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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Session '18: Crime Tears A Town Apart But It Brings Some Lawmakers Together, Plus: An Ice Age Looming For NM R's? And: State's $20 Billion Savings Funds Drawing More Attention 

Gentry & Ivey Soto
While you wait for the Governor's State of the State speech kicking off the 2018 30 day legislative session, previews of the action can be found here, here and here.

The session convenes at noon today. The Governor's speech is expected to start anywhere from 12:30 to 1:30 and can be seen live on the websites of the major TV affiliates. 

In the run-up to the session there were some glimpses of attempted bipartisanship among lawmakers. Most significant perhaps was the tag team of House Minority Leader Nate Gentry of ABQ and ABQ Democratic state Senator Daniel Ivey Soto. The pair held a news conference to tout their agreement on several crime bills:

Gentry has struck a more bipartisan tone (than Gov. Martinez) with proposals designed to enroll inmates suffering from addiction and mental illness in Medicaid as they are released into society and to provide state matching funds so local police forces can pay more to retain veteran officers. Sen. Ivey Soto has co-sponsored those measures.

For Ivey Soto it is par for the course. He represents a somewhat swing district in the city. For Gentry bipartisanship is more urgent. His far NE Heights district is growing increasingly Blue. He won re-election by only 4 points (52-48) over teacher Natalie Figueroa in 2016 and she is back for a second try this year.

KOB-TV's Chris Ramirez points out that public clamor over the city's crime epidemic is paving the way for more bipartisanship among lawmakers, noting that ABQ NE Heights GOP Rep. Bill Rehm and Westside Dem Rep. Moe Maestas are also collaborating on crime bills. Neither is especially endangered for re-election but the voices for action in their districts is loud.

In a non presidential year with a lower turnout Gentry should have a bit less to worry about but his long term future could be shaky. 2020 is a presidential election year that will see a higher turnout and following that election there is the 2021 legislative redistricting. If he survives until then and there is a Democratic governor and Dem-controlled Legislature Gentry's district will be even more ripe for the taking.

The minority leader is being force-fed a more centrist profile because of the political peril he faces, not that it entirely disagrees with him. He started off working with noted political pragmatist Pete Domenici, the former GOP US Senator.

THE COMING ICE AGE

As Gentry fights for survival he may be showing his entire party the path to avoid a political ice age that seems headed their way, especially if Rep. Steve Pearce loses the governorship to the Democratic nominee this year.

New Mexico is becoming increasingly Blue and citified. The rural areas--the home of Trump's support and conservatism--is losing power and their legislative influence will likely dwindle more following the 2021 reapportionment.

Also, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian-Americans and African-Americans now comprise well over 60 percent of our state's population. They are firmly in the Dem camp and need coaxing from the other side.

Gentry sees the writing on the wall because it's spray painted all over his district.

SPECIFICALLY SPEAKING

Some examples of why trouble is brewing when it comes to the current NM conservative agenda: The death penalty is again DOA this year; right-to-work is dead--forever; three strikes and you're out is a corpse big tax cuts are no more and two terms of GOP rule in Santa Fe and ABQ are ending with unpopular incumbents.

If the R's are sent to their room by voters this year they are not going to get out by banging on the same old drum. They will need a new and improved agenda. . .

MIMI'S MOMENT 

Sen. Stewart
ABQ State Senator Mimi Stewart--a respected, liberal voice in the Legislature for nearly 25 years--was named the new Senate Majority Whip by Senate Dems on the eve of the opening of the legislature. Her election followed the ouster last month of ABQ Senator Michael Padilla whose downfall was due to decade-old sexual harassment charges against him that ended with the city of ABQ paying out a settlement.

While Stewart is a retired educator who has been a leader on educational issues, she comes to the position in a hyper-polarized environment.

Behind the scenes some lawmakers grumbled that replacing Padilla with Stewart smacked of hypocrisy because she has a 1999 drunk driving conviction, a long-standing and serious problem in the state. They argued that Padilla's long ago sexual harassment case was held to a higher standard because of the tenor of the times while Stewart's mistake was passed over. Padilla's detractors argued any comparison between the two incidents was a false equivalency.

Others pointed out that Stewart's assumption of the whip position means there are no Hispanics in the positions of Senate Majority Leader, Majority Whip or President Pro Tem. That's a sore point in a majority-minority state. Stewart defeated Senators Jacob Candelaria and Linda Lopez.

Still, Stewart's legislative experience and acumen was not at issue and in what one wall-leaner described as "the year of the woman" a majority of the Dem caucus welcomed the changing of the guard and the chance to move on from the Padilla controversy.

TRENDING

One legislative trend we predicted here is taking hold. With well over $20 billion in the state's permanent funds, the temptation is simply too great not to attempt to put some of that money to work to solve the seemingly intractable problems that have NM ranked at the bottom in so many rankings, including crime. That backdrop has surfaced this proposed constitutional amendment from Sandoval County area Dem State Rep. Daymon Ely:

. . . Using only 0.5 percent of those funds annually and without reducing the money in those funds, $100 million each year would be available to establish a criminal justice and public safety fund to reduce crime. . . If public safety is truly a priority for our communities. . .then our budget needs to reflect that reality. Crime affects everything: the safety of our citizens, the reputation of our state and economic development. The permanent funds are for our future generations. However, in failing to address this crisis now, we are already affecting future generations by allowing crime to gain a devastating foothold and by permitting the continued downward spiral of our economy.

That amendment is unlikely to see the light of the day anytime soon but it becomes part of the growing debate over how a state with such immense saved wealth can continue to allow the quality of life measures to sink and cause a significant portion of the population to flee its borders.

The biggie in what the critics like to call "raiding the Land Grant Permanent Fund" is the perennial proposal to tap the Fund for about $150 million a year for ten years and devote it exclusively to early childhood programs for ages zero to five. Brain development at those ages is critical to future success. The state ranked 49th in the nation in child well-being in 2017, according to the Kids Count Data Book released on the eve of the opening of the legislative session.

That constitutional amendment, which would be sent to the voters for approval, has passed the House before and is again expected to be sent over to the Senate where conservative Dems are again ready to open the graveyard gates.

Still, the trend is clear. A Democratic Governor would be much more open to taking some risk and investing some of that over $20 billion in programs that directly attack the dire social conditions crisis. And that new Governor could now be less than 12 months away.

For those so staunchly opposed, supporters put it this way: Over the years the state has given hundreds of millions in tax breaks and incentives to corporations such as Intel, Eclipse and Hewlett Packard. There was risk there. Sometimes it worked out and other times it didn't. But the key point is that risk was taken in an effort to build the economy.

There is no risk-free investment. That includes very early childhood. To not take risk and sit on the sidelines and watch the state further deteriorate and its people suffer while billions accumulate, well, that may be what they call the moral question of our time.

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(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2018
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