READY TO RUMBLE: The Top 10 issues in the upcoming legislative session includes the inevitable political tension between Democrats and Republicans.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE — It promises to be rowdy, raucous and rambling.
But then again, legislative sessions in New Mexico always are.
Since 2014 is an even-numbered year, this Roundhouse session will last 30 days, so the process promises to look more like a sprint than a leisurely jog.
With that in mind, New Mexico Watchdog takes a look at the Top 10 things to watch for when the gavel comes down on Tuesday and when the session ends at high noon (give or take a minute or two, Speaker W. Ken Martinez) on Feb. 20:
This is always the first priority of the Legislature, and in a 30-day session, budgeting takes on even more importance.
The proposals put forth by the Governor’s Office and the Legislative Finance Committee provide an outline about where lawmakers and the executive office stand. One potential sticking point is that LFC chairman Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, wants a 1.5 percent pay raise across the board for all state employees while Gov. Susana Martinez wants targeted pay raises.
On the positive side, both Martinez and Varela told reporters they think the two sides can work together. While Martinez may have a hard-nosed reputation, her speeches often criticizes the gridlock on Capitol Hill while hailing her record of working with state lawmakers to reach budget compromises.
“If we don’t work together, if we don’t hang to together, we’ll hang separately,” Varela said after sitting in on Martinez’s budget news conference.
2. Can’t we all get along?
Since 2014 is an election year, political maneuvering promises to take an overarching role in the 30-day session. Political considerations? In the Roundhouse? Yes, it’s shocking, we know.
But consider some of the races coming up:
Martinez is looking to win a second term in November. She wants to look tough to her supporters while appearing like a centrist to win over moderates in a state that has a decided edge in party registration for Democrats over Republicans.
A field of five Democrats — two of them with seats in the Roundhouse — are gearing up for a June primary, with the winner getting a crack at trying to unseat Martinez. It doesn’t take a political prodigy to expect Democrats in the upcoming session to be more strident in attempts to weaken Martinez going into November.
All 70 seats in the House of Representatives are — at least theoretically — up for grabs. With Democrats holding a 37-33 majority, Republican leaders think the GOP has a decent shot of winning a net of three seats in November and taking a majority for the first time in 61 years.
“I don’t want to kill a bill just because the governor supports it,” Senate Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, told New Mexico Watchdog. “And I don’t want to support a bill just because the Democratic leadership wants it. We should do what’s best for New Mexico.”
In an election year, though, such comments may be rooted more on hope than political reality.
Constitution of New Mexico
3. Constitutional amendment mania
More than a dozen pieces of legislation have been pre-filed that call for amending the state constitution. One bill from the political right, introduced by Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, is an attempt to roll back the New Mexico Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage. But nearly all of the others come from the left.
Among them? Legislation to tap into the Land Grant Permanent Fund to spend money for early childhood education, legalize marijuana and bring back a state education commission. That resolution would strip away power from the Public Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera, whom teachers’ unions and many Democrats dislike.
Martinez opposes such bills, but changes to the state constitution don’t have to be signed by the governor. If passed by the House and Senate, the resolutions skip the executive and go to the ballot in November for voters to decide.
The moves already have irritated some Republicans.
“I don’t think you should change the constitution because you’re upset with the policies of the executive,” said state Sen. Lee Cotter, R-Las Cruces.
4. Third-grade retention
Since taking office three years ago, Martinez and Skandera have advocated for a bill that would hold back students who cannot read at a minimal level by the end of the third grade. Democrats have successfully turned back the bills, citing concerns ranging from how the program will be implemented, to how it may affect the self-esteem of those who are retained. Opponents also say it leaves parents out of the decision.
At least one new version of the bill has been pre-filed and it calls for greater intervention in kindergarten and first through third grades. The bill seems to have a good chance of passing through the House, but getting through the Senate, which is controlled by Martinez arch rival, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, is another issue. Plus, keep in mind that Democrats hold a 25-17 edge in the Senate.
5. Driver’s licenses (Again)
Martinez critics say her annual call for repealing a state law that allows driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants is a forlorn hope that ties up the Roundhouse and enflames partisans on both sides. But Martinez promises to bring back the issue. Expect Taxation and Revenue Department Secretary Demesia Padilla to testify in committees that the law needs to be changed in order for the state to get into compliance with the federal government’s Real ID Act. And expect Democrats to point out that the feds have repeatedly delayed the implementation of the act.
6. Fixing the Lottery Scholarships
Created in 1995, the New Mexico Lottery Scholarship program affects 26 percent of full-time undergraduate students attending the state’s colleges and universities. But the program is spending more money than lottery revenue is bringing in.
Everyone agrees a financial fix is needed, but there are myriad suggestions about what exactly should be done. Some Democrats say they’re open to using general fund dollars — that’s taxpayer money — to make the Lottery Scholarships solvent long-term. Many Republicans, fiscal conservatives and Martinez say they’ll only use general fund money for one year to ensure incoming freshman in 2014 are covered.
But beyond one year, forget it.
“Once we make the exception … and have taxpayer money used this way, the temptation will be, let’s do it again,” Rep. Jim White, R-Albuquerque, said last month.
7. A hearing for Hanna?
She’s been running the show at the Public Education Department for three years, but Hanna Skandera has never had an up-or-down confirmation vote as the PED secretary.
Last year, Sen. Linda Lopez, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee that oversees confirmations, had a drawn-out hearing involving Skandera and her critics but no vote was cast.
This year, Lopez, who happens to be running for governor, has indicated there will be some resolution.
Expect plenty of drama from the teachers unions and Skandera supporters, and a very close vote should her nomination go to the full Senate floor.
8. Gun and school security bills
In the wake of the recent Roswell school shooting, Rep. Sandra Jeff, D-Crownpoint, says she’ll reintroduce a bill that would beef up school security. Jeff said the measure would include installing metal detectors and establishing identification criteria for students and parents. There’s also talk of a bill that would allow some school employees to carry concealed firearms.
Even before the Roswell school shooting, Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, said he would reintroduce a bill to establish background checks at gun shows. Martinez said last year she would have signed Garcia’s bill, but it didn’t get past the Senate.
Gun-rights advocates are dead-set against Garcia’s bill. If Martinez puts the 2014 version on the agenda, she’ll catch heat from the political right, but that could burnish her credentials as a centrist.
9. Behavioral health bills
Last summer, the Human Services Department suspended Medicaid payments to 15 behavioral health providers after an audit reportedly showed misspending. Critics say the department acted too hastily. On Thursday, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office determined one of the providers committed no fraud, although it was found to have over-billings of $19,023.
A number of bills have been introduced to clarify the definition of what constitutes Medicaid fraud, and judging by some of the tense hearings held last year, the debate promises to be emotional.
“Do I think the (HSD) went roughshod (over the providers)? Yes, I do,” Papen told New Mexico Watchdog on Thursday.
Despite some relief from heavy rain last fall, New Mexico still is in the midst of the worst drought in at least 60 years.
In her budget proposal, the governor is calling for spending 60 percent of the capital outlay budget on water infrastructure projects.
But it’s unclear how entities that already are established will be impacted, whether turf battles will emerge and how the specifics of the projects will be carried out.
“It seems every governor wants their own water projects,” Varela said recently.
Contact Rob Nikolewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski