Key bills move in final hours

By Steve Terrell

The New Mexican

Sometime in the middle of the 30-day legislative session that ended Thursday, a Roundhouse regular summed up the 2014 New Mexico Legislature: “The Seinfeld Session.” A session about nothing.

Indeed, up until the last week or so of the session, lawmakers seemed more intent on discussing a seemingly endless list of nonbinding memorials — dealing with everything from local football teams to international diplomacy — than work on actual laws.

Legislature 2014

Legislature 2014

But, as often happens in a session, it seemed that the significant bills that got passed — or in some cases got rejected — finally were heard in the session’s final hours. The $6.2 billion budget passed Wednesday, while Thursday’s major accomplishments included passing a fix to the ailing lottery scholarship fund and a capital outlay package that includes $15 million for brick-and-mortar projects in Santa Fe County.

And just two minutes before the noon deadline, the Senate agreed to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would enable the State Investment Council to invest more of the state’s $12 billion land-grant endowment in international stocks. Supporters say this could add $100 million a year to the state in investment earnings.

Other big issues went down with a whimper. Constitutional amendments to raise the minimum wage and to use more Land Grant Permanent Fund money for early childhood education were defeated. The proposed gambling compact that would have allowed the Navajo Nation to open more casinos squeaked by the House but was voted down by a big margin in the Senate. And the long-awaited confirmation vote on Public Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera ended up in a stalemate, with not enough votes to send her name to the Senate floor for a vote.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, as well as Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, dispute the comparison to the old Seinfeld TV sitcom about nothing. Martinez and legislative leaders described the past 30 days as a productive session marked by hard work and a spirit of compromise. That was the basic message of House Speaker Kenny Martinez, D-Grants, and several Democratic leaders and committee chairmen at their annual post-session news conference.

Some lawmakers interviewed actually called it a “great” session. The governor, while very positive about the session, was a bit more measured. “Nobody got everything they wanted,” she said. “It was a typical session.”

Among the things that the governor wanted but didn’t get were her perennial bills — prohibiting driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and retaining third-graders who can’t pass reading tests. She didn’t mention either bill at the brief news conference.

But it wasn’t all happy talk. Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, told reporters, “It was a difficult session for us.”

He recalled how the budget bill — the centerpiece of a 30-day budget session — hit a brick wall when House Democrats couldn’t muster a majority to pass it. Varela said he was grateful to the Senate for kick-starting new budget discussions, getting consensus between the political parties as well as the governor.

It appeared Thursday that the budget consensus was genuine. Both the governor and Rep. Mimi Stewart, a liberal Democrat from Albuquerque who chairs the House Education Committee, said the part of the budget dealing with education was “great.”

Making the process more difficult for Democrats was the fact that two Democrats, Reps. Phillip Archuleta of Las Cruces and Ernest Chavez of Albuquerque, had to miss the entire session because of illness. Their absence narrowed the Democrats’ majority in the House and directly affected votes on the original budget bill and others.

“They had equality thrust upon them,” one Republican said of Democrats after the session.

Martinez, at her news conference, said that at the beginning of the session, the tone was “too partisan and too political at times, too extreme at times.”

“I understand it’s an election year, but that’s really no excuse,” she said. “There are those who wanted to fan the flames of partisanship. Democratic legislators were attacked for working across the aisle and voting their conscience. Some groups attacked me for working with Democrats and finding common ground.

“As leaders, we have to reject the hyperpartisanship and put the people of New Mexico first,” Martinez said.

She did not elaborate on specific examples of that “partisan tone” and left the news conference before reporters could ask her about it.

She might have been referring to state Democratic Party Chairman Sam Bregman saying that Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith should leave the Democratic Party if he wouldn’t allow his committee to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that would have taken more money out of the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund to spend on early childhood education. Many Democratic legislators rushed to Smith’s defense.

The governor might have been thinking about Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez’s resolution, introduced early in the session, that expressed no confidence in Human Services Secretary Sidonie Squier for her role in the mental health system shake-up last year.

The State Fair and The Downs deal dominated three days of the Rules Committee, though no legislation came out of it.

Indeed, at times it seemed that lawmakers were more interested in “making points” or “starting conversations” than actually making laws.

“This is a Senate bill and it probably won’t pass,” Sen. Tim Keller said prior to Thursday’s adjournment, discussing one of his bills. “But let’s send a message.” (As it turned out, the senators didn’t even “send the message.” They voted against Keller’s bill, which was aimed at standardized tests of students.)

Although she praised the budget as a whole, Martinez said she was concerned about overspending. As do all governors, Martinez said she would go through every line of the budget and veto expenditures she thinks aren’t necessary.

The governor has until March 12 to sign or veto bills.