Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Senate Clips Its Left Wing; Progressive Power Play Fizzles; Leader Sanchez Role Pondered, Plus: Big Bill Without The Fire 

If Barack Obama's presidency was supposed to signal a turn to the left, someone forgot to tell the New Mexico Senate. Only hours after Obama was sworn in as the new Democratic President, eight Democrats were hobnobbing with 15 Republicans to retain Tim Jennings as Senate President Pro Tem and recasting the message from November's Democratic landslide. The Jennings Coalition was a testament to the political skills of the Roswell Senator, whose political death had been published prematurely (Who did that?!) but more important, the 23 to 19 vote reaffirmed the relevance of the state's conservatives in the face of their stiffest challenge since the 1960's. Progressives were already bemoaning Obama's turn towards the center. Now this. As for Big Bill, his luck with the Senate has been such, the salvation of his political nemesis is less than astonishing.


Many of the Alligators and wall-leaners swarming the Roundhouse were of a mind that Taos area Senator Carlos Cisneros and his progressive backers had overreached in his challenge of Jennings. Cisneros is seen as a moderate, but suspicions lingered that he would yield to the liberals and tilt key committees to them while purging conservatives. Would Carlos make a deal in which he would share some power with the conservatives and pick off some Pro Tem votes? Apparently not.

A big blow to Cisneros was the loss of three freshman Senators--Howie Morales, George Munoz and, most surprisingly, John Sapien of Rio Rancho and Corrales. Jennings needed seven Dem votes, including his own, to take the prize. In the end, Sapien, who represents a conservative-minded district and whose father, a former Sandoval County Commissioner has ties to Jennings, flipped to the Roswell rancher. Tim retained his pro tem post with two votes to spare. You wonder if Sapien's pet projects might have an easier time because of it.

(Senators Lovejoy, Lopez, Papen and Smith were the others joining with the R's to keep Jennings.)


Where was Majority Leader Michael Sanchez? How could he allow the Republicans to get a slice of the pie after the huge Dem landslide? Did he twist arms for Cisneros who was voted the choice of the Dem caucus after Jennings interfered on behalf of a Republican Senator in the November election? Was Sanchez actually comfortable with Jennings keeping the post, concerned that the progressives in the Senate would get too strong and threaten him?

From all accounts Sanchez took a neutral posture on the battle, voting for Cisneros, but avoiding applying pressure for him that some felt could have kept the party from splintering. Conservatives tempering the power of the liberals may end up being good for the majority party, but why couldn't Sanchez settle the issue before it went to a floor vote? If Jennings had enough Dem votes, why wasn't a deal engineered that had him retained by voice vote and avoid empowering the Republicans? Sure, neither side wanted to give up, but that's why Sanchez has leader next to his name. 

By going to the neutral corner, Sanchez preserves his perch, but observers wondered whether his stature was diminished both within the Senate and the Democratic Party.


Does the assertion of conservative power in the pro tem battle extend to other issues? It does when it comes to state finances. Senate Finance Committee Chair John Arthur Smith remains in command of that panel. Liberals will have their hands full stopping him from cutting deep into the state's fiscal marrow to overcome a $450 million revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year and at least that much for the one that begins July 1.

As pro tem Jennings' main power is to influence the make-up of Senate committees. Will Jennings try to clip the wings of veteran liberal Senator Cisco McSorley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee who was a key strategist in trying to take him down? Jennings could put more conservatives on Cisco's panel, ensuring that pet McSorley causes like legal rights for domestic partners could find trouble. Committee assignments are expected to be made public today.


Big Bill ended the first day of the legislative session the way he began it--with a state House in his corner and a recalcitrant Senate ready again to duel with the Fourth Floor. His State of the State speech (transcript) got off to a quick-witted start as he referenced his withdrawal as Obama's Commerce Secretary which means he will be staying around these parts another two years.

"Now I know there are some legislators who were looking forward to my departure, and not having to deal with me this session. I'm sorry to disappoint. I'll try to make it up to you somehow."

That drew a chuckle, but the rest of the speech lacked the vigor and passion of previous efforts. Bill is no longer running for anything--except to stay in place. He trotted out his usual foot-long laundry list of things to do, but with the fiscal crisis hanging over his head, the plans, many of them leftover from previous sessions, seemed more mundane. Richardson is a doer and with no money to do things, he did not seem a happy camper. His demeanor, perhaps appropriate to the state's fiscal condition, bordered on somber. He will fight for his agenda because that's what he does, but this old boxer is now on automatic pilot. Kate Nash has more on Bill without a wallet.


The federal grand jury investigation into pay to play charges in his administration will not slow the Governor much--unless he (and we) are startled with an indictment. New Mexico political leaders working under an ethical shadow is a time-honored tale. Richardson still has the veto power and even on a bad day his political skills dwarf those of most of his foes. As we mentioned above, the Guv's power has already been tempered the last few sessions by the state Senate. He isn't going any lower, but he may not be going any higher, either.


Bill told the lawmakers he wants the school funding formula updated which would mean another $350 million in funds. However, the Governor is not about to line up behind what is potentially an unpopular tax increase to raise that money. He is kicking the decision to you by proposing that a penny increase in the gross receipts tax be put to a public vote. That looks like a nice juicy target for Jennings and company to kill off before you get the chance to.


The Guv is proposing that the state's cash reserves be reduced to cover the deficit. It is a modest proposal, calling for the state to have reserves totaling eight percent of the state's budget, rather than the 10 percent or more that have been customary under Richardson. It is a reasonable proposal, but one wonders if the Senate will go along. Some there don't want Richardson to have any money to play with and would rather cut spending than use the reserve. Will there be a showdown on this one?


It has been the gloomy budget prognostications of Senator Smith, aka, "Dr. No," that have gotten under the skin of the Guv. He appeared to take a direct shot at the Deming lawmaker in his Tuesday stemwinder:

Some are offering a pessimistic view of our future. But pessimism never built a road, never taught a student, and never immunized a child. It never protected our streets, never created a job and pessimism will not solve this crisis.

Interesting choice of words. Dr. No's dad built roads during the Depression. But Bill knew that, didn't he?


House Speaker Ben Lujan was handily re-elected to his post by majority Democrats Tuesday. Lujan took note of recent state scandals and said they were reason to implement ethics reform, something the Legislature has failed to do the past few sessions. We'll see.

House Majority Leader Kenny Martinez, who tried to oust Lujan a couple of years ago, was spotted on TV news discussing the session. Kenny, Ben's doctor says he's doing fine. You'll have to wait a while longer.


Light Guv Denish was downright chirpy as she greeted a joint session of the Legislature with a good-natured "Good Morning" even though by then it was well into the afternoon. Not bad for a woman who was recently just one curtain measurement away from the Guv's office. But maybe she hadn't heard the news. Celebrity and wanna-be politician Val Kilmer was again beating the gubernatorial drum while making the rounds in D.C. Talk about a Di day dimmer....

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