Monday, March 21, 2011

Session '11: Martinez's Mixed Bag & Sen. Sanchez As Her New Foil, Plus: The Senate's Finest Hour Was Also The Defining Moment Of This 60 Day Meet 

Guv & Sen. Sanchez
Gary Johnson had Manny and Ray. Big Bill had "Dr. No." Now it looks as if the new Governor has found her own foil--State Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez. It was Sanchez who the Guv says single handedly derailed a major portion of her legislative agenda and now she's gunning for him. Sanchez readily admits his role in thwarting the Republican Guv, saying she sent a message to him that "you either do it my way or else..." Sanchez bucked and after eight years of often squiggling under Big Bill's thumb, the New Mexico Senate came roaring back, reasserting itself as a co-equal branch of government and then some.

With Sanchez pulling the strings, Martinez was denied her goal of an educational trifecta--three bills to change the system. Only the one that will have the state grading the public schools managed to win approval. Also defeated was her high-profile bill to repeal the driver's licenses of foreign nationals and some illegal immigrants.

The aforementioned "Ray" who served as Republican Guv Johnson's foil in the 90's was none other than House Speaker Raymond Sanchez--Michael's brother. He was accused by Johnson--along with Senate leader Manny Aragon--of being a big tax and spend liberal. The Rs picked up legislative seats using that theme. Can Susana now turn the other Sanchez into a public ogre and use him to help her party overtake the D's in the House and pick off a Dem Senate seat or two, including Michael's? She will certainly try in the 2012 election. Sanchez's Valencia County is much more red these days, having ousted two Dem state reps in 2010.

But Sanchez, who says he has only met with the sitting Governor one time, has a much lower profile than his brother Raymond had. He keeps his media appearances to a minimum and quietly goes about his business. Making him the public face of the opposition won't be easy. But if the Guv insists on having a foil, she may have to. Dem House Speaker Ben Lujan is prime foil material, but he was weakened last year by a near primary election defeat and the big gains of R's in the state House. He may decide to not seek re-election in '12.

(Newsman Peter St. Cyr provided this audio of the Speaker's post-session news conference, one from House Republicans and Governor Martinez's post-session news conference).


The session was a decidedly mixed bag for Martinez, a former district attorney who is not fond of wheeling and dealing. More relevant perhaps is that she ran a campaign of generalization, calling for "bold change" but not specifying exactly what that change entailed. That led to a minimalist legislative agenda that resulted in small steps, but no legislative action that would put her stamp deeply on state affairs. As we blogged last week, her best shot was to get her three education proposals passed, but it didn't happen.

Like her fellow Republicans, she sees her job primarily as downsizing government, repealing regulations and stopping any tax increases of any kind. In Martinez world the fewer bills that pass, the better. If that's your idea of "bold change" you are getting it in spades. Only in education has the new chief executive shown any predilection for accommodation with the center of the political spectrum. But with no relationship between her and Sanchez, the Senate became her funeral pyre.


Sen. Jennings
That's the philosophical basis guiding the Fourth Floor. Then there's the political. And that's where things get nasty. Martinez charged head first into the dark forest of racial politics when she fought to repeal the law that allows some illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses. It was a political campaign, not a legislative one, replete with the now infamous "robo calls" into legislators districts while they were in session. And she lost.

The fatal calculation that Martinez and her political advisers made was assuming that overwhelming polling support for an initiative guarantees that the opposition can be bullied or cowed into submission. But the legislative process is not a political campaign. It is a complicated process where one-on-one communication can outrank mass communication like robo calls and even a Governor's bully pulpit. If Martinez learned anything it's that she needs to widen her circle of advisers and learn to negotiate, not only dictate.

There is a way to gradually get this driver's license bill done but Martinez and her political arm are determined to do it in a way that inflicts maximum political damage on Democrats. This wedge issue--unlike the death penalty and others--puts at risk the racial comity that has prevailed in the state. There could be short-term political gain for Martinez, but because of the way this debate nearly generated into hate-speech, we get an uneasy feeling for her when pondering these tactics over the long haul.

The Senate, in its traditional role of the saucer cooling the hot tea handed it by the House, stood firm and rejected an outright repeal while offering what they termed a compromise. The pundits gasped that only one Democrat broke ranks to vote with Martinez, considering the polls she repeatedly cited show over 70 percent support for her position.

But by waging wedge warfare, Martinez put something larger into play--the state's reputation for diversity and its historic tolerance that has made us a national example of how to get along.

It was one of the Senate's finest hours. Northern liberal Hispanic leader Sanchez and cowboy conservative southern Democratic leader Tim Jennings--put in the leadership with Republican votes--stood united before the state and nation. They weren't only rejecting a bill, but the ugly messaging that surfaced whenever it appeared.

This was an uniquely New Mexico moment and the defining one of the 2011 legislative session.


There was another clear signal that the Senate is not about to let the state swing to the hard-right. The chamber did not take up the nomination of Economic Development Secretary-designate Jon Barela. Barela had just completed a stint as the 2010 GOP nominee for the ABQ congressional seat in which he went to the right to try to take out Dem Martin Heinrich. He failed. By ignoring Barela and letting him serve without confirmation, the Senate seemed to be saying of his conservative views "not in our world."

On the other hand, they may have done Barela a favor. He has a financial interest in Cerelink, a company that benefits from the state's tax rebate for film productions. That was a hot button issue with the Legislature. At Martinez's urging lawmakers capped at $50 million the amount used for the incentive. If Barela had been called for confirmation he could have been put on the spot.

On that film rebate, Martinez had to throw in the towel on the move to pull it down to 15 percent of expenditures from 25 percent. Instead, the higher percentage remains, but the cap was approved. Again, Martinez insisted on playing this as a "wedge issue."

In her post-session news conference the Governor again pitted "Hollywood" against our "school children," saying the $23 million saved by the cap will provide more education funds. But films bring jobs and it's a clean industry. How about saying something along these lines:

"Everyone needs to sacrifice in this harsh economic environment. We value highly the contribution film making has made to our state and my administration will continue to value it. We see this cap as a small sacrifice that will not inflict any lasting damage on this clean industry and keeps New Mexico positioned for even more film ventures in the future."

It wasn't so much the cap on film rebates that may have done lasting damage to New Mexico's drive to continue to attract the motion picture industry, it was the Governor picking up the welcome mat and throwing it at "Hollywood" that will be most remembered---and have the most negative consequences. But when you have your favorite Svengali whispering in your ear and promising you votes and power--and not economic wise men looking over your shoulder--this is the outcome that can be expected.


Sen. Keller
The film rebate debate, as regrettable as it was in so many ways, actually showed us the fiscal way forward for our economically challenged state. We have cut the budget from its peak of $6.2 to $5.4 billion and reporter Kate Nash says the state now has a payroll of 18, 931, down from a Bull Market peak of about 25, 500. If those numbers are accurate (and sometimes they seem to float around) then we have cut state employment by a stunning 25 percent. That's a quarter of all state employment out the door. Even conservative Republicans are going to have a hard time arguing that we aren't getting close to the bone if we cut much further.

So now what?

Martinez will continue with her trademark frugality (selling the state jet, etc.) but the revenue side of the equation will have to be addressed if the sate economy, as expected, remains mostly in the doldrums. A bill from ABQ Dem Senator Tim Keller that is now on the Guv's desk paves the way:

(The bill) would allow the state to accurately measure and debate whether to...continue tax breaks for boxing, cigarettes, trucking, low income rebates and others...We have 107 holes in our tax code....Each time the state pays any kind of tax, it pays 20 percent extra to cover all the special interests that don't have to pay.....That makes up an estimated $1 billion in uncollected annual taxes....We'll be able to measure the costs and benefits of these tax breaks...Some of these play an important economic development role and some support vulnerable segments of the population. Right now we don't know which ones are beneficial and which ones aren't needed.

A billion bucks is a lot of money on the table. Martinez has pledged no tax increases, but if in future years she wants to keep her pledge not to cut funds for classroom education, her definition of what constitutes an increase could become more flexible.


The final quote of the 2011 Legislature comes from Senate leader Sanchez who told reporters:

I can tell you that I've only met with (the Governor's) staff twice. I met with her once....I saw one of her representatives down here toward the end of the session. He just smiled and said, 'It is what it is.' And that's what it is. It is what it is."


Ana Canales gets the congrats as she defeats Victor Raigoza to take a third term as the chairman of the Bernalillo County Democratic Party. Central committee members this weekend gave Canales the win---309-205. A recent insider poll we carried showed Canales winning, stamping down early Alligator speculation that Raigoza could close in.

Next up is the battle for state Dem Party chairman featuring incumbent Javier Gonzales and ABQ attorney Sam Bregman. That vote comes at the end of April. Gonzales' camp feels it has a majority of the over 120 Bernalillo County delegates in its corner. Bregman battles on, saying he will be more aggressive than Javier in making the case against the Republican governor.

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