February 20, 2020

Budget goes to governor

The New Mexico House of Representatives descended into dysfunction as it tried to approve a budget early Thursday morning, finally sending the legislation to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk with just hours to spare in the session.

The House ultimately voted to accept the Senate’s amendments to House Bill 2 in the wee hours of the morning after the upper chamber had passed an amended version of the legislation in much more civil fashion Wednesday afternoon. 

“We have a budget,” House Speaker Brian Egolf said.

But that didn’t happen until after a bizarre and tumultuous false start. Around midnight, the House voted to concur with the Senate’s budget changes after a very brief debate. But Republican leadership soon came charging onto the floor, lambasting Egolf for calling a vote while knowing “damn well” that they were in the other room.

“The entire session you have done this. You can’t keep your word for five minutes,” Minority Whip Rod Montoya shouted at Egolf from the floor, apparently referencing an unspecified agreement the two parties made. “We were talking about working this out. Instead this is the route you decide to go.”

Moments later, Minority Leader Jim Townsend walked onto the floor, apparently unaware that the budget had already been voted on. Other Republican members also complained that they had asked to participate in the debate but were denied.

“This was handed to us 10 minutes ago and you did not expect to have debate on it?” Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, asked Egolf, referring to the Senate’s budget amendments. 

After a pause, Egolf agreed to hold a new debate and vote on the budget bill so that those Republicans could participate. That was held more than an hour later, after the body took up other bills, and the House ended up passing the bill for a second time around 1:15 a.m. after only several minutes of debate. 

That wasn’t the only caustic disagreement on the House floor in the waning moments of the session. A couple hours earlier while another bill was being debated, Townsend and Rep. Daymon Ely got into an argument over whether parliamentary procedure was properly followed. 

Shortly after the budget debacle, senators meeting on the other side of the Roundhouse commented on the “dysfunction” in the House, as Sen. John Sapien put it. 

“From time to time, I’ll go over there and just watch the circus,” Sen. Cliff Pirtle said, joking about watching the House when he needs entertainment. 

Ironically, the tension around the budget had been more between Senate and House Democrats than between members of opposing parties. 

In recent days, Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, had repeatedly criticized the lower house’s budget bill, while Egolf retorted on Tuesday that Smith’s panel had worked in “complete and total secrecy.” 

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Smith again criticized the original House version of the legislation, which his committee amended significantly to lower spending — such as cutting a proposed 5 percent raise for teachers to 4 percent.

“It’s not a question of whether we would like to do it, it’s a question of having a balanced budget,” said Smith, D-Deming.

The state Senate passed the bill by a vote of 35-7 after a two-hour debate in which Republicans warned of the dangers of New Mexico’s dependence on oil and gas, while a couple of progressive Democrats argued for spending more.

That bill was amended Tuesday by the Senate Finance Committee, which cut one-time appropriations from the House bill by a total of $142.5 million. That included reducing roadwork spending to $180 million from $255 million.

Republican senators voiced concern during the floor debate about the state’s dependence on the volatile oil and gas industry and the possibility that revenue could fall amid a downturn in energy markets.

“We’ve got to continue to be very careful,” said Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo. “We don’t have a whole lot of wiggle room on this stuff.”

Pirtle, R-Roswell, proposed an amendment that would have inserted language into the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, embedded in the budget bill, to help high-school dropouts with GED certificates get a college education.

Pirtle lamented that the chamber didn’t get a chance to debate Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s college tuition proposal because a separate bill focusing on that initiative hasn’t moved forward. Money for the program instead was included in HB 2. 

Senators initially voted in favor of Pirtle’s amendment. But in a strange move some 20 minutes later, a motion was made to reconsider it; on the second take, it was struck down.

Smith argued that Pirtle’s change was not necessary because the budget bill gives the Higher Education Department the flexibility to target different segments of the student population.

The Senate decided to fund Lujan Grisham’s proposal at $17 million, with only $12 million in recurring spending. The allocation was a big drop from the $35 million the governor originally had requested, though a step up from the House’s decision not to fund the scholarship program at all.

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, then proposed a second amendment that would have allocated an extra $23 million to pay raises so no state employee or public school worker would make less than $15 an hour. The amendment failed; senators said it would throw the budget out of balance and could force a special session.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, took issue with the budget crafting process in general and questioned why it was necessary to leave 25 percent in reserves after the House had approved the legislation with 23 percent in reserves.

“I think we have a situation where we’re planning the budget backwards,” Ortiz y Pino said. “Instead of starting with what we need, we started with what we want to save.”

The Albuquerque Democrat also charged that he and other senators who aren’t members of the Senate Finance Committee weren’t able to give input before the budget was drafted.

“This is more of an informational session than an action session,” he said.

Moderate Democrats countered that it wasn’t possible to satisfy all budget requests, even if they came from state agencies or the governor. 

“Not everyone gets what they want — it’s that way in the world,” said Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat. “You’re not always going to get what you want in life.”

Staff writer Michael Gerstein contributed to this report.