November 2, 2022

How a new governor could impact reproductive policy

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

If Republican nominee Mark Ronchetti wins election, he can still impact reproductive rights policy, even without being able to pass his priorities through the Legislature with Democratic majorities.

Ronchetti has campaigned on an anti-abortion policy. During the Republican primary, his campaign website said he believed “life should be protected – at all stages.” In a commercial in September he said, that if elected, he would support a voter referendum on banning abortion after 15 weeks. But in July, Albuquerque megachurch pastor Steve Smothermon said Ronchetti told him privately that, if elected, Ronchetti still intended to ban abortion. Ronchetti’s campaign denied it. 

Related: Pastor says Ronchetti would seek to ban abortion

Smothermon reiterated the claim to his congregation in October, saying that “he told me exactly what I said.”

Ronchetti’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this fall, Texas Pastor Mark Lee Dickson, a staunch supporter and key driver of Texas’ gestational abortion ban that went into effect last year, met with Ronchetti and endorsed his campaign for governor. Former President Donald Trump, who also campaigned on an anti-abortion agenda, endorsed Ronchetti this week.  

Many of Ronchetti’s policy plans would require the Legislature to be in agreement with his policy initiatives. That would include his proposed referendum on abortion. New Mexico does not allow voter referendums but the Legislature could pass legislation that would allow the voters to add an amendment to the state constitution on the legality of abortion.

Former Republican Gov. Gary Johnson—who is now a registered Libertarian—served two terms as a Republican governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003 and has also endorsed Ronchetti for governor, said Ronchetti could issue executive orders. Through issuing executive orders, Ronchetti “can do anything,” Johnson said.

The one way the other branches of government can inhibit the governor’s use of executive orders is by suing the executive branch, Johnson said.

“It’ll get heard before the courts immediately,” Johnson said.

Timothy Krebs, University of New Mexico Political Science Department Chair, said that in New Mexico, the governor has “got a lot of power here,” and the Legislature, by comparison, is “relatively weak.”

“The governor has got the power of the bully pulpit and can shape agenda directly,” Krebs said.

Krebs said Ronchetti could impact reproductive policy in the state by talking about his own position in public.

“The governor is going to have a platform no other politician in the state has or can compete with,” Krebs said.

Johnson said that if Ronchetti wins, the Legislature may take the viewpoint that a Ronchetti victory is a signal that a majority of voters support Ronchetti’s anti-abortion policies.

“If he wins the election, you would have to think, the Legislature would pass what he would call a referendum on late-term abortion. ‘The people have spoken;’ put it on the ballot,” Johnson said.

Jane Wishner, a former health policy advisor, said Ronchetti’s position on contraception could impact the state.

“Ronchetti is part of an effort going on for decades to conflate abortion and contraception. He’s referred to emergency contraception as the ‘morning after abortion pill.’ It’s not an abortion pill. His statement is contrary to science and the established position of the medical community,” Wishner said.

She said Ronchetti’s conflation of contraception and abortion raises serious concerns regarding his commitment to contraception access.

Another way Ronchetti could influence policy without consent from the Legislature is through funneling federal funds through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF, to crisis pregnancy centers, Jessica Serrano, staff attorney for Southwest Women’s Law Center, said.

The governor “could very easily direct TANF funds or direct in some way that the funds do not necessarily go to CPCs but [a governor] could incorporate CPCs into programs already existing,” Serrano said.

Southwest Women’s Law Center participated in a national study on CPCs last year that considered the nonprofit organizations to be a public health danger.

Related: Crisis pregnancy centers are a public health danger, according to a report

Serrano said that, in New Mexico, many CPCs lack medical staff. She said the volunteers are staunchly anti-abortion and spread misinformation to dissuade individuals from seeking the option. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists and other medical associations have affirmed that abortion is a safe procedure that should be a decision for the pregnant individual in consultation with a licensed medical provider.

Serrano said another danger is that some CPCs offer ultrasounds that are also misleading.

“My fear is people thinking they are getting prenatal care by going to CPCs,” Serrano said.

Serrano said that in states where federal funds are funneled to CPCs, the nonprofits are “emboldened to act.”

Serrano said one of the dangers of the state making federal dollars available through the TANF program to CPCs is that, in states that have already done so, money that could be going to programs for families in need are not.

“We see a decrease in funds from neighborhoods. Funds are being taken from other organizations and places in economically poor areas and they are being funneled into CPCs,” Serrano said.

Terrelene Massey, executive director of SWWLC, said that in 2020, the state received $123 million in TANF funding from the federal government.

But one aspect of reproductive health care policy in New Mexico that no governor could alter would be that Medicaid has the potential to cover abortion for those eligible. Serrano said abortion is a medical procedure guaranteed under state Medicaid dollars.

“It’s already in case law,” she said.

James Jimenez, retired executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children and former chief of staff under Governor Bill Richardson, said a nuanced way the governor’s office affects policy is through its power to administer state programs robustly or with a minimum amount of effort. 

How a program is administered affects the overall quality of the program, he said.

In addition, Jimenez said laws are generally written fairly broadly by the legislature.

“The executive branch gets to interpret what those laws mean, the administration and the budget,” he said.

Another nuanced way the governor influences policy is by choosing the cabinet secretaries to run the day to day operations of state departments. The state Senate must approve the appointments, but former state Public Education Department Secretary Hanna Skandera remained in charge of the department under former Governor Susana Martinez for five years before her confirmation by the Senate. 

“There is a great deal of authority that resides with each cabinet secretary. Most departments have rule-making authority that allows them to set parameters on how programs will be administered. The Health Department can do a rule making that limits grants, for example,” Jimenez said.

Wishner said there are innumerable and less obvious appointments the governor makes within the state that can impact how policy is set going forward. The governor appoints individuals to licensing boards, for instance.

“We don’t want anti-abortion agendas for licensing health care professionals in the state of New Mexico. There is no reason for that to become a specialized focus of licensing boards. Having anti-abortion board members is contrary to nondiscriminatory healthcare licensing,” she said.

The governor also appoints some judges, Wishner said.

Jimenez said governors can choose to deplete staff in state agencies by not hiring. He said both Martinez and Johnson reduced the size of staff to reduce the size of state government. Jimenez said the governor’s office can also slow down the hiring process.

“It can be tricky. The Legislature can say, ‘you don’t need this money.’ There are ways the Legislature can respond,” Jimenez said.

In addition, the Legislature is only in session for short periods at the beginning of each year.

“They can hold a hearing on an issue. If someone from the Health Department refuses to hire staff for a program, the Legislative Finance Committee can bring that to light and criticize them for not administering the program. They can decide whether or not it’s a legal issue. But they are constrained by the types of action they can take if not in session,” Jimenez said.

Ronchetti, if elected, would likely eliminate Lujan Grisham’s executive orders she announced over the summer to protect reproductive health care. The first one protects providers and patients from being subpoenaed by other states and sensitive medical information. The other order allocated $10 million to help build a new reproductive health care facility in Doña Ana County.

State Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, who sponsored the 2019 bill to repeal the 1969 New Mexico law banning abortion, said that if Ronchetti is elected, he could direct state agencies to comply with subpoenas to criminalize doctors who travel back and forth to other states where abortion is not legal.

She said policy such as that would have a chilling effect on abortion care in New Mexico.