Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Is Gov. Now A Lame Duck?
By Trip Jennings
Journal Capitol Bureau
SANTA FE Not so fast, Governor.
That appears to be the collective message of the New Mexico Legislature to Gov. Bill Richardson this year.
With three days to go in the 2008 legislative session, none of Richardson's major priorities has passed the full Legislature.
It's left some lawmakers and lobbyists wondering if the ambitious, two-term Democrat has lost some clout after his failed presidential run.
Some even raise a broader question: Is he a lame duck? But the Governor's Office, even with just a few days left in the session, said it's too soon to predict trouble or defeat for the governor's agenda.
Some lawmakers have grumbled that the governor's agenda is too ambitious, especially at a time when state revenues are predicted to grow at a slower pace.
Mixed in with that complaint is occasional resentment that Richardson was gone for much of last year while he campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination.
And it didn't help that the recently returned Richardson derided New Mexico's 112 part-time lawmakers as a "do-nothing" Legislature about halfway through this year's session.
Add in the factors that Richardson can't run again for governor, and that all legislators are up for re-election this year, and you have a hesitance among some lawmakers to cast potentially controversial votes for a governor who won't be here forever.
"People are finally waking up to the fact that the governor eventually will leave the state," said Sen. John Grubesic, D-Santa Fe.
Grubesic's reference was to long-running speculation that Richardson already a former congressman, Cabinet secretary and ambassador might take a new administration appointment and return to Washington, D.C., if a Democrat is elected president.
Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, put it more diplomatically.
"The governor was gone for a year. And things in our state have changed in a year," she said. "He can't run for re-election. For some people, that is a factor lame-duck governor."
House Minority Whip Dan Foley, R-Roswell, said he has noticed a change this year in legislators' attitude toward Richardson.
"There seems to be many more Democrats standing up (to Richardson) this year," Foley said.
Signs of legislative independence are abundant.
Health care reform Richardson's signature issue hit a wall in the normally compliant House, which discussed, debated and ultimately passed a watered-down version of his proposal on Sunday, nearly four weeks into the session. That gives the usually more independent-minded Senate only a few days to pass the proposal.
Creating a legal framework for domestic partnerships in New Mexico, another Richardson priority, has been tabled and could be dead for the year.
Ethics laws reforms, which Richardson pushed again this year, appears to be stalled.
Meanwhile, for the past two weeks, the Senate Rules committee has openly refused to vote on Richardson's appointees to various state commissions and boards until the administration turns over background information. So far, the administration has not done so.
The Governor's Office on Monday cautioned against predictions that the governor won't get what he wants on health care. The office didn't respond to additional questions about the perception among some that he has lost some influence with state lawmakers.
"It's premature to write off the session as a failure," spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said Monday. "The governor believes there is still time for the Legislature to reject gridlock and do what's right on behalf of all New Mexicans by passing universal health coverage."
With three days to go, the governor could still strike a deal with legislative leaders and pull out a victory on health care reform.
But state lawmakers said at the least the shortness of the 30-day session and governor's own ambitious priorities worked to create roadblocks.
Tackling complex issues like health care system takes time, said House Majority Leader W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants.
"Look at these items," Martinez said. "They are big. They are hard to digest."
Besides, the Legislature's constitutional obligation during a 30-day session is to pass a state budget, which has been accomplished.
Rep. Al Park, D-Albuquerque, and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, agreed the governor clearly "overfilled" the Legislature's agenda.
"But don't hit the panic button yet," Park said. "You have no idea what will happen" in the last days of the session.