October 29, 2018

Working with the Legislature will be key for next governor’s success

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New Mexico State Senate. Wikicommons

Governors typically come into office with high expectations, after telling voters what legislation they’ll ensure passes to improve the state.

But they can run into one major challenge: the state legislature.

Any legislation must pass both the House and Senate with a majority from each chamber. To do so, the governor must convince and cajole members who represent ethnically, socio-economically, geographically and ideologically diverse districts throughout the state to advance the legislation.

At times, their efforts crash upon the rocks and the promised progress is stalled. Other times, a compromise is reached.

Democrats, who have controlled both chambers of the Legislature for much of the past eight years, often complained that Gov. Susana Martinez’s office did not communicate enough with legislators.

In 2014, for example, she claimed she would have signed a minimum wage increase to $8 per hour. Legislators said they were never told this.

When speaking to current and former legislative leaders, NM Political Report consistently heard one piece of advice for the next governor when it came to building a better relationship with the Legislature: communicate.

That applies to either Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham or Republican Steve Pearce, the two candidates vying to replace outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez after her two-terms in office.

Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle has served in the state Senate since 1985 and the next governor will be the seventh he’s served alongside. The Portales Republican said that the governor should just do what everyone in the state does to get along with people—invite them for coffee.

“Everything in life is a matter of talking to people and trying to get them to know where they know you and they trust you,” he said. “The secret to government is knowledge and trust.”

Communication with legislators often comes through the governor’s staff, since the governor is only one person and the Legislature has 112 members.

“Sometimes staff people don’t communicate as good as they should or sometimes staff people get a little heavy-handed with some of the decisions they make,” Ingle said.

Rumors of clashes between top staffers in the governor’s office and members of the Legislature come up nearly every legislative session.

One Democrat, however, says conditions improved in the last session, the final of Martinez’s time in office.

Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, a Democrat, said that in the last 30-day session, Martinez’s staff was helpful.

“She sent her chief of staff down at the beginning of the session to say something along the lines of ‘we want to make sure that we’re talking’ and we said that’s great and let’s keep it up,” Egolf said.

When the governor doesn’t communicate, Egolf said, problems can take place.

“If you say ‘That’s it, conversation’s over’ and they walk away and the Legislature passes a bill and the governor vetoes it, and they’re not talking, that doesn’t benefit anybody,” Egolf said.

Egolf also said that the next governor should provide leadership on “big economic development ideas.” The Santa Fe Democrat said it isn’t possible to work with the State Investment Council or the Economic Development Department without back-and-forth between the Legislature and governor’s office.

Former Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez had many high profile clashes with both Governors Martinez and her predecessor, Democrat Bill Richardson, during his time in leadership.

The clashes led to PACs with ties to Martinez spending big money to defeat him in 2016 (even as Democrats made gains elsewhere in the state Senate).

Sanchez worked alongside Ingle for years, and the two helped their caucuses pass compromise legislation, often with bipartisan support, whether or not the governor signed the bill.

Sanchez said that the governor must work with the independent-minded Senate, not try to bully them.

“Even when Richardson was there, I can remember him trying to tell me, ‘This is what you gotta do and you better do it,’” Sanchez said. “And because the Senate is an independent body, it just doesn’t work that way.”

Perhaps because of his time working alongside Ingle, Sanchez had similar advice for the next governor, saying he or she should sit down with leaders between the election and the start of the legislative session and talk about what they need help with and listen to advice from the leadership.

“That’s the key to moving our state forward,” Sanchez said. “The next governor has to listen, not only to the legislators, but to the people in terms of where we want to go and how we want to do it.”

Still, even with all the advice on the next occupant of the offices on the fourth floor of the Roundhouse can work with the Legislature, there are still things that may be a bridge too far.

“There’s going to be some issues philosophically that the Legislature and the administration are not going to agree upon,” Sanchez said. “And that goes to both sides of the aisle, as a matter of fact.”