One week after accusing lawmakers of failing to make tough decisions as New Mexico slid into financial crisis, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez struck a conciliatory tone in her annual State of the State address Tuesday, calling on legislators to work together as the state faces a projected deficit that will top the agenda for the 60-day legislative session ahead.
Rattling off issues on which Republican and Democratic lawmakers had reached agreement in the recent past, Martinez urged bipartisan compromise during the session’s opening day.
But with the governor also calling on lawmakers to reinstate the death penalty for some crimes and reiterating her opposition to raising taxes, her pleas for cooperation with Democratic majorities in both the state Senate and House of Representatives will be quickly tested.
This year’s session may be the last big opportunity for Martinez to advance some of her big-ticket legislative proposals. Only a 30-day session, which are typically dedicated to the budget, will remain before the two-term governor leaves office at the end of 2018.
On Tuesday, Martinez pushed many of the same proposals she has advocated for since taking office, including a proposal to hold back third-grade students who are not reading at grade level and to stiffen penalties for driving while intoxicated.
The governor dedicated much of her 45-minute address, however, to the economy — an issue Democrats have said they will make a top priority at the Roundhouse during the next two months.
Referring to the recent financial crisis wrought by a drop in oil and gas prices and worsened by a delayed economic recovery around the state, Martinez depicted a New Mexico that is diversifying its economy and poised for growth.
“I talk to CEOs choosing [to invest in] New Mexico,” Martinez said. “They tell me they could have gone anywhere in the country, but they chose New Mexico. Great people, fair tax environment and a state willing to put its money where its mouth is. They see a state bursting with opportunity. That’s why we must solve our budget challenges in a responsible way.”
But while the governor pointed to rising oil prices and recent announcements of companies investing in the state — Facebook most prominent among them — her optimism was at odds with the state’s dour economic signals. In October, Moody’s downgraded the state’s bond rating, oil prices are not expected to reach levels seen even just a few years ago and Legislative Finance Committee staff recently reported that New Mexico’s economic outlook is weak.
In the Democratic response to the governor’s address, Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, commended Martinez for not shying away from the challenges the state faces. He cited several national rankings showing New Mexico’s economy and unemployment rate hovering at or near the bottom while the state’s poverty ranking rests near the top.
“The state of our state is unacceptable,” he said, adding that Senate Democrats would use the session to focus on job creation.
Martinez urged lawmakers to stay the course with a series of economic development policies she argues are proving effective.
Martinez cited the Job Training Incentive Program and the Local Economic Development Act as preparing thousands of New Mexicans for work as well as helping attract new companies. Both are programs leading Democrats have said they will support expanding.
The governor reiterated her opposition to raising taxes, however. And to balance the state’s budget, she has proposed cutting the state’s payments into the retirement accounts of public employees, which labor unions have said would amount to a pay cut for tens of thousands of New Mexicans. Democrats are likely to clash with the Republican governor on both issues.
But the governor’s openness to a broad, bipartisan tax reform proposal and focus on economic development, rather than the crime policies she pushed during last year’s address and in a special session during the autumn, signal she is at least interested to take on the same issues that Democrats have declared their top priorities.
With an election season having passed, Tuesday’s address was a more restrained affair all around than last year’s speech.
Martinez still hit on familiar themes more likely to breed disagreement than compromise, however.
This is the seventh consecutive legislative session in which lawmakers will consider a bill to hold back third-grade students who are not reading at grade level. Martinez has pushed the bill since she took office. Earlier this month, and again in her speech Tuesday, the governor said 96 percent of third-graders around the state who cannot read at grade level are still promoted to the fourth grade. Trying to cast the issue as nonpartisan, Martinez said both President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton opposed so-called “social promotion.”
“If it helps, and to demonstrate my commitment to bipartisanship, I am willing to change the name of our reading reform bill to the ‘The Obama-Clinton Reading Bill,’ ” Martinez joked.
Research into similar policies around the country have found mixed results, however. And last year’s reading retention bill died in committee when a Republican state Senator raised concerns about tying a third-grader’s advancement to his or her score on a standardized test.
Martinez also called on legislators to reinstate the death penalty for cases involving the killing of a child or law enforcement officer, echoing a similar appeal she made during a special session last autumn intended to address the state’s budget deficit. Democrats have described her attempts to reinstate the death penalty, which lawmakers repealed in 2009, as an effort to distract from New Mexico’s economy. And with Democrats in charge this year, reinstating capital punishment is unlikely to get a vote on the floor of the House or Senate.
Notable, too, is what Martinez did not say.
The governor did not mention so-called “right to work” laws that would end the practice of requiring workers to pay union dues to be covered by a union’s contract. Regularly proposed by Republican legislators, such policies are anathema to Democrats backed by labor unions.
Martinez also did not use the word “deficit” to refer to a shortfall expected to total about $67 million when the fiscal year ends, instead referring to New Mexico as facing “budget challenges.”
But as Martinez looked out on the state House chamber on Tuesday, she saw fewer Republicans among the lawmakers and a thinner crowd in the gallery than she did last year.
Democrats won a 38-32 majority in the state House last November and expanded their majority in the state Senate to 26-16. Speculation about which Republicans will run to succeed Martinez is already swirling and a KOB-TV/SurveyUSA poll last October found only 36 percent of likely voters approve of her job performance, her lowest approval rating since taking office.
Nonetheless, Martinez continues to wield the power to veto legislation and it remains unclear whether there is the will or votes to override her.
Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.