SANTA FE – A bruising 60-day New Mexico legislative session ended Saturday with frayed nerves and pointed fingers as a $264 million public works package died in the session’s final minutes due to a partisan stalemate over highway funding.
A bundle of proposed tax breaks also fell victim to a testy final day at the Roundhouse, which came after bleary-eyed lawmakers had worked until well after midnight Saturday – nearly 2:30 a.m. in the House’s case – to keep bills moving.
“Unfortunately, this session ended in the same fashion it was operated from Day One,” Gov. Susana Martinez told reporters in a news conference after adjournment. “Senate Democrats chose to obstruct, to delay, chose gridlock, chose partisanship, and they chose not to compromise.”
But the Republican governor, who won re-election last year to a second term in office, said she did not plan to summon lawmakers back to Santa Fe for a special session.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez of Belen and other Democrats accused Martinez of not communicating effectively and being too rigid, pointing out that Senate Republicans and Democrats were able to work together on a bill – opposed by the governor – that would have created a two-tier driver’s license system. The governor opposed the measure because it still would have allowed immigrants who are in the country illegally to obtain licenses. That measure passed the Senate but did not clear the House.
“I’m all for working with this administration, but when a person comes to you and says it’s this way or the highway, that doesn’t work in a legislative body,” Sanchez said.
Three senators who were dispatched as a formality to tell the governor the session had ended said she greeted them angrily in her office, accusing the Senate of killing the capital outlay bill.
Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, described Martinez as “hostile,” saying, “It really had the feel of a dictator who had been thwarted.”
The Legislature’s failure to approve the $264 million public works package marked the first time since 2011 that lawmakers had not approved a capital outlay bill to fund improvements and equipment for senior centers, school improvements and other infrastructure projects.
Lawmakers did approve a $6.2 billion budget for next year and a new 22-year gambling compact between the state and Indian tribes – the two “must-do” items of the session. They also sent a bill that would begin the process of creating a 500-mile-long Rio Grande Trail to the governor’s desk for final consideration.
The politically charged debate over the $264 million capital outlay package hinged on how to best fund highway repair and construction projects around the state.
The Martinez administration pushed for money to be earmarked from state bonds, but top-ranking Senate Democrats stood firm against the approach, saying roadwork should be paid for by an increase in the gas tax rate or from the state’s cash reserves.
The governor blamed Senate Democrats for the Legislature’s failure to pass a capital outlay bill, saying the measure’s demise will hurt the state’s job creation efforts.
“They killed infrastructure projects in every corner of this state,” Martinez said. “They killed critical highway projects. They killed measures that would have made it easier for startup companies to hire.”
But House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said the bill’s death was the result of failed negotiations over highway project funding.
“Because Republicans got their feelings hurt and couldn’t resolve a negotiation, they brought the temple down on their heads,” Egolf said.
“They could not get past the personal slights they perceived and put the work of the people of New Mexico first,” he added. “I think that is a real shame and the people of New Mexico will be enormously disappointed.
During Friday debate on the House floor, Egolf led an attempt to undo GOP-backed changes to the bill. Those changes, unveiled Friday, included cuts to proposed courthouse security upgrades, senior center renovations and Indian Country schools that were enacted to make room in the package for $45 million worth of statewide road projects.
After three hours of debate, the bill passed the House 36-32 on Saturday about 20 minutes before adjournment, but the Senate did not vote on whether to sign off on the House’s changes before the session ended.
House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, also acknowledged the failure to pass the capital outlay bill would be a “big hit” to the state’s economy.
He said the Senate-approved bill did not arrive in the House until the final days of the session and did not include input from the Martinez administration, leaving little time for it to be reworked.
“We got it over to the Senate with ample time to act on it but, again, Michael Sanchez chose to kill it,” Gentry told reporters Friday.
In response, Sanchez said he felt the Senate had been “sucker-punched” by the House changes to the proposed public works package.
This year’s legislative session marked New Mexico’s first experience with a divided Legislature in decades after Republicans won a majority in the House in last year’s elections for the first time in 60 years.
House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, said the session was a “maiden voyage” of sorts for Republicans, who changed committee names and overhauled the chamber’s schedule during the early days of the session.
“We tried to be more customer-friendly and run committees on time so the public could truly take part in the process,” Tripp said.
However, disagreements between the two chambers led to a stalemate on some high-profile bills.
The Senate tabled two House-approved bills calling for tougher abortion restrictions and derailed a proposed right-to-work measure that would have prevented nonunion workers from having to pay union fees as a condition of employment.
Meanwhile, Democratic attempts to increase the state’s minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $10.10 an hour stalled in the GOP-controlled House.
Senate Democratic floor leader Sanchez said there was little dialogue between the majorities in the two chambers.
“It’s always been a Democrat-led House and, when you have new leadership, there’s always some confusion that goes on,” he said. “I think they’ll learn as they go forward. It’s a work in progress.”
The session featured the first Senate rejection of a Martinez appointee since the governor first took office in 2011 as majority Democrats voted – with just one exception – to reject University of New Mexico regent nominee Matt Chandler.
However, senators did confirm Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera, who had spent four-plus years on the job without the full Senate’s backing.
Skandera has been a polarizing figure as she has instituted several controversial educational initiatives, including A-F school grades and new teacher evaluations.
The governor’s top education initiatives were also thwarted this session, with a proposal to mandate that schools retain third-grade students who scored poorly on a state reading test once again stalling in the Senate, as in previous years. An attempt by Senate Republicans last week to “blast” the bill out of the Senate Public Affairs Committee and onto the floor also failed.
Meanwhile, a bill that would have stripped habitually truant students of their driver’s licenses also never made it the Senate floor.
Senate Democrats also pointed out that education bills they passed – including ones that would have rolled back or put checks on the governor’s education initiatives – ground to a halt inside House committees.
The governor will have until April 10 to act on bills approved by lawmakers.
One bill likely due to draw close scrutiny is the $6.2 billion spending plan for next year, which would increase funding for economic development initiatives aimed at creating more jobs in New Mexico.
“I will have to review it line by line, of course,” Martinez said. “But I am optimistic it gives us a lot of tools to help the state in the coming year, whether it is closing fund money, job training … or education reforms.”
Among the other bills headed to the governor’s desk for final consideration was a bill that would prevent law enforcement from seizing money and property from people on civil grounds during an arrest.
It was approved on a unanimous 37-0 vote Saturday in the Senate, prompting applause from backers who describe the practice as “policing for profit.”
“Crime should not pay,” said Paul Gessing, president of the Albuquerque-based Rio Grande Foundation. “This bill strikes exactly the right balance by allowing law enforcement to bring criminals to justice, while protecting the property rights of innocent New Mexicans.”
The bill would not prevent law enforcement from seeking criminal forfeiture after someone was found guilty. It would, however, require proceeds from forfeitures to be put into the state’s general fund.
Journal staff writer Deborah Baker contributed to this report.