February 21, 2020

Five takeaways from the 2020 legislative session

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

Fourth floor diplomacy

Before the session, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said her strategy for the session — and governance in general — was to employ diplomacy and compromise with legislators to win support for her initiatives. It sounded like a fuzzy talking point at the time. It turned out to be largely true.

A number of the bills Lujan Grisham prioritized during the session did indeed pass, but important ones didn’t, such as recreational cannabis. And her marquee Opportunity Scholarship proposal, announced with much fanfare last year, was scaled down in a big way.

In the end, she appeared to accept a middle ground. The governor said she could work with legislators’ plans to provide lower financing for the scholarship program, adding Cabinet secretaries involved would have to “leverage” the funds to make it work.

Lujan Grisham said she’ll move forward with the same strategy in the future, working toward getting more funding for the scholarship between now and next year — similar to how she struck a deal to create an early childhood trust fund.

On cannabis, she praised the debate this year for “building a foundation” and said she expected to push for legalization again in the future.

“I don’t see any of that as a failure,” she said of the bill’s inability to get passed in 2020.

Internal warfare

Anyone who assumed legislators of the same party play nice when crafting a budget was wrong. For proof, witness the unexpected tension between House and Senate Democrats over House Bill 2, the budget bill.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, had worked together to lead the Legislative Finance Committee during the interim period. Yet there was no love lost between the two during the session. 

Ultimately, they hammered out a budget in time. Asked about the tension as the session’s conclusion, Lundstrom said she expected relations to smooth. But she issued a bit of a warning: “HAFC will not be the little sister to Senate Finance,” she said, referring to her committee. 

Senate Democrats still hold the keys to the kingdom

Though the governor set the tone and the agenda for the 30-day session, and the House of Representatives pushed through many of those bills, it’s still the moderate Senate Democrats who hold the keys to the kingdom. Controversial bills, especially those with progressive tinges, still have a tough time getting to the Lujan Grisham’s desk without their support.

It’s a pretty simple equation: The governor and Majority Leader Peter Wirth were able to persuade enough moderate Democrats to support the “red flag” gun bill, and it passed. But they couldn’t get Sen. Joseph Cervantes to support legalizing recreational cannabis, nor could they persuade Sens Clemente Sanchez and  Mary Kay Papen to back a bill restructuring the Public Regulation Commission. Those bids failed.

Progressive Democrats in power can continue to pray — likely in vain — for an ideological shift among their more conservative colleagues. Or they can hope voters shift the ideology of the Senate at the ballot box in November. That may be their best chance at winning approval for the pending items they most care about.

Swimming in the pork barrel

For years, the Legislature’s capital outlay process has been debated and criticized. Some lawmakers say it’s not a good system and should be reformed, and this session highlighted the inefficiency of the current system.

Legislators and the governor already had hundreds of millions of dollars available for one-time spending on infrastructure from general obligation severance tax bonds. Yet an extra $137 million in general fund money was also quietly tacked onto the capital outlay bill.

Around the same time, the Senate Finance Committee began to complain the budget was below the reserves target by a similar amount, precisely because of extra capital outlay requests. And so, the Senate said it had to pare back the budget, cutting money from items such as teacher pay raises.

It’s unlikely most people will ever know how it happened, because negotiations take place behind closed doors. It’s plausible that if those talks were held openly and in less rushed fashion, the budget hole the Senate patched could have been avoided.

The process was anything but open. Information on capital outlay was notoriously difficult for the media to obtain during the session — until two bills magically popped out in the final week and were unanimously passed with practically no debate. Neither the Governor’s Office nor legislative leaders made a serious effort to pass proposed legislation to reform the process.

The GOP’s alternative methods

The tactics employed by Republicans to derail Democratic bills during the session included rambling Senate filibusters or three-hour House debates into the wee hours of the morning. They drew Democrats’ ire, but the strategy did have an impact.

A tactical “call of the Senate” and then an 11th-hour filibuster by Senate Republicans Thursday morning prevented a vote on an election laws cleanup bill, which incurred the wrath of the bill’s proponents in the Legislature as well as New Mexico’s Secretary of State and the Santa Fe County Clerk.

And while the House did get to its big-ticket bills, the delay tactics did disrupt the leadership’s plans.

“That was a break in the norm,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf. “There was, at times, frustration that we weren’t able to get through the agenda.”