ByAndrew Oxford and Steve Terrell, Santa Fe New Mexican |
There were no threats of a government shutdown this time. Instead, a sort of political peace reigned as the 30-day legislative session ended Thursday with a $6.3 billion budget headed to the governor’s desk along with a bipartisan slate of crime legislation and pay raises for teachers and state police. The bombast and sense of crisis that marked the 2017 session seemed to evaporate as Gov. Susana Martinez sought to strike a conciliatory tone on her way out of office. But gone, too, were any major initiatives or innovative policy changes. With Martinez nearing the end of her term and the state’s financial outlook brightening but not totally sunny, the session ended anticlimactically, with lawmakers eager to avoid another partisan showdown as they also wait to see what direction the state’s economy — and the governor’s yet-to-be-elected successor — might take.
The state House of Representatives on Saturday approved a bill seeking to create bigger prizes in the state lottery, but not before heavily amending the measure to protect the lottery scholarship fund for college students. House Bill 147, sponsored by Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park, cleared the House on a vote of 37-30. It eliminates a requirement that the lottery turn over 30 percent of its gross revenue for scholarships. The lottery staff and lobbyists for lottery vendors said scrapping the funding requirement actually would one day lead to significantly more money for scholarships. Democrats and Republicans alike were skeptical of that claim.
After a Senate committee last week poured cold water on a bill allowing Public Service Company of New Mexico to sell bonds to pay for the expenses of shutting down a coal-burning plant in San Juan County, a Farmington legislator has introduced a new bill aimed at easing the impact of the plant’s closure on county residents and government institutions. House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, told The New Mexican on Thursday that his legislation, House Bill 325, would require the state Public Regulation Commission to consider the economic effects on communities when deciding cases involving the shutdown of large power sources, such as the San Juan Generating Station. The bill also would require a utility to build any replacement power source in the same community as the facility it is planning to close. Many proponents of the original measure tied to PNM, Senate Bill 47, argued during a lengthy hearing Saturday that it would offer aid to residents of San Juan County who heavily rely on jobs at the power plant and a nearby coal mine that supplies it. “The school district in Kirtland, New Mexico, gets about $37 million a year from the power plant,” Montoya said Thursday.
Only 328 people live in Red River, but even they have a lobbyist. The mountain town known as a vacation destination pays $2,000 each month plus tax for the services of Gabriel Cisneros, who represents a short list of local governments at the state Capitol. He is just one in a small army of lobbyists at work in Santa Fe during this year’s 30-day legislative session representing towns, counties, villages, school districts, colleges and even charter schools — mostly if not entirely on the taxpayers’ dime. They may seem like a waste of money given that these communities are already represented by legislators and an alphabet soup of advocacy groups from the New Mexico Association of Counties to the New Mexico Municipal League and the Council of University Presidents. Government officials counter that lobbyists are worth the price to keep up with a legislative process that can affect local budgets and institutions, from the county jail to the water treatment plant.
Oil and gas industry revenues pay a huge share of the money that goes into the state budget. And lobbyists for big oil companies pay a huge amount of campaign contributions to New Mexico politicians. An analysis of lobbyist expense reports filed in recent days with the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office shows oil companies dominate the list of the largest donors to campaigns and political committees since last October. By far the biggest contributor among lobbyists in the new batch of reports was the Austin, Texas-based Stephen Perry, Chevron USA’s state government affairs manager for Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Perry listed $183,250 in contributions.
Gov. Susana Martinez signaled Tuesday she is not going quietly into her last year in office, opening a 30-day session of the Legislature with a State of the State address that touted issues she has pushed throughout her administration and steeling herself for one last showdown with Democratic lawmakers. The two-term Republican governor called for comprehensive tax reform but did not offer any specifics on what that might involve, urged tougher criminal sentences and raised many of the same education and economic policies she has regularly mentioned in her annual address. With the state’s finances improving, offering a reprieve from another round of budget cuts, many Democrats and Republicans alike had come to expect this monthlong session would not be marked by any particularly ambitious initiatives or changes in policy as Martinez prepares to leave office. Instead, many seemed ready to approve a balanced budget and take steps to try to stem the state’s rising crime rates. Indeed, the governor did not offer any big new ideas.
Legislative leadership in both chambers and of both parties announced a bipartisan group of legislators will address the state’s sexual harassment policy. The sexual harassment policy was last revised in 2008, which was also the last time legislators underwent sexual harassment training. The group of legislators will work with the Legislative Council Service as well as outside attorneys to review the existing policy and recommend an updated draft policy to the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council, which is made up of members of each chamber, will then vote on adoption of the new policy in January. Leadership announced that the working group will look at applying the policy to staff, contractors, lobbyists and outside vendors in addition to legislators as well as “clearly outlining terms of enforcement” and outlining protections for those reporting sexual harassment from any retaliation.
A new report may shed some light on how New Mexico voters feel about campaign public financing and groups who raise money independently of candidates. It comes as ethics complaints related to Albuquerque’s election stack up and congressional and gubernatorial candidates fill their campaign accounts. The 2017 Campaign Finance Report released by the University of New Mexico shows most registered voters favor public financing and making public financing available to more candidates. The report also shows many New Mexicans disagree that independent expenditure groups should be able to raise and spend money unregulated as a form a free speech. The report from the political science department found 70 percent of voters would like public financing to be available for more elected offices.
A judge ruled that ten of Gov. Susana Martinez vetoes from this year’s legislative session were invalid–and ordered that the bills become law. Earlier this year, the Legislature sued the governor, arguing she failed to follow the state constitution by not providing an explanation of her vetoes. Judge Sarah Singleton in the 1st Judicial District Court made the decision Friday. “We’re disappointed in this decision because there is no question the governor vetoed these bills,” spokesman Joseph Cueto said in an email Friday afternoon. “It’s telling how some in the legislature love running to the courts when they know they don’t have the support to override a veto.”
Both the House and Senate recessed Thursday afternoon—without officially ending the special session. Now, the governor has three days to take action on four bills aimed at tax changes and reinstating funding to the Legislative branch and institutes of higher education. By recessing until Tuesday instead of adjourning, the House and Senate could still introduce new legislation to replace anything Gov. Susana Martinez might veto. Martinez, in an atypical statement, praised the Legislature for some of their work. “In a bipartisan manner, lawmakers passed my plan to put more funding toward cancer research and student financial aid, while at the same time forfeiting their pork projects and a small portion of their personal legislative retirement accounts to fill the budget hole — something I’ve urged them to do for months,” she said.