SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez opened the last 60-day legislative session of her tenure on Tuesday by asking New Mexico lawmakers to embrace bipartisan solutions – as they have in the past, she said – to shore up the state’s flagging budget and promote economic growth.
But the Republican governor didn’t back away from her insistence that the Legislature – Democrats now control both chambers – avoid increasing taxes to balance the budget.
“We’ve met challenges before in a bipartisan manner, and we can do it again,” Martinez said in her annual State of the State address, which clocked in at 43 minutes. “But it will take courage.”
State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat and potential 2018 candidate for governor, said Democrats are “prepared to meet her halfway.” But the governor’s call for bipartisanship is about six years late, he said.
The start of the session comes as New Mexico continues to face significant challenges – including the second-highest rate of unemployment in the nation and a state budget squeezed by falling oil and natural gas prices. The governor and lawmakers must address not only a $69 million projected deficit in this year’s budget but also agree on a spending plan for next year.
Cash reserves have been nearly wiped out, and the state’s top bond rating was downgraded.
Martinez urged lawmakers to focus on the budget and work together to craft a solution that attracts support from Democrats and Republicans, as they have previously on tax cuts and pension reform.
“These weren’t wins for the governor or the Legislature – or Republicans or just Democrats – these were big wins for New Mexicans,” Martinez said.
Her tone Tuesday wasn’t as combative as it was last week – when she described a legislative budget plan as a “cop-out” – but the substance of her proposals hasn’t changed.
She renewed her push for reinstatement of the death penalty for people who kill police officers or children and tougher criminal penalties in general, including a “three-strikes” bill targeting repeat offenders.
Martinez also asked lawmakers – once again – to pass legislation to end “social promotion” by requiring third-graders who can’t read proficiently to repeat the grade. Martinez noted that Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama oppose social promotion, and she jokingly offered to name the bill after them.
Democrats didn’t sound inclined to embrace ideas they’ve rejected in the past. Cervantes, who provided the Democrats’ response to the governor’s speech, told reporters that the state needs to do more to encourage great teachers to enter or stay in the profession, not focus on social promotion.
And, he said, the results of November’s election, in which Democrats retook the House and expanded their majority in the Senate, show voters are ready for change. Democrats will propose solutions focused on growing the economy and creating jobs, he said.
“The state of our state is unacceptable,” Cervantes said. “This session, legislators will begin to tackle those challenges and the plans that we need to undertake to balance the budget and make sure it’s a meaningful and long-term plan.”
Martinez, in turn, highlighted some recent successes. Graduation rates hit a record high, she said, and the state succeeded in attracting investment from FedEx and Facebook, which is building a data center in Los Lunas.
“When we put political parties aside,” Martinez said, “we get a lot done.”
She urged lawmakers to agree to consolidate state agencies to save money and to focus their capital spending on projects that make a difference, not small, frivolous expenses.
Legislators also should disclose any clients they have in their private careers whose interests could affect the lawmakers’ legislative decisions, Martinez said.
“New Mexicans deserve to know if officials are making decisions on behalf of voters or on behalf of undisclosed clients,” she said.
But she and others at the Roundhouse returned repeatedly to the task of fixing the state budget for this year and next.
Perhaps common ground will emerge on taxes at some point: Martinez repeatedly mentioned the possibility of closing loopholes and modernizing the tax system.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, warned senators Tuesday that he expected them to be back in the chambers within 30 minutes of the end of the State of the State address, and when they did come back, he urged them to read through the budget proposals immediately. Budget solvency bills could be debated on the Senate floor as early as tonight, he said.
“We’ve got an immediate budget crisis,” Wirth said. “The plan is to get right to work.”