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.
New Mexico legislators rolled five different crime bills into one, then sent the measure to the governor Wednesday in what they called a bipartisan move to make communities and prisons safer. State senators approved the plan, House Bill 19, on a vote of 32-2. The measure already had cleared the House of Representatives on a 66-1 vote. Now the bill moves to Republican Gov. Susana Martinez for her consideration. Martinez herself pushed a number of crime bills during the 30-day legislative session, including an unsuccessful attempt to reinstate the death penalty.
A Senate committee dealt a blow to Public Service Company of New Mexico on Saturday by voting to stall a bill allowing the utility to sell bonds to pay for the early closing of a coal-burning power plant in northwestern New Mexico. The Senate Conservation Committee voted 5-4 to table Senate Bill 47, known as the Energy Redevelopment Bond Act. The vote followed a more than three-hour hearing, which drew a packed crowd to the Senate chambers. Proponents argued the measure would boost renewable energy in the state while offering aid to residents of San Juan County who heavily rely on jobs at the power plant and a nearby coal mine that supplies it. Opponents, however, painted it as a bailout for PNM and said it would weaken state regulators’ oversight of the utility.
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.
Senate Democrats said Tuesday that New Mexico’s future looks bright — partly because it doesn’t include outgoing Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who also struck a combative tone at the start of the 30-day legislative session. “There’s a new day on the horizon for the state of New Mexico,” said Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, who delivered the response from his caucus to Martinez’s final State of the State address. “Soon, we will have a new leadership team that will guide the state in providing more jobs, better classrooms, protection for our environment [and] safer places for our communities to raise our families and lead prosperous lives,” he said. “New Mexico has been on too many of the lists, at the bottom, for far too long.” In her speech, Martinez, who leaves office at the end of this year, focused on issues she has been working on since she was first elected governor in 2010.
Responding to renewed attention on sexual harassment, New Mexico Democrats removed Sen. Michael Padilla from his position as Majority Whip in the chamber on Saturday. The move comes two weeks after Padilla dropped out of the race for Lieutenant Governor. Democrats in Senate leadership released laudatory statements when announcing the caucus voted to vacate the whip position. “Senator Padilla is a valued member of the New Mexico state Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said. “We look forward to supporting his ongoing legislative efforts to create jobs and help New Mexico families.”
Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen also praised Padilla.
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 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.”
On the surface, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s proposed changes to campaign finance reporting rules appear to be a wonky topic. But to some outspoken opponents it’s a free speech violation. Burly Cain, the New Mexico state director of Americans for Prosperity, compared the proposed changes to forcing an 80-year-old woman to “wear an armband to say what she believes on her arm.”
Officials with the secretary of state’s office say they are simply attempting to update outdated sections of the state’s Campaign Reporting Act that are no longer legally valid after high-profile court decisions. This includes the state law definition of “political committee,” which is broadly defined as two or more people who are “selected, appointed, chosen, associated, organized or operated primarily” for influencing an election or political convention. This definition was found to be “unconstitutionally broad” in New Mexico Youth Organized v. Herrera, a 2009 court case, according to Secretary of State Chief Information Officer Kari Fresquez.