A bell on a desk greeted visitors to the lieutenant governor’s office during Howie Morales’ first couple weeks on the job. Ring for service, a sign said. Not particularly glamorous, it seemed to sum up the office of lieutenant governor, which comes with few official duties and even fewer prospects for higher office. But Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in her early days in office has handed Morales a more expansive profile than many of his predecessors. She asked the former state senator, teacher and high school baseball coach to oversee the Public Education Department until she names a cabinet secretary.
Getting elected governor of New Mexico by 14 percentage points doesn’t mean you’ll get everything you want in Silver City. Settling a short but heated battle within her own party and ending an impasse with three Southwestern New Mexico counties, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday appointed Gabriel Ramos to fill the state Senate seat vacated by Lt. Gov. Howie Morales. Lujan Grisham had asked over the weekend that the counties give her additional names of potential candidates, arguing state law appears to require each county nominate different possible successors. But county leaders across the sprawling district stood by Ramos, a Democrat, as the legislative session began this week and Morales’ old seat sat empty. While Ramos enjoyed the backing of the boards of commissioners in Grant, Catron and Socorro counties, environmentalists argued he has been too supportive of the Central Arizona Project and some Democratic activists said he is too conservative.
Lyssette De Santiago thought about the question only for a moment before her hand shot toward the ceiling. The dark-haired fifth-grader at Sweeney Elementary School didn’t need much time to think about an issue that likely will vex legislators, teachers, parents, education advocates and taxpayers in the upcoming 60-day session of the New Mexico Legislature. Her teacher asked: How would she spend a projected $1.1 billion in new oil and gas revenue to improve public education? “Spend it on notebooks,” Lyssette answered. “Because sometimes parents don’t have enough money to buy them for their kids.”
Former President Barack Obama endorsed several New Mexico candidates Monday, including the Democratic nominees for governor and lieutenant governor. Obama announced the endorsement of about 200 candidates nationwide on Twitter Monday. His focus, he announced, was on legislative and statewide races “that are redistricting priorities.”
Michelle Lujan Grisham and Howie Morales were happy with the endorsement, touting it in a statement shortly after Obama’s announcement. “This election is about bringing energy, vision, and experienced leadership to Santa Fe to build a stronger economy, expand health care access, and create a better future for our kids,” Lujan Grisham said. “That’s why I’m so honored to have President Obama’s support and trust as we work every day to protect and build on his legacy in New Mexico and create real opportunities for families across the state.”
Obama’s endorsement said that Lujan Grisham “stops at nothing to fight for the people she serves.”
“The last eight years have left New Mexicans waiting for a leader like Michelle, a leader who can restore hope and put opportunity back within reach,” Obama said.
“It’s going to be a nail-biter,” Garrett VeneKlasen said, early in the night as he and fellow Democrat Stephanie Garcia Richard were neck-and-neck in the race for New Mexico State Land Commissioner. And indeed it was, as the two traded the lead throughout the night, with Garcia Richard, a state representative, pulling ahead as the final results from Bernalillo County came in late Tuesday night, giving her a two percentage point lead over VeneKlasen. Despite a last-minute ad campaign, state Sen. George Muñoz finished almost 15 percentage points behind the two front-runners. “I feel very gratified the voters responded to my cause,” Garcia Richard said. “I was outspent, I didn’t have the institutional support my opponents had and I didn’t have the endorsements they had.”
In November’s general election, she will face Republican Pat Lyons, who previously held the office for two terms, from 2003 until 2010. A rancher, Lyons currently represents District 2 on the Public Regulation Commission.
Two of the three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor have over $1.5 million cash on hand for the final stretch before the primary election on June 5. Early voting has already started. State Sen. Joseph Cervantes has now loaned his own campaign over $2 million and raised only about $15,000 from others. He now has $1.65 million cash on hand. U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham raised over $410,000 and spent nearly $640,000 between April 3 and May 7.
The president pro tem of the New Mexico Senate on Wednesday called for the resignation of the five regents of New Mexico State University, saying they had arbitrarily stripped powers from Chancellor Garrey Carruthers. The regents voted Monday to prohibit Carruthers from hiring and firing people in executive or coaching positions at the main campus in Las Cruces and on NMSU’s branch campuses. This triggered a strong response from Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces. She stated in a letter of complaint to the regents that they had inappropriately and perhaps unlawfully delegated their responsibilities to one person while taking away authority from Carruthers. Papen’s reference was to regents board Chairwoman Debra Hicks, who was empowered by the rest of the board to make interim appointments.
The proposal to expand early childhood education across New Mexico died quietly Tuesday at the state Capitol, scotched because a vote on the initiative will not be taken in the state Senate Finance Committee. Sen. John Arthur Smith, the Democrat from Deming who chairs the committee, said in an interview that he had decided not to give a hearing to the proposed constitutional amendment before the legislative session ends at noon Thursday. “It doesn’t have the votes,” Smith said of the measure, House Joint Resolution 1. Asked if he had polled his 12-member committee, Smith said he expected that at least he and the five Republican members probably would vote down the initiative. That would leave the measure no better than a 6-6 tie, meaning it could not advance to the full 42-member Senate.
As one of the tour guides at the New Mexico state Capitol, Dolores Esquibel loves to show off every corner of a building that has, well, no corners. For years, the Española resident has led dozens of visitors through the dizzying maze of hallways and corridors that make up the four floors of the half-century-old Roundhouse. But when lawmakers are in session, her tour is unlikely to include much time in the Rotunda, the open and circular center of the Roundhouse that rises all the way to the governor’s office on the fourth floor. “We usually bring them up here because we can’t do anything downstairs — they’re always having something, some kind of a function,” Esquibel said recently, peering down at the airy and busy Rotunda from the third floor. “Every day during the Legislature, there’s something going on,” she said.
Gov. Susana Martinez signed a new nurse licensing compact on Thursday, averting what one lawmaker warned would be a health care crisis by ensuring nurses with licenses from more than two dozen other states can continue practicing in New Mexico without getting a separate certificate. A bipartisan group of lawmakers sped the bill through the Legislature in the first days of this year’s month-long session as they faced a deadline late Friday to either approve the new compact or leave dozens — potentially hundreds — of nurses with licenses from other states unable to work in New Mexico, only making worse a shortage of medical professionals around the state. “Some hospitals, as high as 70 percent of their staff are out-of-state nurses. This is critical,” Rep. Deborah Armstrong, a Democrat from Albuquerque and chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, told representatives before the chamber voted 68-0 to approve the new compact without debate. After the swift vote, the measure headed to the governor, who signed it Thursday afternoon surrounded by Democratic and Republican lawmakers.