Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday threw her support behind legislation establishing a state office of outdoor recreation, which an unlikely coalition of backers say would boost an industry they view as key to diversifying New Mexico’s economy. The newly elected Democrat did not just put her political muscle behind the idea, either. She put her calf muscles behind it, bicycling from the governor’s mansion to the Capitol in a show of support for Senate Bill 462. “Montana, you’re done. We’ve got it all right here,” Lujan Grisham later told reporters.
It is the New Mexico Senate versus everybody. Yes, Democrats control every branch of New Mexico’s government again for the first time in nine years. But maybe the biggest question of the 60-day legislative session that begins at noon Tuesday is just how much that will matter when the state Senate takes up some of most contentious issues of the year, from marijuana to gun control and funding for education. There will be more than enough votes in the House of Representatives to pass some of the bills that liberals view as priorities and that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham campaigned for. But some of those same bills might lead to tight votes or no votes at all in the Senate, where moderates and conservatives still hold sway.
A bill scheduled to come before the Senate Conservation Committee on Saturday has some environmental groups and the state’s largest electric utility facing off over financing the retirement of a coal-fired power plant. If passed, the bill would create a bond financing mechanism allowing Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM, to recover “stranded” costs associated with its planned closure of the San Juan Generating Station near Farmington. The bill would allow the utility to form a subsidiary that could issue low-interest “energy redevelopment bonds” and recover more than $300 million. Senate Bill 47 is sponsored by Albuquerque Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an attorney, and Republican Sen. Steven Neville, a real estate appraiser from Aztec. Its counterpart, House Bill 80, is also a bipartisan bill, sponsored by Rep. Roberto Gonzales, D-Ranchos de Taos, and Republican Minority Whip Rod Montoya, a miner from Farmington.
ByJohn Arthur Smith, Steven P. Neville, Mary Kay Papen |
We and other legislators had hoped that the regents of New Mexico State University, in accepting the recently announced retirement of Chancellor Garrey Carruthers’ at the end of his contract next year, nonetheless would ask him to stay on for two more years. Chancellor Carruthers’ record of vision and leading the institution is outstanding, and big challenges lie ahead. The university needs him. Senator John Arthur Smith (D-35-Doña Ana, Hidalgo, Luna, Sierra) is the Chair of the New Mexico Senate Finance Committee. Senator Steven P. Neville (R-2-San Juan) serves on the New Mexico Senate Finance Committee.
One of the biggest winners in the just concluded 60-day session of the New Mexico Legislature was a man who never set foot in the Roundhouse and, in fact, never came close to crossing the state border. His name is Donald J. Trump, the president of the United States. Republican Trump lost New Mexico in November by 8 percentage points, and Democrats control both the state Senate and House of Representatives. Even so, several pieces of legislation aimed at Trump failed to get traction in the Legislature. Senate Bill 118, sponsored by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, would have required presidential candidates to disclose five years of personal income taxes to get on the general election ballot in New Mexico.
Gov. Susana Martinez personally lobbied the Senate’s top Democrat to support a controversial bill that would have created an exception in government rules and allowed state agencies to extend their leases at a building owned by donors to her campaign. Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said Monday that Martinez asked him to support the measure after he had voted against it in a committee hearing. “I was concerned about having a state law that overrides an agency’s rule,” Wirth said. But during a later conversation, Martinez asked him to reconsider, Wirth said. As majority leader, Wirth held off bringing the measure to a vote by the full Senate, and he asked another senator to vet its legality.
In an extraordinary maneuver, state senators killed a bill Saturday that they had approved four days earlier after one of them said he had misled his colleagues about connections between Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and real estate developers who stood to benefit from the legislation. Democrats charged that the bill, which would have extended a building lease for state offices in Albuquerque, had turned into an example of pay-to-play politics, while members of Martinez’s administration maintained they had made an honest mistake based on incomplete information. For her part, Martinez said through a spokesman that neither she nor her staff ever discussed with campaign donors the leases addressed in the measure. At issue was an unusual and late-breaking piece of legislation, Senate Bill 430, that met with skepticism at just about every step of its journey through the Capitol until its sudden death Saturday. Sponsored by Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, the bill would have carved out an exception to state rules on renting property.
Members of the Senate Finance Committee say they have reached an agreement on a package of taxes and fees that would help New Mexico resolve its projected budget deficit and shore up cash reserves to about 3 percent next year. The proposal amends several provisions of House Bill 202, including a tax that was opposed by doctors and hospitals. The Senate measure also would incorporate a gasoline and diesel tax increase that has already passed the Senate as a separate bill. By bringing all the elements together, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the finance chairman, hopes to stabilize the $6.1 billion general fund and guard against further credit downgrades. It also would buffer the state against expected federal cuts in education and health care.
Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle was in office 15 years ago, the only time the Legislature overrode a governor’s veto of the entire state budget. That showdown pitted Republican Gov. Gary Johnson against a Legislature controlled by Democrats. Ingle, R-Portales, said he is confident the impasse this year over spending and tax increases between majority Democrats in the Legislature and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez will not be a repeat of what happened in 2002. He said all parties agree on the priorities. Namely, the state needs to boost revenue to pay for education and day-to-day services included in the proposed $6.1 billion operating budget and stash away more in savings to help its credit rating.
The New Mexico Senate, hoping to improve state roads and rebuild cash reserves, approved a bill Thursday that would increase the state gasoline tax for the first time in more than 20 years. But the bill has little chance of becoming law. “If it reaches the governor’s desk, she will veto it,” said Chris Sanchez, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. An override of Martinez’s veto is unlikely because the tax bill received support from only three of the Senate’s 16 Republicans. The measure, Senate Bill 95, would raise about $180 million annually through a range of taxes and fees.