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New Senate leader says deals did not drive committee decisions

Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, was elected as the new President Pro Tem of the Senate at the start of the 2021 legislative session at the State Capitol Tuesday January 19, 2021. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Newly-elected Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said there was no deal-making involved in her decision-making about new committee leaders.

In particular, the appointment of Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, to lead the Senate Finance Committee has rankled some progressives after an election cycle in which several incumbent Democrats were ousted by more liberal primary election foes.

But Stewart described suggestions that her choice of Muñoz as committee chairman was the result of a deal tied to her election as president pro tem as “absurd,” saying her picks for four open chairmanships were based on extensive interviews.

“It took me six weeks to make these decisions, but I stand by them,” Stewart told the Journal.

She also said that vice chair status held significant weight in her decision-making, as Muñoz and others picked for open chairmanships had previously occupied such second-in-command roles.

Committee chairmanships are important in the Legislature, as it’s often up to chairs to decide when – and whether – to hold hearings on bills assigned to their panels.

Muñoz broke ranks with most fellow Democrats in voting during recent legislative sessions against bills dealing with expanded firearm background check requirements and repealing a long-dormant abortion ban.

But Stewart said he had expressed an openness to another top Democratic priority – taking more money out of New Mexico’s largest permanent fund for early childhood programs – that had been bottled up in some recent years by former Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith.

Smith, a Deming Democrat, was among seven incumbent senators defeated in the June primary election.

For his part, Muñoz, who withstood a primary challenge, said he does not harbor any election-related grudges.

However, he said he would take a cautious approach to year-over-year spending increases when it comes to crafting a new state budget bill.

“We don’t want to go through furloughs and layoffs,” Muñoz said in an interview this week. “We want to get New Mexico so it’s in recovery mode.”

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