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Senate leader’s agenda-setting power questioned

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – For as long as old-timers can remember, the leader of the state Senate’s majority party has decided which bills get voted on by the full Senate, and in what order.

A Senate committee chairman, however, wants to rock that boat.

Democratic Sen. Phil Griego of San Jose says he will ask members of the Senate’s Democratic caucus to change the practice of having the majority leader set the voting agenda.

STATE SEN. PHIL GRIEGO: Says many bills never see debate

STATE SEN. PHIL GRIEGO: Says many bills never see debate

Griego, who chairs the Corporations and Transportation Committee, claims it’s not meant as a criticism of Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, who was elected in 2004 by the caucus.

Nonetheless, it would be a clear challenge to Sanchez and the current system.

Griego says he has been frustrated because a couple of business-backed bills that cleared committees – including an electricity rate reduction to lure or keep businesses – were not debated on the Senate floor.

“It’s a little unfair for those of us who introduce legislation, and the legislation gets through the process, and it’s never heard,” Griego said.

He suggested to business leaders at a recent conference sponsored by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce that the Senate should operate more like the House, where bills that clear committees automatically go on the voting calendar.

“I’m going to bring it up, and then the caucus will have to deal with it,” Griego told the Journal.

It will likely be late November before the caucus meets. The 2015 legislative session begins Jan. 20.

The Senate majority leader’s wide latitude to set the agenda stretches back further than longtime legislative observers can pinpoint.

“That’s tradition. That’s the way it’s always been,” said former Sen. Tim Jennings, a Roswell Democrat who spent 34 years in the Senate and was majority leader from 1997 through 2001.

“That’s really the principal function” of the majority leader, said former Sen. Tito Chavez, an Albuquerque Democrat who was a senator for 20 years and majority leader from 1989-92.

That power is most evident in the often-tumultuous final days of the annual sessions, as the majority leader juggles the demands of majority Democrats – and minority Republicans – as well as coordinating with the House and keeping an eye on the almighty clock.

“It’s hard, because everybody wants their bills heard,” said Chavez, who recalled lawmakers clustered around his desk in the session’s waning hours.

Utility bill cited

Griego says he was bothered by Sanchez’s failure to hold a floor vote during this year’s session on business-backed legislation to allow electric utilities to offer reduced rates to certain companies as an incentive to locate or remain here.

Some lawmakers believed the bill was aimed at luring electric car maker Tesla, although it wasn’t advertised as that.

“It probably would have never passed, but we just didn’t debate it,” Griego said.

The House had passed it 47-17, over objections that it was too open-ended and the costs would be borne by other ratepayers, such as residential and small-business customers. A Senate version had cleared two committees – one of them Griego’s – and was awaiting a vote by the full Senate.

“I take my job very seriously, and I make sure the bills that are on the calendar are good, honest, solid bills that are good policy. That’s my role,” Sanchez told the Journal.

“There was enough disagreement on the merits of that particular bill that warranted it to come back and be vetted properly,” the majority leader said.

In addition, there was the prospect of an “all-out floor battle” if the bill was brought up, according to opponent Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe.

Wirth said there was bipartisan opposition to the electricity measure in the Senate – as there was in the House – and that he was ready with a time-consuming stack of proposed changes to the bill, had Sanchez allowed a vote.

Wirth believed that the bill hadn’t been sufficiently studied and that it effectively stripped some consumer protections out of existing law.

“I’m not sure there were the votes … to pass that bill,” said the bill’s Senate sponsor, Republican Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales. He said some GOP caucus members didn’t like the bill and by the time a substitute version that might have been more acceptable was crafted, there wasn’t time to consider it.

“We need to pass a bill that’s fair and that works, and we need to make darn sure what we’re doing,” Ingle told the Journal.

The majority leader’s main task is to set the voting agenda and manage the flow of legislation on the Senate floor.

The possibility that a late-session meltdown could prevent major legislation from passing is always on a Senate floor leader’s mind.

“You’re trying to make the system work, and you’re trying to get out of there without a special session,” Jennings said.

Gatekeeper

Sanchez has caught flak before for not allowing floor votes on bills. In 2011, newly elected Republican Gov. Susana Martinez publicly chewed him out for blocking a final vote on her proposal to require third-graders who don’t read proficiently to be held back. She still hasn’t managed to get that through the Legislature.

The majority leader has, however, allowed bills he opposes to be voted on – for example, the massive 2013 package supported by Martinez that included tax cuts for corporations and an expansion of film industry incentives.

He scheduled a speedy vote and was one of only eight senators to vote against it.

Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming – like Griego, one of the Senate’s more conservative Democrats – said he and the liberal Sanchez are “180 degrees apart most of the time” when it comes to ideology, but that Sanchez is fair.

“Everybody has a piece of legislation that’s near and dear, but … some judgment has to be exercised,” Smith said.

Doing it the way the House does wouldn’t work in the more independent Senate, according to Smith.

In the House, the speaker has more control over the entire process, and legislation that doesn’t have the backing of a majority of members is more likely to die in committee than reach the floor.

Sanchez said the Senate majority leader is uniquely situated to research and analyze all the legislation that is headed to the floor. Griego’s proposal to put all bills on the voting agenda “wouldn’t work. It couldn’t work. It would be a free-for-all,” he said.

But Griego said the chamber’s 25 Democrats could figure out how to make it work.

“If members of the caucus would like to see it changed, then it will be changed,” the lawmaker said.

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