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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Dateline Santa Fe: Our Insider Report As Legislative Session Nears CLIMACTIC Hours; The Speaker's Woes, The Election Calculus And Why Action Is Slow, Plus: Insights Into Downs Deal Senate Hearing  

As the 30 day legislative session heads toward its climactic hours, the House Democratic leadership is operating like a man with both hands tied behind his back. Blog readers were given heads up at the start of the session that the absence of state Reps Phil Archuleta and Ernie Chavez could define the session and that has to come to pass.

From our Senior Alligators, Wall-Leaners and Roundhouse Hangers-On we have the latest action as the 30 day session nears its climatic hours...

First, a weakened House Speaker Kenny Martinez may have have little choice but to try and bring Rep. Chavez up from ABQ for a budget vote to break the 34-34 tie vote that occurred last week when wild card Dem Sandra Jeff defected to a united R camp. With the two Dems gone, the partisan split in the 70 member House is 35 D and 33 R.

Martinez is said to be reluctant to call on Chavez because he thinks it is up to each representative to decide if they are well enough to attend. But the grousing is growing in the Dem caucus that if ABQ's Chavez--who is recovering from an apparent spider bite--isn't brought in on a wheelchair to break the tie, the R's and Governor Martinez will have the upper hand in negotiating the final state budget that goes to the Senate.

(Our sources say Rep. Archuleta, recovering from hip surgery, is down for the count and can't make it to Santa Fe. Chavez is in better shape.)

If Chavez did make a dramatic appearance to break the House tie, the budget as currently written and with a Dem slant could go to the Senate. The more conservative Senate could then give some love to the Guv,  but still keep intact the education planks that Dems don't want to concede. The bottom line is that if the House is forced to cave to the Guv it improves her chances in the Senate.

The Speaker is under pressure to deliver. He called up the budget for a vote and everyone presumed he had the votes. When Rep. Jeff defected the Speaker was spanked as was his Majority Whip Moe Maestas.

Last session the Speaker at the last minute rammed through a Governor Martinez backed income tax cut that left a foul taste in the mouths of many in his Dem caucus. This is leaving a similar taste among disgruntled D's.

The Speaker's yearning for compromise and his reluctance to put on the boxing gloves is the talk of the Roundhouse. The ramifications could be wide ranging as we hear next....

DEATH WATCH 

The successful move (unprecedented?) by the minority party in the House to stall the budget--the most urgent item in the 30 day session--has led to a  "death watch atmosphere" among some House Dems, reports one Senior Gator.

And no wonder. The R's will need to pick up three seats in November to take outright control of the House for the first time since the early 50's. They may need only one or two to form a coalition with a couple of Dems that would force Martinez out as Speaker.

Trouble continues to develop for the Dems in that regard. We'll let his hometown paper make it official, but our capitol watchers say Las Cruces area Dem State Rep. Nate Cote will not seek re-election. He holds a key swing state and his departure gives the R's an excellent chance to take the seat. Cote is said to be reluctant to endure a vicious campaign and is looking forward to retirement.

A half dozen Democratic seats are seen vulnerable. Governor Martinez's political machine is expected to spend millions to take them. From a Wall-Leaner:

 The potential of a Republican House takeover is on everyone's mind as filing day nears, and the weight of that cloud looms over the House chamber. Republican leaders and potential committee chairs are scouting new offices.

As for Governor Martinez, our expert insiders say this legislative session is no different for her than past sessions. That means she is disengaged from the actual details of governing or the intricacies of spreadsheets, economics and finances. When it comes to the budget the Governor relies on tightly scripted messages to avoid demonstrating any lack of knowledge of the budget process or state government. As she has done in the past Martinez will again be relying on the conservative dominated Senate Finance Committee to do the heavy lifting for her and will only need to tweak the budget around the edges

Still the trick for this week remains -- how to pass the budget out of the House and over to the Senate, where that budget experience awaits.

NO MEAT

When it comes to doing anything substantial, by all accounts this legislative session has been a snoozer. That's not entirely unusual for an election year like this but there's more to it.

Because Speaker Kenny Martinez has lost the ability to control votes on the House floor and also can't control votes in many key committees, his only alternative is to slow down bill introductions and maintain a glacial pace. The Governor is sitting on a lead in the polls and with plenty of out-of-state campaign money she is likewise interested in avoiding any missteps. That's a sure recipe for an uneventful session.

SENATE SIDE UP 

Senior Alligators hanging out near the Senate chamber say the Senate should be in a position to take some chances since members there, unlike the House, aren't up for re-election until 2016.

Two Senators--Lopez and Morales--are running for Governor and one--Keller--is running for Auditor. The Senate candidates for Governor seem focused primarily on avoiding missteps and have not created much excitement for their campaigns this session.

By the end of the regular session key finance Senators will want to again throw the Governor a bone, as they did last session, to avoid any talk of a special session. Senators also want to avoid vetoes of their  capital outlay projects

Insiders report that before the session Governor Martinez indicated a new direction for capital outlay with water projects announced around the state, but since then the Governor has made no real effort to advance any specific projects. Expect capital outlay to be divided among the executive and the lawmakers this year as in past years.

One Roundhouse veteran predicts:

In the final week the Governor will threaten vetoes and a special session which are her only remaining weapons after long ago abandoning the art of persuasion. She's never called a special session other than as required for redistricting, and is unlikely to take that risk in an election year.  

Special sessions take on a life of their own. A master of the legislative process, even Gov. Richardson had great difficulty controlling the several special sessions he called. Susana is not a risk taker and threats of a special session won't be a cause of concern.

DOWNS DEALING

After Monday's Senate Rules Committee hearing on the controversial ABQ Downs racino lease deal approved by the Martinez administration in 2011, ABQ Dem state Senator and state auditor candidate Tim Keller called on the attorney general to launch a formal investigation of the controversial lease.

That move was called "better late than never" by other lease critics who at this point believe Attorney General Gary King--a Dem Guv candidate--has washed his hands of the lease deal, having had plenty of time and evidence to launch such an investigation.

Observers believe it will have to be the FBI that breaks open the Downs case. They point out that not only hasn't King gone after the Downs deal, but that Dem State Auditor Hector Balderas--running for attorney general and who issued a report only mildly critical of the lease--did not bother to respond to the invitation to appear at the Rules Committee special hearing. Also, no Republican Senators showed up.

In a news release Senate Dems were quick to put Balderas in the no-show category along with Governor Martinez and her chief political adviser Jay McCleskey who was intimately involved in the rushed lease deal.

Food for thought: Balderas did not draw a strong GOP AG opponent from the Guv's political machine. Keller drew Robert Aragon--an ABQ attorney with close ties to Martinez and who could be a thorn.

From the beginning the Downs hearing--presided over by Senate Rules chair Linda Lopez--was designed to be ceremonial, if not informative. That's because the Senate never seriously considered invoking subpoena power for the hearing. Without that power, even state fair manager Dan Mourning was willing to snub the hearing.

What the FBI is doing in regards to the lucrative 25 year racino lease remains key. It's confirmed that the FBI has involved itself but is it currently examining the deal? Done looking at? Will the Downs surface in some legal form between now and the November election, or will it pop up far in the future--when you least expect it? Inquiring minds want to know...

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