Observers knew in the wake of November’s elections that the 2015 legislative session would be unlike any they’d seen in their lifetimes. For the first time in 62 years, the House of Representatives would be under Republican control.
Despite this shift to the right, New Mexico’s Senate remained under control of Democrats. This is because the entire Senate is up every four years in presidential election years like 2016. The House on the other hand is up for election every two years.
These are not your run-of-the-mill Democrats. Their Majority Leader, Michael Sanchez, is both a trial lawyer and one of the most partisan legislators in the Senate. There are a handful of moderates sprinkled throughout the body, but they rarely vote as a cohesive group or provide a counter-weight to their powerful Leader.
Before the session, Sanchez professed a desire that the Senate and House be able to work together despite their political differences, saying the Legislature will not “end up like Washington, D.C.” This promise was transparently false as Sanchez immediately opposed adoption of one of Gov. Martinez’s top priorities, a “Right to Work” law and then falsely claimed that Martinez “cynically commissioned a study to ‘prove’ that ‘Right to Work’ creates jobs, economic growth, and more businesses locating in New Mexico, even if this were not true.”
This column is not meant to defend “Right to Work” laws, but it is worth pointing out that 65 percent of Democrats support such laws according to national polling by Gallup from August, 2014. Other, New Mexico-specific polling, showed support for “Right to Work” running at least 2-1.
So, the question heading into the session was whether the Senate would yield some of its liberalism in the interest of compromise or whether it would remain a bastion of liberalism and a stumbling block to conservative and free market ideas. “Right to Work” would serve as the flagship for those ideas.
Would Republicans seize the mantle of reform with a small group of moderate Democrats crossing the aisle in support of popular economic and education reforms?
With the 2015 legislative session now in the books, the answer is a resounding “no.”
The following initiatives which passed the House all foundered on the rocks of Senate intransigence:
• “Right to work” as discussed above;
• Reduced worker’s compensation benefits for workers who injure themselves while drunk or stoned on job (passed the House 64-2 halfway through the session, but never saw a vote in the Senate despite being sponsored in that body by a Democrat);
• Increased penalties for fraudulent dealing of food stamps which passed the House 59-4 but never moved in the Senate;
• A system of tax credits for school choice;
• The enablement of additional methods of teacher certification and advancement.
As noted, “Right to Work” was the most controversial and significant legislation dealing with New Mexico’s poor economic performance. The bill passed through the House early in the session after being paired with a modest, .50 cent/hour increase in the minimum wage in hopes of attracting support from moderate Democrats in the Senate. Despite this compromise, Democrats voted along party lines not to hear the bill before the full senate and instead killed it on a partisan-line vote in its first committee.
Though the 2015 session highlighted the wide gulf between the Republican House and the Democratic Senate in terms of economic policy, one bright spot involved the Legislature’s unanimous adoption of far-reaching reforms to New Mexico’s civil asset forfeiture laws. Civil asset forfeiture has been abused by policing agencies nationwide to the detriment of individual rights.
A unique, left-right coalition including the Rio Grande Foundation and the ACLU of New Mexico argued for needed reforms that subsequently achieved universal support. This occurred despite the effort being ground-breaking in depth and scope.
This legislation was a bright spot in a session that otherwise saw little economic or education reforms in one of America’s most impoverished states which will continue to hemorrhage its youngest, most highly educated people until it becomes economically-competitive with neighbors like Texas, Oklahoma, and Utah.
Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility