what an effective partnership looks like,” she said during a Capitol news conference as she sat beside top Democratic lawmakers and Lt. Gov. Howie Morales.

Republican lawmakers had much different view of the session – the first since Democrats swept every statewide office in last year’s general election and expanded their House majority to 46-24. They also hold a 26-16 edge in the Senate.

Some legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, said the session exposed a divide between urban and rural New Mexico. Sheriffs from across the state, for example, turned out repeatedly to testify against gun background checks and other gun legislation that passed the Legislature.

“I think there’s a real divide in this state between rural and urban,” Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell said, “and unfortunately this year, urban seemed to take the day. But I think there’s been a sleeping giant and he’s been awoken. And that’s rural New Mexico.”

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, put it this way: “I think this session will go down in history as a session that failed to listen to the people.”

A ‘new energy’ in building

New Mexico lawmakers passed about 310 bills before adjournment Saturday – a 12 percent increase over 2017, the last 60-day session, based on preliminary data shared by legislative staff.

“There was a whole new energy in the building, and I think that pushed a lot of things through,” Democratic Sen. Michael Padilla of Albuquerque said.

The bulk of the bills appear positioned to become law, too, unlike in 2017. Two years ago, then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, vetoed half the bills that passed and declared after the session, “What a waste of time.”

Lujan Grisham said she and her administration will thoroughly evaluate this year’s bills before deciding on approval or vetoes. She has until April 5 to act on legislation passed in the final days of the session.

Lujan Grisham didn’t sound eager to deploy her veto pen. She said her staff was involved heavily in the Legislature’s work from the beginning, not waiting until now to evaluate and weigh in on bills.

“If the Legislature got it passed,” Lujan Grisham said, “I work hard to get to ‘yes.’ It would have to be a substantive flaw, the math doesn’t work, or another significant issue.”

Nonetheless, she said she intends to explain her vetoes so that lawmakers have a sense of what to work on if they propose similar ideas in a future session.

At least one significant proposal will bypass her office. Lawmakers adopted a joint resolution that will ask voters to amend the state Constitution to reshape the Public Regulation Commission, turning into a three-member body appointed by the governor, with help from a nominating commission. The PRC is now an elected body.

Proposed amendments don’t require a governor’s approval.

It would go before voters in November 2020, unless a special election is called earlier.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat who worked on the PRC changes, said the governor’s help “allowed us to accomplish something that is beyond anything I’ve seen in the 15 years I’ve been here.”

Lawmakers, he said, passed critical bills on criminal justice, an ethics commission, gun control, education, film incentives and renewable energy.

Oil boom dollars

The heart of almost any legislative session is the crafting of a state budget.

Lawmakers this year are sending the governor a $7 billion spending plan – a record high driven by an oil boom in southeastern New Mexico. The proposal would ramp up spending on public education to address a 2018 court ruling that found New Mexico is failing to provide a sufficient education to all students.

The budget is expected to maintain reserves of about 20 percent.

“I think the Senate did take measures to make sure we hadn’t overspent,” Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said. “There’s always going to be up and down in the oil market, and whether you like it or not that’s always going to be New Mexico’s cash register.”

The work continues

Lujan Grisham said she plans to keep working on priorities that didn’t make it through this year.

She testified twice before Senate committees as she supported proposals to tap into the Land Grant Permanent Fund to expand pre-K, home-visiting programs and other early childhood services.

The proposals, House Joint Resolution 1 and Senate Bill 671, didn’t succeed.

But Lujan Grisham said she was happy lawmakers listened to her arguments and said she will continue to build relationships with skeptics of the idea.

Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this article.

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