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Death in the Roundhouse

Copyright © 2012 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE — Voters sometimes ask how and why high-profile legislation that seems to have public support and political momentum can die stranded in a legislative committee or on the House or Senate floor without a vote.

The demise of two major education bills and a proposal to stop issuing driver’s licences to illegal immigrants in the recently concluded legislative session are good examples.

Many observers thought a bill that would have allowed public schools to retain third-graders who can’t read at grade level, despite intense intervention, had enough votes to pass the House before it was called for debate with just 12 minutes left in Legislature’s 30-day session.

A similar version passed the House one day earlier on a vote of 47-23. The Senate had earlier passed the version pending in the House on a vote of 24-15.

But a small group of Democrats in the House opposed to Senate Bill 96 used the waning legislative clock and prevented final action on the measure sponsored by influential Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming.

Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, a retired educator, took the floor and dissected the bill for the final 11 minutes of the session, leaving it dead when lawmakers adjourned.

“It happens all the time. There’s always a minority opposition that can stop things,” Stewart said. “The Republicans have done that for years. It’s a battle up there.”

But Stewart also raised questions about handling of the so-called “social promotion” bill. “And frankly, why did that bill take so long to get to the floor?” she asked. “Why are we doing things at the last minute?”

That bill to end social promotion in New Mexico schools was one of three major proposals backed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez — and supported by some Democrats — that never made it to final votes and died when the Legislature adjourned at noon Feb. 16.

Two other prominent, governor-backed proposals that met the same fate would have repealed New Mexico’s 2003 law allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licences and tied public school teacher performance evaluations to student test scores. Opposition alternatives to those measures also died when New Mexico’s 112 part-time lawmakers went home.

Finger-pointing

Many lawmakers point to the challenge of navigating bills through several committees and both the House and Senate floors in a 30-day session, in which adopting a state budget is the only constitutionally required task.

Some Democratic leaders, however, say the inaction this year stems from a lack of interest in the Governor’s Office to compromise with the Legislature’s Democratic majorities.

“You’ve got to go in there and everybody has to give a little bit and you come up with something,” said Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings of Roswell. “When one side doesn’t give, you don’t end up with solutions to the problem. That’s just what happened — that’s the way I see it.”

Meanwhile, the Governor’s Office blamed politics as usual by leaders of the Democratic-controlled House and Senate, who can create hurdles for bills they oppose by scheduling and by manipulating committee assignments.

“Democratic leaders who are out of step with members of their own party … did everything in their power to use process and procedure to kill bills that had achieved broad, bipartisan support within the Legislature itself and with the public,” Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell said in an e-mail.

“These issues have been debated, studied, and scrutinized; the people expect their elected leaders in Santa Fe to act in good faith and cast a vote.”

Social promotion

The fate of the social promotion legislation was still up in the air as lawmakers in the House and Senate took the floor on the final day.

Party lines didn’t always define the political divisions, with Democrats sponsoring both the House and Senate versions that passed each chamber. Most opponents were lawmakers with connections to the state’s school system, including members backed by educator unions, who argued the state’s established education system is not broken.

One day before the session ended, the bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on a party-line 8-7 vote with four new amendments.

The amendments would have required the Senate to take a second vote bill to concur with the House changes, unless the amendments could be removed on the House floor.

House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Nambé, seeded the bill in the eighth slot on the day’s House calendar amid other pressing issues, including a $140 million capital projects recommendation for colleges and universities around the state.

In the end, the social promotion issue came down to a battle of filibusters.

Republicans jockeyed to have it moved up on the calendar. They were blocked by Lujan, who later said there was no effort to delay consideration of the proposal, which he voted for when the House version passed the chamber on Feb. 15.

“I would have preferred an up or down vote, but that did not happen,” the longtime Democratic speaker said.

Lujan said House rules mandate that bills be debated in the order they are reported out of committee and the eighth slot was not a position he arranged.

“I don’t think there were any delay tactics — that’s not an accurate fact,” Lujan said.

Despite Republican objections, the House proceeded with the calendar order and began debating its general obligation bond plan for higher education capital outlay projects.

Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Texico, used the noncontroversial construction projects debate to protest Lujan’s ruling. In what everyone saw as a filibuster, Roch debated details of the capital outlay bill until less than 20 minutes remained in the session.

Stacking up and still awaiting attention on the House calendar were key bills addressing the Public Regulation Commission and a plan to reduce unemployment insurance taxes paid by businesses.

Meanwhile, a House version of the social promotion bill that had passed that chamber one day earlier was stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee — a committee that hadn’t reviewed the issue when the Senate bill had moved through the Senate. Sending the House bill to the committee in the session’s eleventh hour was seen as a death sentence.

Back in the House, Minority Leader Tom Taylor, R-Farmington, said his troops knew “the other side was going to debate that bill (the Senate version) until noon.”

“We attempted to block that, obviously, with the general obligation bonds (filibuster) to see if maybe we’d get some movement in the Senate during that time. Obviously, that wasn’t working for us. There were some other important issues we thought we had to get moved that transcend the (social promotion) political issue there for a little while, and there was a time we had to do some work down there.”

With adjournment nearing, several other measures received quick votes of approval on the House floor, and action reached No. 8 on the calendar — the social promotion bill — with 12 minutes left.

Roch made an attempt to remove the committee amendments that would have required it to return to the Senate for concurrence and called for a quick vote, but Stewart and other opponents lined up to debate the bill until the House clock struck noon.

“There are 10 minutes left on the floor, and he wants to strip the amendment off without discussion and pass the bill off without discussion. I don’t think that’s fair. This is one of those issues where there’s no compromise on the part of those presenting the bill,” said Stewart, who described herself as “outraged” over the attempt to push the bill through in the final minutes.

“If they had not done their stupid filibuster on the GO (general obligation) bond bill … if they had not done that, it may well have come to a vote,” Stewart said.

Roch said the bond filibuster was an attempt to respond to “political games” played by opponents of the social promotion bill.

Ultimately, Democratic opponents “thwarted the will of the majority of the House,” Roch said.

Smith, the Senate bill’s sponsor, said the bill’s failure in the House was simply a matter of timing, and he understood it needed to be “shoveled” out of the way in the final minutes of the session to ensure other, more pressing issues could pass.

Teacher evaluations

Another prominent issue that fell short was an effort to create an evaluation system for public school teachers.

A governor-backed plan would have graded teachers based partly on their students’ performance on standardized testing. Opponents offered an alternative proposal to establish other “learning objectives.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the teacher evaluations issue managed to find a compromise, but time ran out before it received thorough consideration.

Opposing bills introduced in the House by Roch and Rep. Rick Miera, D-Albuquerque, were combined and discussed in committee two days before the session ended. The next day, Feb. 15, the full House passed the merged legislation 57-9.

Stewart, who supported the compromise teacher evaluation plan, said time ran out because of the weeks of effort it took to strike a balance.

“I think what they came up with wasn’t bad,” she said.

The bill, however, did not make it to the agenda in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Committee Chairman Richard Martinez, D-Española, said there wasn’t time to consider all the bills that arrived in his committee in the final days.

“When it’s five days short of the end of the session, everybody wants their bills heard. A big majority of them end up in Judiciary (Committee). Everybody’s trying to get their bills out, and I’m trying to accommodate everybody. … There were a lot of other bills that got there sooner that probably needed just as much attention,” said Sen. Martinez, who noted that “dozens” of bills died in his committee because there wasn’t time to hear them all.

The Governor’s Office, however, charged the teacher evaluation compromise was deliberately “bottled up” by Senate Democrats.

The legislation “was the product of an extensive teacher evaluation task force and weeks of negotiations with Democratic and Republican lawmakers, teachers’ unions, administrators, and others,” Darnell said in an email.

“Sadly, Senate Democrats bottled it up in committee and proved that, once again, they’re willing to run further to the left of President Obama to defend a status quo education system that is failing our kids,” Darnell said.

Committee Chairman Martinez said the governor’s staff made no effort to request a speedy hearing on the compromise teacher evaluation bill.

“They (the Governor’s Office) didn’t approach me in any form or manner,” he said. “She didn’t call me up.”

Driver’s licenses

A Journal Poll in 2010 found that 72 percent of registered New Mexico voters opposed issuance of driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, and Gov. Martinez has noted that percentage in continuing to push for a repeal.

A repeal passed the House last year and that scenario played out again in 2012.

Legislation supported by the governor and introduced by Rep. Andy Nuñez, a Hatch independent, was heard in the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 1, about halfway through this year’s session.

Several lawmakers on the committee insisted on taking extra time to find a new compromise, and some hinted they had struck a balance before the governor said she was unwilling to consider any deal that allows new licenses to be issued. She said she compromised in not seeking to revoke licenses already issued.

The governor said lawmakers who disagreed with her stance could face voters in November, when all of the Legislature’s 112 seats are up for election.

House Judiciary Chairman Al Park, D-Albuquerque, who said he would support a repeal if it came to that, also said the governor’s unwillingness to consider anything different killed this year’s effort to fix a broken state law.

“The governor was entrenched, but so were a lot of other people. There’s a lot of room for blame on the driver’s licenses. There just is,” Park said.

The Nuñez bill moved on to pass the House 45-25 on Feb. 8, only to be referred to Senate Judiciary Committee, where it died without a hearing.

Sen. Martinez said the lack of a hearing on the repeal bill had nothing to do with the Judiciary Committee’s strong Democratic majority.

But the governor’s spokesman said, “Unfortunately, Democrats in the Senate ignored their constituents in order to continue giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.”

Political questions

Many lawmakers interviewed by the Journal said this year’s elections for all seats in the House and Senate did not influence their decisions on the key issues, including the driver’s license debate.

Park, however, said the election year is not something that can be ignored by many legislators.

“I like to think those issues were not part of the calculation, but I’m sure they were,” said Park, who is running for a seat on the Public Regulation Commission instead of seeking re-election to the Legislature.

While the House-backed driver’s license repeal withered in a Senate committee, Democratic senators were attempting to push an alternative that still would have issued licenses to illegal immigrants but increased requirements.

Jennings said he was close to reaching a compromise with Nuñez, but the governor’s refusal to consider anything other than repeal eliminated any remaining inertia to push the Senate version through the House.

Legislative Republicans, however, believe they had the votes if they only could get it to a final floor vote.

Taylor suggested such a vote has been blocked through Democratic control of committees — whose members are appointed by Democratic leaders.

“That’s one that a majority of the members support if we can just manage to get it to a vote,” Taylor said. “That’s the tough part, (because of) committee structures.”

Journal Capitol Bureau reporters Dan Boyd and Deborah Baker contributed to this report.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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