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Legislature meets in changed landscape as power shifts

Preparations are underway at the Roundhouse for Tuesday's opening of the 60-day legislative session. A new political dynamic will be in play with Republicans controlling the House. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Preparations are underway at the Roundhouse for Tuesday’s opening of the 60-day legislative session. A new political dynamic will be in play with Republicans controlling the House. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

There is one certainty about the legislative session that begins Tuesday: Whatever else it is, it will be historic.

For the first time in six decades, the Republican Party will be the majority in the state House.

The November election delivered a 37-33 margin to the GOP, setting the stage for big changes in that chamber – and perhaps beyond.

Although the Senate remains Democratic by a 25-17 split, the Republican takeover of the House gives GOP Gov. Susana Martinez a crucial ally as she begins her second term, buoying the prospects for pushing through more of her agenda.

It’s a sea change in the House, where Democrats have been the majority for most of New Mexico’s statehood.

Although Republicans were dominant in the early going, Democrats have been in charge for all but a few years since 1931 – chairing the committees, driving the decisions, burying the bills they didn’t like.

Now, Republicans must learn to run the place and Democrats must learn to maneuver as a minority.

“We’re going to be doing a lot of on-the-job training. But I think we’re up to the task and we will work our way through it,” said Rep. Don Tripp, a Socorro Republican who is expected to preside as the new House speaker – and has been having practice sessions to get ready.

Tripp is an affable, low-key business owner who has served in the House for 16 years, although not in party leadership positions. The unanimous choice of the GOP caucus, he is to be elected in a vote by the entire House on Tuesday, as the 60-day session gets underway.

The new majority floor leader, already selected by the GOP caucus, is Nate Gentry, an Albuquerque lawyer who is closely allied with Martinez and coordinated the statewide campaign effort that won the House for Republicans.

Gentry’s high profile has led to speculation that he will wield more influence in the new regime than majority leaders typically have. But Tripp says he has no intention of ceding the speaker’s extensive authority.

“I plan to maintain the power of the speaker. It’s kind of what makes the whole system work,” Tripp said.

On the Democratic side, progressive and outspoken Santa Fe Rep. Brian Egolf will be the minority leader, after the current House speaker, Democrat Ken Martinez of Grants, stepped back from any leadership role.

Egolf says Democrats stand ready to cooperate with the GOP majority when it’s “in the best interest of New Mexicans” but also ready to go toe-to-toe with them on legislation Democrats deem harmful.

“Our main focus is going to be making New Mexico families more secure,” he said. Democrats, for example, will push to raise the minimum wage.

More influence

The GOP will have a more influential role in writing a $6.3 billion state budget for next year, which traditionally starts in the House.

There also could be a tide of bills from the House as Republicans flex muscles they haven’t used for years.

A pitched battle is expected over right-to-work legislation, which would prohibit requiring nonmembers in unionized workplaces to pay fees to the unions for representing them.

Tripp is confident the House will pass the bill, which he said is “tied so closely to what we feel is economic development, as well as a worker’s right to choose.”

Democrats are opposed, saying it’s aimed at weakening unions and would drive down worker pay.

Other examples of proposals that could be revived in a GOP-dominated House: requiring voters to show photo identification and parents to be notified when their minor daughters seek abortions.

“I do think there will be some legislation this session that really will hurt people and will pass the House,” said Egolf, who worries about restrictions on health care and food stamp programs and weakened environmental laws.

It would then be up to the Senate to block the legislation, the minority leader said.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said he doesn’t anticipate the changes in the House will alter the dynamic in the Senate.

“We’re a pretty independent bunch on the Senate side. We will act accordingly,” said Sanchez, who has taken heat in the past for exercising his authority to block some bills from consideration by the full Senate.

There were no Senate seats up for election in 2014, and there’s only one new member: longtime Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, was appointed to replace former Sen. Tim Keller, D-Albuquerque, who was elected state auditor.

Changes in store

The governor hopes having the House in Republican hands will add some oomph to the initiatives she has been pushing since she took office in 2011.

A bill to require third-graders to be held back and given extra help if they can’t read proficiently, for example, has actually passed both the House and Senate before – but not the same bill in the same session, as required.

Repealing the law that allows driver’s licenses to be issued to immigrants who are in the country illegally has passed the House before, but a repeal never has survived the Senate; the administration hopes the Senate would feel more heat this year.

The shift in power in the House means a host of changes, from the assignment of offices to who sits where on the House floor to who parks where in the Capitol garage.

There are other changes on the horizon, as well.

“I’m a business guy, and I would like to see the Legislature a little more customer-friendly,” Tripp told the Journal in an interview last week. “So many times we leave people cooling their heels in committees for seven, eight hours at a time, and I don’t think that’s necessary.”

So as part of a broader committee shake-up that was still being completed, Tripp is planning a new schedule: The House will meet on the floor for a couple of hours in the late morning and again in the late afternoon, with the early morning and a big chunk of the afternoon reserved for committees.

He also may have the busiest committees – Judiciary, Education, and a newly renamed Taxation and Revenue Committee – meet five days a week, rather than three.

The jurisdictions of the committees will be shuffled, and at least one – Voters and Elections – would probably be abolished, while a new committee, Public Safety and Civil Affairs, would be created, he said.

Tripp also said there may be cases in which Democrats who formerly chaired committees would no longer be on those committees. His explanation: longtime committee staffers must work with the new GOP chairs and should not be distracted by their loyalties to their former bosses.