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Governor: Future of New Mexico at stake in session

Gov. Susana Martinez delivers her sixth State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature on Tuesday in the House chamber of the state Capitol in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Gov. Susana Martinez delivers her sixth State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature on Tuesday in the House chamber of the state Capitol in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez struck a stern tone Tuesday in her sixth State of the State address, urging lawmakers to enact tougher criminal penalties, pass bills aimed at job creation and demand “more than mediocrity” in New Mexico’s public schools as a 30-day legislative session got underway.

But top-ranking Democratic legislators responded by blasting the governor’s agenda as politically motivated, with Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, describing Martinez’s address as the “same speech” she’s given in previous years.

On an opening day that featured equal parts pomp and protest, the governor’s 47-minute address to lawmakers focused heavily on a recent spate of high-profile crimes.

The state’s two-term Republican governor called specifically on lawmakers to pass stricter anti-DWI laws and broaden the state’s “three-strikes” law for repeat offenders.

“With what we’ve seen this past year, there should be no more excuses for light sentences and automatic bail for violent offenders,” Martinez said. “And we need laws that are tough in substance, not just in sound bites.”

Michelle Webster, facing camera, widow of Albuquerque police officer Daniel Webster, hugs Julie Benner, widow of Rio Rancho police officer Gregg Benner, on Tuesday in the House chamber. During her State of the State speech, Gov. Susana Martinez honored the women, whose husbands were slain in the line of duty last year. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Michelle Webster, facing camera, widow of Albuquerque police officer Daniel Webster, hugs Julie Benner, widow of Rio Rancho police officer Gregg Benner, on Tuesday in the House chamber. During her State of the State speech, Gov. Susana Martinez honored the women, whose husbands were slain in the line of duty last year. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

During her speech, the governor recognized Julie Benner and Michelle Webster, the widows of two Albuquerque-area police officers who were killed in the line of duty last year. She said both women had shown courage and poise after “unthinkable tragedy.”

Other invited guests in the packed House gallery included family members of 4-year-old Lilly Garcia, who was killed in an October 2015 road-rage shooting in Albuquerque.

In his official response to the governor’s address, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said he agrees on the importance of criminal justice reform but offered different solutions, such as more money for drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.

“The (governor’s) agenda is pro-incarceration, as I see it … and that’s contrary to what’s going on in the rest of the country,” Sanchez said.

The top-ranking Senate Democrat also said violent crime rates have actually decreased statewide in the past five years when Albuquerque is excluded from the statistics.

He claimed that policies adopted by Mayor Richard Berry in the state’s most populous city have contributed to the increased crime rate there.

Few surprises

New Mexico’s 30-day legislative sessions, held in even-numbered years, are typically focused on budget matters, but governors can add other issues to lawmakers’ to-do list.

In addition to crime-related legislation, Martinez said Tuesday that she wants the Legislature to tackle various bills dealing with education and the economy, many of which have failed in previous sessions, before lawmakers adjourn on Feb. 18.

Specifically, she called for an increase in minimum teacher pay, a requirement that third-graders who cannot read proficiently repeat the grade level and a “right-to-work” law that would bar nonunion employees from having to pay union fees as a condition of their employment.

“I’m confident we can confront and overcome these realities together, if we choose not to put them off a moment more,” Martinez said. “New Mexico’s future depends on it, and it depends on us.”

There were few surprises in the governor’s speech, as she had already unveiled her administration’s initiatives.

She also repeated familiar criticism of opponents of her education agenda, saying such opposition amounts to an “endorsement of the status quo.”

That prompted a swift rebuttal from a leader of a local teachers union.

“For the sixth year, New Mexico educators heard the same policy proposals, and like the past six years, the governor has only provided proposals which would lessen the quality of public education in New Mexico,” said Stephanie Ly, president of the American Federation of Teachers union in New Mexico.

Common ground

Despite the partisan battle lines on some familiar issues, some lawmakers and top state officials expressed optimism that common ground can still be found.

“I’m confident all of us will be able to roll up our sleeves and do the work of the people,” Lt. Gov. John Sanchez said at one point during Tuesday’s opening day activities.

Lawmakers are required to approve a balanced budget annually, though plunging oil prices will likely complicate that task this year.

Meanwhile, New Mexico has lagged behind neighboring states in both job creation and population growth in recent years, and there could be bipartisan support for at least some economic development proposals.

Last year, for instance, top Democrats and Republicans led the charge to bolster state spending on a program aimed at bringing out-of-state businesses to New Mexico and helping in-state businesses expand.

“I think the public wants to see some resolution out of this session,” said House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque. “We would all be well served to keep the political rhetoric at a minimum.”

Lawmakers from both parties have also introduced bills this year to toughen ethics laws, but agreement on those measures could prove trickier.

Martinez voiced support Tuesday for improving the state’s campaign finance reporting system and requiring more disclosure from legislators on public works projects.

But the governor did not mention Democratic-backed bills drafted in response to the case of former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, who resigned from office in October and pleaded guilty to using campaign contributions to cover a gambling habit.

Those bills include mandatory pension forfeiture for public officials convicted of felonies – a tougher law than is currently on the state’s books – and the creation of a state ethics commission.

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