January 20, 2021

Gallup Democrat Muñoz will head powerful Senate Finance Committee

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New Mexico State Senate.

State Sen. George Muñoz hasn’t slept very well since he found out he had been selected to serve as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, an appointment that comes with as much influence as it does responsibility.

“There are people in New Mexico that need help, and we’re going to make sure that we try to get them the help they need,” said Muñoz, a 53-year-old Gallup Democrat who was officially appointed to the position Tuesday, the first day of the 2021 legislative session.

“It’s different for every part of the state and for every New Mexican, so there’s a lot of responsibility, and it’s left me sleepless for a few nights,” he said.

Muñoz succeeds former Sen. John Arthur Smith, a conservative-leaning Democrat from Deming who served as committee chairman for more than a decade. Smith, who lost his reelection bid to a more progressive candidate in last year’s primary, earned the nickname “Dr. No” for his refusal to fund various initiatives, even those championed by his own party, over the years.

State Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who was elected Senate president pro tem, a top leadership post that gives her the power to make committee assignments, said Muñoz was next in line to be chair since he had served as vice chairman.

“In the Senate, there is a strong tradition that respects seniority,” she wrote in an email.

Stewart indicated Muñoz, who learned of the appointment a few days ago, will help shepherd a Democratic agenda.

“He understands the priorities of our caucus — for example, passing the Land Grant Permanent Fund, repealing the abortion ban, and getting assistance to the families and businesses hurt by the COVID pandemic,” she wrote. “He has also pledged, as other [committee] chairs have, to operate with more transparency than has been done in the past. We will get our priorities passed this year. That is our mandate from the voters.”

Muñoz, however, also is considered a conservative-leaning Democrat. Whether he stands in the way of more progressive members of his party remains to be seen, but he said “everything is going to get a fair hearing” — including an effort to tap into the Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood education programs. It’s been a key push for progressives for many years, one often blunted by Smith.

Muñoz, who owns a number of businesses and has served on the boards of several banks, said New Mexico’s recovery from the economic fallout stemming from the  coronavirus pandemic will be his top priority. He will often work with his counterpart in the House of Representatives, House Appropriations and Finance Committee Chairwoman Patricia Lundstrom, also a Democrat from Gallup.

“For me it’s, it’s recovery mode first and then we’ll move forward from there. How do we get New Mexico recovered? How do we make sure people are employed? I want to make sure businesses are reopening, and that’s number one,” Muñoz said.

Before speaking with reporters about his appointment, Muñoz said he wanted to make certain he let his wife, Sharmyn,  know that it was official.

“She allows me to do this,” he said.

Muñoz said he consulted with his wife when he learned he had been selected for the leadership post.

“She said, ‘I just want you to know that all New Mexico is counting on you. You need to do the right thing for New Mexico,'” he said. 

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.