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Editorial: NM needs its moderate Democrats’ experience, fiscal responsibility

A campaign of left-leaning activists seeking to purge the N.M. Senate of moderate Democrats jeopardizes the last vestiges of bipartisanship in the Roundhouse and couldn’t have come at a worse time as we face an unprecedented fiscal crisis.

A group disingenuously calling itself No Corporate Democrats has launched a campaign to unseat five senators it sees as impediments to progressive legislation. It’s aiming high, trying to unseat the Senate’s most respected voice on budgetary matters, the president pro tem and three other experienced lawmakers – each has made the state they call home a better place.

The group’s most prominent target is fiscal pragmatist Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming. To paraphrase the vintage E.F. Hutton TV commercials, when the Senate Finance chairman talks about the state’s finances and budget, others listen.

In his 31st year in the Senate, Smith was once again a voice of fiscal reason during the 2020 legislative session, cautioning House Democrats against overspending. Ultimately, lawmakers approved a $7.6 billion budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, boosting spending by $536 million in the wake of the current budget, which boosted state spending by $663 million.

As the 2020 session drew to a close, Smith expressed concern about the trajectory – “I don’t think any of us can walk away from here and say the spending was controlled. We’re skating on very thin ice.” Crashing markets and tanking oil prices show he was right.

But to label Smith “Dr. No” as a former governor did is as wrong as it is unfair. Smith’s legislation and his work with colleagues of all political stripes is the reason New Mexico has full-day kindergarten, and on his watch spending on early childhood education has increased hundreds of millions of dollars. He is simply realistic and knows it’s lawmakers’ job to leave New Mexico in a better place – economically as well as socially – than they found it.

No Corporate Democrats is also targeting state Sen. Mary Kay Papen, the Senate’s president pro tempore. Among her many accomplishments over nearly two decades in the Roundhouse is her fruitful work to get families dealing with mental illness an assisted outpatient treatment law that balances civil liberties with safety.

Also on the political hit list are Sens. Clemente Sanchez of Grants, chairman of the Senate’s Corporations and Transportation Committee; George Muñoz of Gallup, vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee; and Gabriel Ramos of Silver City, chairman of the Senate Indian & Cultural Affairs Committee. Sanchez has a proven record of working with people on all sides to get things done, including last year’s minimum wage reform that phases in a $12 hourly minimum by 2023. Muñoz joined a Republican colleague to sponsor sweeping changes to N.M.’s retirement system for public employees in the recent legislative session so their pensions are a promise kept. And Ramos, who was just appointed to the Senate last year, co-sponsored important bipartisan public safety legislation this session that licenses tobacco retailers and raises the age to purchase tobacco products to 21.

Krystal Curley, a Gallup resident and member of the No Corporate Democrats coalition, claims some state senators aren’t listening to the people who elected them and are instead listening to “well-connected corporate interests.”

Really? Full-day kindergarten and early childhood programs, emergency mental health help, a higher minimum wage, solvent pensions and curtailing teen tobacco use are “well-connected corporate interests?” If so, bring ’em on.

No Corporate Democrats would wipe out decades of legislative experience and the lawmakers who best exemplify fiscal responsibility tempered with humanitarian concern. These senators have advocated for working New Mexicans while at the same time serving as a tripwire to runaway spending so our children, and our children’s children, have more than a pile of state government IOUs.

As oil prices plummet, coronavirus shutters the economy and a special session appears inevitable, it is essential taxpayers have these lawmakers’ experience and pragmatism to dig out from the estimated $1 billion in red ink with as little pain as possible. Their wealth of legislative experience will be essential as tough choices have to be made. If ever there were a time for statesmen like these five N.M. senators, it’s now.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.