January 16, 2017

A score of newcomers to take seats in 2017 Legislature

State Rep.-elect Daymon Ely remembers the precise moment when he decided to run for a seat in the House of Representatives.

He said he realized that his son, who’s in Savannah, Ga., studying to become a video game designer, would never have the opportunity to return to New Mexico because of the poor economy.

“That kid can get a job anywhere else,” Ely said. “That just made me crazy.”

So Ely, D-Corrales, began a yearlong campaign for office. He focused on jobs and the economy in his race against a Republican incumbent, Rep. Paul Pacheco. A retired Albuquerque police officer, Pacheco was best-known for introducing crime-and-punishment bills favored by Gov. Susana Martinez.

Ely bested Pacheco by 105 votes in a race in which more than 14,000 people cast ballots. His victory helped Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives after two years of Republican rule. Ely and four other Democrats won seats that had been held by Republicans, flipping control of the House.

New Mexico’s legislative session begins Tuesday with Democrats having a 38-32 advantage in the House. Democrats also control the state Senate, 26-16. Twenty of the 112 lawmakers are freshmen. Some plan to find their way slowly. Others such as Ely hope for a running start in reshaping policy.

Ely, 59, is an attorney who sues other attorneys for malpractice, a busy and lucrative career. One of his proposals as a freshman representative will be to increase the state’s personal income tax by 1 percent for the top 1 percent of earners. Ely said this tax increase would apply to households with an annual income of $235,000 a year or more. He says he is in that category.

Martinez has promised to veto any tax increases. In turn, Ely said, this means Democrats who control the Legislature need to secure help from Republican colleagues to make changes on tax policy.

“We’re not going to get anything done that’s meaningful unless we have cooperation,” he said.

He hasn’t done any vote counting to know if Republican House members, who so far have uniformly backed the governor’s policy stands, might be inclined to buck her on tax issues by overriding vetoes. Because of the state’s stagnant economy, Ely said, New Mexico lawmakers have to add to revenues to stabilize the state budget and create jobs. “We’re not just going to hold our hands behind our back, cut corporate taxes and wait for Santa Claus,” he said.

Legislators in 2013 approved corporate tax breaks that Martinez coveted but so far have not improved the economy.

Rep.-elect Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, says he and Ely have gotten on well after meeting in orientation sessions. But Nibert, 59, an attorney who specializes in oil and gas issues, says he’s entering the House without any agenda on what issues should be tackled.

“I don’t know that I have any hopes or ambitions,” Nibert said. “I want to learn. I want to understand the system and build relationships.”

A former Chaves County commissioner, Nibert said he learned in local government that establishing a working relationship with colleagues was a good first step to effective public service.

Nibert also admits something that most politicians won’t: He’s apprehensive about becoming a state legislator. “The enormity of the responsibility is starting to creep in,” he said.

Sen.-elect Liz Stefanics, D-Santa Fe, technically is a freshman, too. But she served one term in the Senate from 1993-96, so she has more familiarity with the Legislature than most newcomers.

Stefanics represents parts of six counties in a district that stretches for about 170 miles, from San Miguel County in the north to Lincoln County in the south. She returns to the Senate mindful of the unusual issues in her largely rural district. One is the need for better maintenance of school buses, a problem that may require a different funding formula to keep kids safe.

The state’s fiscal crisis has had tangible drawbacks on her district, she said. “We have cut our school budgets and school transportation so much.”

Stefanics, 66, arrives in the Senate after eight years in local government. She served two terms as a Santa Fe County commissioner, leaving office in December.

As a senator, she said, she will support increasing the tax on gasoline and additional funding for early childhood education, a cause that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party advocates.

A proposal Stefanics supports would annually take one-half of 1 percent of the $15 billion state land grant endowment to expand early childhood education. Stefanics and many other Democrats say more people would graduate from high school and far fewer would land in prison if New Mexico made it a priority to invest in children from the prenatal stage to age 5.

Gov. Martinez, Republican legislators and several Democrats, including Sens. John Arthur Smith of Deming and Carlos Cisneros of Questa, all have opposed using the endowment to fund another program. The land grant fund last year provided $656 million to public schools and universities.

One of the most persistent newcomers entering the Legislature is Rep.-elect Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces. She defeated Republican Rep. Terry McMillan in their third race against one another.

Ferrary and McMillan initially finished in a tie in the 2012 election, each receiving 6,247 votes. McMillan won by eight votes after a recount.

Ferrary, 63, said coming so close to beating McMillan motivated her to keep challenging him. She took 52 percent of the vote in the November election.

She enters the House with a goal of improving the state’s schools.

“I want to limit the number of days of [standardized] testing, and I want better salaries for teachers,” Ferrary said. Because of the state’s financial problems, higher wages aren’t likely to advance in the Legislature this year.

Ferrary also supports using a portion of the land grant endowment to expand early childhood education. “It’s the perfect way,” she said in response to those who say the endowment should not be tapped for the program.

One of the freshmen who’s most experienced in government is assuming elected office for the first time. He is Sen.-elect Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, who worked as a county and city manager for some 40 years. Tallman, 75, won his first public office in November by defeating Republican Sen. Lisa Torraco in a rematch of their 2012 race.

Tallman said he worked hard for the victory with plenty of door-knocking and benefited because his district has a growing number of Democratic voters.

Tallman won’t be anywhere close to the oldest legislator in New Mexico. Sen. John Pinto, D-Gallup, is 92 as he begins his 40th year in office.

Republicans lost seats overall in the House and the Senate, but they had one notable pickup. Sen.-elect Greg Baca of Belen defeated Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, in one of the state’s nastiest races.

Baca, 45, is an attorney and a veteran of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the Gulf War. He was the only Republican to unseat a sitting Democratic lawmaker in the 2016 election.

Makeup of the New Mexico Legislature by party

House of Representatives — 38 Democrats and 32 Republicans. Republicans in the last two years had the advantage, 37-33, but Democrats regained control of the chamber by flipping five seats in the November general election.

Senate — 26 Democrats and 16 Republicans. Democrats increased their advantage by two seats in the last election.

The six freshmen in the 42-member state Senate

o Greg Baca, R-Belen, unseated Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen. Baca was the only Republican to defeat a sitting Democratic lawmaker in either the Senate or the House of Representatives.

o Candace Gould, R-Albuquerque, defeated a Democrat for an open seat that had been held by a Republican.

o Liz Stefanics, D-Santa Fe, defeated a Republican who was an incumbent by appointment.

o Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, defeated a Republican incumbent. Steinborn moves to the Senate from the House of Representatives.

o Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, defeated a Republican incumbent.

o Sen. Jim White, R-Albuquerque, defeated a Democrat. The governor appointed White to the Senate last year to fill a seat that had been held by a Republican.

The 14 freshmen in the 70-member House of Representatives

o Gail Armstrong will become a House member Tuesday through an appointment from Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. Armstrong, R-Magdalena, succeeds outgoing House Speaker Don Tripp. Tripp, of Socorro, decided to resign from office after Republicans lost control of the House in the fall election.

o Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, defeated a Democrat for an open seat. The previous representative also was a Republican.

o Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, unseated a Republican incumbent.

o Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, defeated a Republican incumbent.

o Harry Garcia, D-Grants, won the general election without opposition. The governor appointed him to House last fall after Garcia won a Democratic primary. Garcia succeeded Kenny Martinez, a former speaker of the House.

o Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, won a contested primary and then took the general election without opposition. He succeeds a Democrat who retired.

o Rudy Martinez, D-Bayard, defeated Republican Rep. John Zimmerman. Zimmerman had won the seat from Rudy Martinez in 2014.

o Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, defeated a Democrat for an open seat. Nibert replaces Republican Rep. Nora Espinoza, who lost a race for secretary of state.

o Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, defeated a Republican for an open seat. Democrat Jeff Steinborn, now a member of the state Senate, previously held the seat.

o Debbie Sariñana, D-Albuquerque, defeated an incumbent by appointment in the primary election and won the general election without opposition.

o Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, unseated a Republican incumbent.

o Candie Sweetser, D-Deming, defeated a Republican for an open seat. She replaces a Democrat who retired.

o Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, defeated a Republican for an open seat. This was a pickup for Democrats. Thomson previously served one term in the House.

o Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, won an open seat that was held by a Democrat who retired.