December 5, 2018

The next legislative session could echo 2003

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

An incoming Democrat is replacing a Republican in the governor’s office, and will get to work with a large Democratic majority in the Legislature.

The new governor will have a large budget surplus and many potential projects to fund, both those sought by legislators and by the governor.

No, this isn’t a preview for next month’s legislative session, the first with Michelle Lujan Grisham as governor, but a look back at 2003.

When Democrat Bill Richardson replaced Republican Gary Johnson, “it was like a dam burst,” former State Sen. Dede Feldman said, speaking of the laws enacted. In the 2003 session alone, 439 bills became law, compared to 110 the year before. The 2003 session was a 60-day session, but still had an unusually high number of passed bills.

Feldman, an  Albuquerque Democrat, served in the state legislature from 1997 to 2012 and worked with three different governors during her time in office.

Johnson is infamous for vetoing nearly 800 bills over his eight years in office, and he earned the nickname “Governor No” as well as a reputation for not working with the Legislature. In 2002,  legislators went so far as to call themselves into an extraordinary session, the only time in the state’s history, to pass a budget and override Johnson’s earlier veto of the entire state budget.

Against  that backdrop,  Democrats had a flood of bills, waiting for a governor who would sign them into law.

Just in that first session, the legislators passed a significant personal income tax cut, made big changes to the tobacco settlement fund, increased the cigarette tax and allowed public financing for Public Regulation Commission races.

Legislators also sent two constitutional amendments to voters: One to tap the land grant permanent fund for education funding and another to move nearly all education power to the governor instead of an elected board. Voters later approved both changes to the state constitution.

Feldman noted that while a many bills the Legislature passed were previously vetoed by Johnson, Richardson also came into the session with his own set of priorities—chief among them, lowering the personal income tax.

The Legislature actually finished that even before the budget “because he was so bullish on doing that and wanted to be a governor who reduced taxes,” she said. “I think that was what he wanted to put on his resume right away with his eye on running for president.”

Richardson would unsuccessfully run for president in 2008, dropping out of the race for the Democratic nomination after poor showings in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

Barack Obama would go on to win the nomination and serve two terms as president. Richardson would remain governor of New Mexico until 2010 and preside over the impacts of the Great Recession.

While the income tax decrease may have helped Richardson’s popularity, Feldman says it was in retrospect a mistake that she and other Democrats “merrily went along with” that likely contributed to the state’s budget problems in those later Richardson years.

“You wish for a powerful governor from your own party, but you have to be careful what you wish for,” she said. “Because that powerful governor from your own party can also forget about the rank-and-file legislators to get his programs.”

She said the rush to do things began to alienate some key senators, including Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings and Senate Finance Committee chairman John Arthur Smith, both conservative Democrats.

Bills passed in 2003 still have widespread impacts today.Richardson wanted to permanently move the entire tobacco settlement fund to the general fund, to help pay for programs he sought. Instead, the Legislature moved the money for four years, then split the costs equally between the two funds after that.

This was just the first time legislators used the multi-million dollar fund as a way to balance the budget, much to the chagrin of advocates. The Legislature moved the money most recently in 2016 to help balance the budget.

Legislators also developed the first state water plan.

“It was the first time we thought to actively manage water rather than just let the legal chips fall where they may,” Feldman said. “There was this big morass of water rights and claims that were conflicting that were not computerized at the State Engineer’s office.”

The state is currently working on an update to the state water plan, at a time when drought conditions linger and climate change alters how much water the state gets and when.

And while the state faces a massive challenge to water from litigation pending before the Supreme Court, this is nothing new.

The Albuquerque Journal reported in 2003, before the Legislature developed the bill to mandate the water plan, that senators said “Developing a state plan is important to fending off challenges from others who might try to get water from New Mexico.”

Still, even all of the priorities didn’t pass immediately New Mexico didn’t outlaw cockfighting until 2007, thanks to bipartisan opposition to joining 48 other states in outlawing the practice. And the state didn’t abolish the death penalty until 2009.

Both bills languished for years before becoming law.

So even if legislators don’t pass an effort this year, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will wait until the next governor is sworn in.