February 6, 2017

Analysis: ‘Feed bill’ fight may foretell partisan battles to come

If you thought that somehow the flowery talk before the current legislative session about working together to solve the state’s stagnant economy and high unemployment meant that hyped-up partisan battles between the two political parties and between Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and the Democratic-controlled Legislature were a thing of the past in the Roundhouse … think again.

Although the process has not melted down to a full-fledged political food fight, the recent fury over the so-called “feed bill” — which pays for the session as well as interim legislative committees — caused much animosity and led to some harsh rhetoric and partisan posturing. And that might only be a preview of battles to come in the remaining 40 days of the session.

Martinez called the Legislature’s actions “political games” that showed a “lack of leadership,” claiming in a news release that Democrats “continue to protect their precious pork projects.”

A quick synopsis of the feed bill skirmish: On the first day of the session, state representatives unanimously passed House Bill 1, which contained a reduction in House expenses. The Senate initially ignored that bill and came up with a feed bill of its own, Senate Bill 176, which kept the Legislature’s budget flat but added $800,000 in emergency funds for the ailing state judiciary and $200,000 for the state Department of Aging and Long-term Care — a move Martinez called “cynical and disturbing.” That bill passed by a large bipartisan margin and went back to the House, where it passed on a party-line vote after a lengthy, sometimes rancorous debate.

Martinez vetoed it, so last week the Senate amended House Bill 1, keeping in the money for the courts. The bill passed the Senate with a 35-5 bipartisan vote. House Democrats had enough votes to concur with the Senate’s amendments. Martinez signed it but vetoed the emergency money for the judiciary.

It’s not unusual for a governor to make a few line-item vetoes in the feed bill. But vetoing the entire bill is almost unheard of. Some longtime Roundhouse observers said last week that the last time it happened was in the 1980s when Toney Anaya was governor.

And it’s very rare to take more than two weeks to pass a feed bill. Normally that’s done by the first two days of the session.

Besides the line-item veto, Martinez’s bill message contained some rhetorical blasts at the Legislature.

She wrote in her official message signing that the bill “shows that many in the Legislature are not willing to lead by example. The Legislature routinely over funds itself, adds unused dollars to their legislative cash balances, and funds their own priorities with little oversight. Even now, in a time of exceptional hardship, the Legislature has provided for funding far in excess of what it actually spent in the last 60-day session. … Despite the lack of leadership and the blatant attempt to mask legislative spending, staff in the Legislature deserve to get paid — not used in political games.”

The governor continued, “I commend those in the House and Senate who stood up and raised concerns — who did not just accept the directive handed down by chamber bosses.”

Referring to “bosses” is reminiscent of recent years when Martinez and her allies almost always referred to the then Senate majority leader as “Senate Boss Michael Sanchez.” Sanchez, a Belen Democrat, was defeated for re-election last year after relentless negative campaign attacks lodged by a political action committee closely tied to Martinez.

In the news release announcing the bill signing, Martinez twice used a common GOP rhetorical device known to irritate Democrats nationwide: refusing to use the adjective “Democratic,” and instead saying “Democrat.”

In that same release, Martinez said her call for all branches of government to tighten theirs belts “has fallen on deaf ears in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Instead of making the tough decisions and finding savings, Democrat lawmakers not only increased their budget, but they also continue to protect their precious pork projects and personal legislative retirements.”

The line-item veto of the emergency court funds even seemed to provoke a relatively fiery response from the normally mild-mannered Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. “The coming chaos in our courts system can be placed squarely at the feet of this governor,” he said in a statement.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels recently said the courts would run out of funds for jury trials in March and that the Supreme Court might have to start furloughing employees if they don’t get that money. House Republican leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque has introduced a standalone bill for emergency court funds.

For his part, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, was more subdued about the feed bill fight. “In this situation, the stakes are too high to engage in political gamesmanship,” he said in an email statement after the veto of SB 176. “The paychecks of hardworking New Mexicans are at stake, and we will not engage in divisive political rhetoric.”

After Martinez signed HB 1, Egolf said, “It is now time that we attend to the urgent issues confronting New Mexico. … We must use this legislative session to strengthen and secure the rights of everyday New Mexicans.”

Asked whether the fight over the feed bill was an indication that bipartisan cooperation in the Legislature is impossible this session, Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said, “Since day one, the governor has been committed to working with legislators of both parties and chambers to move New Mexico forward. So far, she’s already worked with lawmakers to quash a budget deficit without raising taxes and while protecting classroom spending, public safety and job creation tools. There’s still a lot of work to do. But she remains confident that we can continue to come together and make New Mexicans proud.”

And indeed, a news release earlier last week announcing the governor’s signing of three bills aimed at balancing the books of the current fiscal year was far more conciliatory.

“While they sent over a package that isn’t perfect, I’m pleased that it doesn’t compromise our principles,” Martinez said. “I thank lawmakers for their willingness to compromise and ensure that it is state government that has to tighten its belt — not our families.”

Still, the question remains: If there was this much rancor over the feed bill, how much fur is going to fly over those “urgent issues” during the rest of the session?

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at www.santafenewmexican.com/news/blogs/politics.