In one chamber of the Roundhouse last month, the Senate moved briskly to pass a budget-solvency package by overwhelming, bipartisan margins.
The House was a different story. Parts of that package just barely won approval after fierce debate along party lines, with Democrats winning out only because of their 38-32 majority.
It was a striking illustration of the different cultures at play in New Mexico’s two legislative chambers – a place where a proposal can find friendly ground with Republicans and Democrats alike in one end of the building, then face intense skepticism in the other.
The Senate – the smaller of the two chambers, with just 42 members – prides itself on deliberative, collaborative decision-making.
The House, in turn, is more closely divided between the two parties, and it has flipped control from Democrats to Republicans and back again. Intense campaign pressure contributes to the environment, observers say.
“Their elections have been hard-hitting, rough stuff,” political analyst Brian Sanderoff of Research & Polling Inc. said in an interview. “This partisan tension can carry over into the legislative process.”
Sharp disagreements between the chambers are shaping this year’s legislative session, which comes as New Mexico struggles to find enough cash to pay routine bills, including the cost of jury trials.
Take Senate Bill 113. The legislation called for taking about $98 million from various state accounts – including $11.6 million from a state “closing fund” for economic development – to help balance this year’s budget.
Senators voted 41-0 in favor of it. They weren’t necessarily happy about it, but there was broad agreement across party lines.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 26-16 in the Senate, but no GOP senator cast a dissenting vote on Senate Bill 113.
The House debate was rough.
Republicans tried to spare the economic development fund – a priority of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez – by proposing legislators tap into their retirement fund to come up with the money instead. And when that failed, they accused Democrats of raiding the economic development fund for a short-term budget fix.
Democrats, in turn, said the Republican-backed amendments were politically motivated and that taking money out of the public retirement system wasn’t legally sound.
The bill passed on a 37-30 party-line vote.
Martinez eventually used her line-item veto authority to block cuts to economic development.
Why such bitter debate in one chamber but not the other?
The frequency of elections is a factor. Representatives are up for election every two years, meaning there’s almost constant pressure to raise money and prepare for brutal campaigns, with the House majority at stake.
Senators, on the other hand, are elected every four years – and in presidential election years, at that, meaning their races may be overshadowed by the top of the ballot.
House districts are also smaller and a bit more homogenous, Sanderoff said. Senators represent larger areas, meaning they have incentive to appeal to a more diverse set of constituents.
And personalities may play a role, too.
The Senate’s leadership on both sides is made up of older, veteran lawmakers – some of whom have worked together for decades.
“We’ve been able to build trusting relationships with each other,” said Sen. Pete Campos, a Las Vegas Democrat in his 27th year.
Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said something similar. He’s served since 1985.
“In my years up here,” he said, “I’ve learned that neither side is always right.”
Sanderoff said the Senate has had an independent streak on both sides of the aisle for some time. Senate Democrats didn’t always see eye to eye, for example, with Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, Martinez’s predecessor.
This year’s budget debate, of course, sometimes put Senate Republicans at odds with Martinez.
But she’s also benefited from the Senate’s independence.
It was in the Senate last year where the compromise originated that led to New Mexico’s two-tiered system for driver’s licenses – putting to rest a contentious debate that began in 2011 with the governor’s push to repeal a law that allowed people who are in the country illegally to obtain a state license, something Martinez said made New Mexico a magnet for fraud.
Ingle and Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, helped craft the compromise.
“When you have long-term relationships between legislators of opposite parties,” Sanderoff said, “they can form bonds of trust which open up lines of communication between them.”
Members of the House, meanwhile, say their intense debates aren’t necessarily a result of animosity. It’s just that they’re so evenly divided that the outcome of any vote could be swayed if, say, Republicans entice a few Democrats to cross party lines.
“We expect to be involved in the process – the outcome,” Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, said in an interview.
Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, said the Senate might operate more like the House if the party breakdown were as close.
“The numbers are so overwhelming,” he said of the Senate.
House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, said she hopes her chamber embraces more bipartisanship this session – a message she said she heard from the governor herself in the State of the State address.
“My hope,” she said, “is that as we move forward that all of us would work together collectively not because of politics but … for the people of New Mexico.”
A look ahead
The differences between the chambers, of course, will make it that much harder for the governor and Legislature to navigate the budget troubles ahead. No one political party can force its solutions through.
“There’s an inherent tension between the House and the Senate,” Sanderoff said, “and there’s tension between the legislative and executive branches. That’s how our democracy works.”
Ingle, the Senate minority leader, put it this way: “I know I’ve had bills that passed the Senate fairly easily, and I get them over there (to the House), and they get killed in the first committee.
“That doesn’t mean they’re bad people. They just didn’t like my bill.”