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Bills in limbo as bickering continues

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, left, talks with Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, on the Senate floor Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, left, talks with Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, on the Senate floor Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With just over one week remaining in New Mexico’s 60-day legislative session, a number of high-profile bills are in limbo and Roundhouse finger-pointing is ramping up.

Gov. Susana Martinez and House Republicans have kept up a recent drumbeat of criticism against majority Senate Democrats, claiming they have delayed action on measures with broad public support and brought congressional-style gridlock to Santa Fe.

They say measures should be heard by the full Senate instead of being tabled or held up in committee.

But Democrats reject that narrative and say the system is working as its intended to – even if Republicans don’t like it.

“When (House Republicans) table bills, they call it the legislative process. When Democrats table bills, they call it gridlock,” House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said this week. “It’s completely hypocritical and deceptive.”

Republicans point to measures like a bill calling for tougher public corruption penalties and a proposed repeal of the 2003 law that allows immigrants who are in the country illegally to obtain driver’s licenses.

Both were approved in the GOP-controlled House more than a month ago and have not been heard in Senate committees.

House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, has singled out Senate Democratic floor leader Michael Sanchez of Belen for bottling up Republican-backed legislation.

“With less than 10 days left, we are still hopeful that Sen. Sanchez can put politics aside and allow a floor vote on legislation that a vast majority of New Mexicans support,” Gentry said Thursday.

Meanwhile, Sanchez, who has faced such criticism before, urged his fellow legislators Thursday to tone down the rhetoric and refrain from personal attacks.

“I think everybody needs to take it down a notch,” he said on the Senate floor.

Earlier in the day, Sanchez told the Journal that some disagreements are to be expected with a divided Legislature. Republicans have a majority in the House this year for the first time in 60 years, but Democrats still have an advantage in the Senate.

He also pledged that the high-profile Republican-backed bills will be acted upon before lawmakers adjourn on March 21.

“There are some controversial bills,” Sanchez said in an interview. “They will be heard in committees and the process will work as it should.”

From left, House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, talks with Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, and Sen. Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, on the Senate floor in Santa Fe on March 12, 2015. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

From left, House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, talks with Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, and Sen. Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, on the Senate floor in Santa Fe on March 12, 2015. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Common ground

Before the session started, Sanchez said the Legislature will not “end up like Washington, D.C.” and voiced optimism about bipartisan cooperation.

The session has featured some common ground, such an increase in state Tourism Department funding and $35 million for a state “closing fund” that are included in a $6.2 billion budget expected to be voted on in the Senate in the coming days.

Lawmakers from both parties have pushed for an increase in money for the closing fund, which is actually a local development grant program aimed at deferring the cost of business expansion and relocation.

“This is not a Republican or Democratic issue; it’s just everyone working together,” House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, told reporters last month about the budget provisions.

But other high-profile bills pushed by both parties have stalled.

One hot-button measure supported by Martinez and Republican legislators was derailed this week in a Senate committee as a proposed right-to-work bill that would change New Mexico’s labor laws was tabled in the Senate Public Affairs Committee on a party-line vote.

That came after Senate Republicans attempted a procedural move to have the measure bypass the committee process and go to the full Senate for a vote. A similar attempt on two House-approved abortion measures was also thwarted.

“There’s a time when all of us need to be involved in the process – and this is it,” Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said during that debate.

Meanwhile, two Democratic-backed proposals to increase the state’s $7.50-per-hour minimum wage to $10.10 an hour were shelved in the session’s second week in a House committee.

Republicans did tack a 50-cent minimum wage hike onto the right-to-work bill, but Democrats described it as a political stunt and most voted against it.

‘There’s still time’

By Thursday morning, the House had passed 162 bills, while the Senate had approved 110 bills. The Senate had also confirmed 94 Martinez appointees, according to Senate Democrats.

Just one bill, a measure paying for the 60-day session’s operations, had been approved by both chambers and sent to the Governor’s Office for final approval, though that’s not uncommon for this point in a legislative session.

That’s because both the House and Senate usually consider their own bills before turning their attention to legislation approved by the opposite chamber.

A flurry of bills are typically approved in the final week of a legislative session and a Martinez spokesman said the Republican governor hopes for a breakthrough.

“There’s still time to have a productive session with meaningful results for New Mexicans,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said. “But, from the very beginning, the Senate Democratic leadership has had a goal of obstructing and blocking meaningful reform.”

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