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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Budget Battle Or Power Playing; House And Senate Tempers Rise As Session Nears End, Plus: Political Impact Of Impact Aid And: Replacing Sapien; Hopefuls Line Up  

Things can change quickly in the final hours of a legislative session but late Tuesday this was on the radar. . .

Is it imperative that $150 million be trimmed from the state's $7.6 billion budget?

That's the marker laid down by Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, who says without the trimming the state would not reach the historic 25 percent in reserve funds it's shooting for. But would 23 or 24 percent be a disaster? Hardly.

Smith's maneuver seems more like a power play than a budget play and House Speaker Brian Egolf isn't playing along:

The complete and total secrecy in how they (the Senate) have done this (budget changes) puts the House and the people of New Mexico in a difficult spot.

Menahwhile, Smith's messaging remains stern, hinting that if he doesn't get his way that a special session is not out of the question. And he adds that he thinks the speaker needs to get some rest and is saying things he doesn’t mean. Careful, Dr. No, or Brian might have your bar tab at the Bull Ring cut off.

Smith and his fellow conservative leaning Dems are under intense pressure as they deal with a near Dem super majority in Egolf's House. And it's showing.

Senator John Sapien has thrown in the towel and won't seek re-election. Sen. Clemente Sanchez, facing a primary challenge, reversed his opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment for early childhood; Senator Munoz switched on gun policy and backed the Red Flag bill and Smith's Dem primary challenger, Neomi Martinez-Parra, is starting to breath fire.

No wonder Egolf is turning up the heat.

Not that the House is perfect. They're not the type of folks to wait for a sale before shopping. Restraint from the Senate is in order. But what Mr. and Mrs. New Mexico is witnessing is not a genuine, btg stakes budget battle as Thursday's adjournment looms but a Senate leader bristling and bucking as the forces of change begin to corner him.

Not so sure? Reader Karl Kiser points out:

John Arthur Smith says $150 million must be cut from HB-2 (the state budget) while he tries to take away $40 million with SB-274, a bill to delay the implementation of an increased tax rate for the wealthiest taxpayers and approved at the last session of the Legislature. Something smells here.

In a day we'll report on what else smelled and what didn't during this 30 day session.

HIGH IMPACT

One of the Senior Alligators operating under deep cover at the Roundhouse (we'll never tell) reports on the continuing melodrama of Dem Senator Clemente Sanchez:

Joe, HB 4 is the bill. Federal Impact Aid is paid to school districts with federal land, military bases and tribal lands. The state (unfairly) takes a credit equal to 75% of the Aid the districts receive. Sens. Munoz and Sanchez have long fought to return these funds to the state's poorest school districts. They came close to winning last year and are close again with HB 4 which passed the House 55-2. It's now stuck in the Senate Education Committee.

Sanchez's re-election is essential to the "conservative coalition" in power in the Senate, responsible for Sens. Papen and  Smith retaining control. Impact Aid is vital to his primary election because it is hugely important to Zuni Pueblo and other areas in his district. 


Will the senate powers that be force Senate Education Chair Soules to hear the bill or will they risk losing Sanchez and their power over this one issue? We'll know soon.

We don't know about other Roundhouse watchers, but we've just voted Clemente Sanchez "Entertainer of the Year" for the 2020 legislative session. Congrats. . . .or something, Clemente.

REPLACING SAPIEN

MLG and Kevin Lucero
Two veteran political hitters and one who may be a fave of the Guv are eyeing that senate seat held by Dem John Sapien who announced Sunday he will not seek re-election.

Former two term Dem state Rep. Ben Rodefer, 56, who lost the 2012 senate primary to Sapien, is trying again. He tells us:

I am absolutely running. I grew up in the district and represented a portion of it in the House. I have a solid Democratic voting record from my time in the House and have proven that I can raise money and win in a tough swing seat. . . I look forward to bringing honest and effective representation to Bernalillo, Corrales, Placitas and Rio Rancho. . . 

Rodefer says he has already been endorsed by liberal ABQ Dem Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino which would seem to ensure that, if elected, he would not caucus with the conservative senate coalition that includes Sapien.

Rodefer
Rodefer served two terms in the House and was defeated for re-election by Republican David Doyle in 2012.

Former state House Majority Leader Rick Miera, a longtime resident near Downtown ABQ, tells us he moved to Corrales this past summer and is considering getting into the Dem primary for Senate District 9 that covers parts of Sandoval and Bernalillo counties. He says he is considering a bid because Dems "need to keep that seat."

Miera, 68, who left the House in '95 and ran for Lt. Governor in '18, doesn't have much tenure in the district but says he was born in Algodones which is in the district. He moved to Corrales because he and his wife are now empty nesters who wanted a smaller home.

Then there's Corrales Village Councilor Ken Lucero, 47, who served in the BernCo Sheriff's department and is now a possible Dem contender. He was seen this week walking around the Roundhouse with a close political ally of MLG. He's weighing a bid and is also considered a strong contender.

A number of R's are also sure to join the race for the seat that Sapien has held for two terms.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Crack In The Coalition; Sen. Clemente Sanchez Switches On Early Childhood Amendment; "We've Got To Do Something," Faces Primary Foe; Analysis And Context Up Next  

Sen. Sanchez (AP)
A major crack appeared in the state senate’s conservative coalition Monday, stunning the Capitol and again placing the state's rapidly changing political and demographic landscape on full display.

The crack occurred with conservative leaning Dem Senator Clemente "Meme" Sanchez of Grants switching his long-held position and voting in the Senate Rules Committee to support a constitutional amendment to tap the state's nearly $20 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood programs.

As a result of Sanchez’s switch and that of Dem Sen. Bill Tallman of ABQ, who also previously opposed the amendment but does not caucus with the coalition, an amended measure was approved by the full committee.

It was Sanchez’s unexpected switch that packed the punch and could be an important portent of what is coming to New Mexican politics.

The amendment has been defeated for nine years, with the votes of all Senate Republicans combining with those of conservative coalition Democrats. The amendment (HJR1), which again this session passed the full House, still faces long odds for full Senate passage, but first. . .

Sanchez is hearing footsteps. He faces a June primary challenge from longtime Dem activist Pam Cordova of Valencia County. And conservative Senators walking out of a Saturday hearing of Senate Rules to deny a quorum when discussing the amendment, didn't help. That ignited a mini-firestorm on social media that Sanchez cited as he announced his switch.

The Senator also cited New Mexico's last in the nation ranking in child well-being rankings, repeatedly saying, "We've got to do something."

The amendment is a scaled down version. Instead of asking voters that they allow one percent of the Permanent Fund to be diverted annually for early childhood it now asks for half a percent. That would still be over $75 million a year. But if the fund grows as projected the appropriation would be near $100 million in several years when the amendment kicks in, says supporter Allen Sanchez of CHI St. Joseph's.

In contrast to the Early Childhood Trust Fund adopted by the legislature this year, a constitutional amendment approved by voters would guarantee annual funding for early childhood while the trust fund could be tapped at any time for other purposes. Also, the trust fund would only provide about $30 million a year.

As we said, the amendment still faces a high hurdle in the person of Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith who calls the amendment "irresponsible" and says it would stall the growth of the giant Permanent Fund. The amendment now goes to Smith's committee.

But the Clemente crack in the dam puts "Dr. No" in a perilous position. That's based not only on the possibility that a Dem coalition senator or two could be defeated by progressive primary challengers but the R's losing a seat or two. If the coalition is busted the amendment next year could get the one percent and the votes to pass.

 (Smith, like Clemente, faces a progressive primary challenger).

The retirement of coalition Senator John Sapien and the prospect of him being replaced with an amendment supporting Democrat also echoed off the Roundhouse walls Monday.

Did Senator Sanchez save himself from a primary defeat? At a minimum it deflated his opposition for a while. At its maximum it did save the two term banker/lawmaker.

The Sanchez vote comes on the heels of another significant vote from a conservative leaning coalition senator. Dem George Munoz of Gallup did an about face and supported the Red Flag gun law, yet another crack in the coalition that has lately thwarted a more liberal House that now has a huge 46-24 Democratic majority.

The footsteps of a new state political order are being seen and heard on the campaign trail and in major policy votes in Santa Fe. How loud will they get? That's the big political story in New Mexico and we're on it like a wet blanket.

QUIET OR CROWING?

MLG will sign the early childhood trust fund legislation today. She could give a shout out to the constitutional amendment for early childhood. She's been quiet on the amendment this year after suffering defeat last year. Will she put some last-minute pressure on Senate Finance to approve the amendment? Well, what good is the power if you don’t use it?

BLAST JOB 

If, as expected, Smith sits on the amendment in the final hours of the 30 day session that ends Thursday at noon, a rare option could be employed--a senator moving to blast it out of the committee and onto the full Senate floor for a vote. If that happened, it wouldn't be a crack in the coalition, it would be a cannonball through the wall.

THE BOTTOM LINES

We blogged in a first draft Monday that the McKinley County coal-fired Escalante Generating Station is in the district of Rep. Patricia Lundstrom. It is in the district of Rep. Harry Garcia. McKinley County is Lundstrom's home county.

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Monday, February 17, 2020

Tension Comes To Fore Between Legislature's Key Money Chairs; Lundstrom Vs. Smith; This Time It's Different, Plus: Sapien To Leave State Senate; Hard Fought Succession Battle Anticipated  

Rep. Lundstrom
Finally some long overdue constitutional tension in Santa Fe. For a decade Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith has ruled the fiscal roost pretty much unchallenged while the House has played dead with a a series of finance chairs who cowered whenever Smith glowered. Now comes a new era in the new chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom isn't to be taken lightly as were her predecessors. Smith knows it and doesn't like it. The two legislative heavyweights are in tense combat in the final days of this 30 day legislative session with Smith upset about what he deems overspending by the more liberal House.

Lundstrom, 60, begs to differ and that in itself is a major development. When's the last time the House money chair dared publicly to take on powerful "Dr. No," even if the two are arguing about a relatively small amount of cash, $160 million?

Sen. Smith 
That the two are at each others throats is made clear from Smith's warning over $15 million proposed to aid McKinley County in the closing of the coal-fired Escalante Generating Station in Grants which is in Lundstrom's home county. That's a subject dear to her heart and Smith is stabbing it right in the center.

Smith, 78, and his conservative allies may have to get used to the lady of the House. She is not known for backing down and has the wind at her back. The House Dems have a massive majority (46-24) as a result of the state's recent shift to Blue. Lundstrom is no drunken sailor when it comes to spending but neither is she a skinflint.

The Senate and especially Smith have been pushing back against the sweeping demographic and ideological shift in New Mexican politics, centered in the state's majority cities. But history has a way of not being denied (witness Senate passage this session of the Red Flag law). And then there are those progressive June primary challengers the conservative-leaning Dem senators face.

Good can come from the Smith-Lundstorm rivalry. Santa Fe is out of balance with the majority of its citizenry. A restoration of the balance of power on key money matters is overdue. Whether it happens is another story but the game is on.

SAPIEN OUT

ABQ area Dem state Senator John Sapien gave a Sunday night jolt to La Politica, announcing that after 12 years in the chamber he will not seek re-election this year. That's significant because Sapien is one of a handful of conservative/moderate Dems who often join with all the senate Republicans to thwart liberal legislation. It's know as the Conservative Coalition.

Sapien, a Corrales insurance salesman said:

A lot of career opportunities have presented themselves in recent weeks and I think I should pursue them. I was committed to re-election but I decided to go another route.

Rumors swirled at the Roundhouse that Sapien might be taking a job in government but there was no confirmation.

In his exit interview with the AP Sapien insisted that another moderate Democrat must be tapped to fill his shoes or the R's will take the district. It includes parts of liberal Corrales and Placitas as well as more conservative Rio Rancho and Bernalillo. However a top Democratic consultant disagreed with Sapien's analysis, telling us:

With District 9 containing such a large part of Corrales and Placitas, it is now home to the left wing of the party. The district has changed over the time he was there and today is much more Blue.

The district is 44 percent Democrat, 34 Republican, 22 Independent and 3 percent Other.

Sapien was known for close elections, winning his last two by only about a thousand votes each.

The AP dubbed Sapien "a champion of early childhood education," saying that during his tenure he helped increase the budget for such programs to $300 million over 10 years. However, Sapien was an ardent opponent of what many consider to be the state's premier early childhood proposal--a constitutional amendment that would tap a portion of the $19.7 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood.

A member of the important Senate Finance Committee that has repeatedly blocked the amendment, Sapien listened as Governor Lujan Grisham twice appeared before the committee in 2019 urging that he and other opponents reconsider. Sapien didn't.

Progressives are sure to enter the race for the Sapien seat. Should one be elected, it would be a blow to the conservative coalition. If the '18 election when Dems took out several Republican state representatives in ABQ's NE Heights is any indication, the R's are going to have a tough time switching the district to their side.

Initial names floating for the Dems include Corrales Village Councilor Kevin Lucero and Bernalillo town Mayor Jack Torres. On the R side John Clark of Placitas and Bridget Condon and Jay Block of Rio Rancho were names floating.

Sapien is only the second senator to announce he will not seek re-election this year. ABQ GOP Senator William Payne is also leaving. The Democrats control the chamber by a 26-16 majority.

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Thursday, February 13, 2020

Simple Solution To Guarantee Secure State Retirement Fund: Raise the Retirement Age, But Is Anyone Listening? Plus: Education Impact Aid, And: High Speed Net; Still A Challenge But Not In Oil Country 

One of the more convoluted pieces of legislation winding its way through the Roundhouse is the plan to reform the Public Employee Retirement Fund (PERA). This bill--SB 72--with its many moving parts--has passed the Senate and now awaits House action. But how much action should there be?

Is there anywhere else in the USA where government workers can get a retirement check in their late 40's or early fifties? Not that we can find. So we queried a spokesman for the Governor's Pension Solvency Task Force. Why, instead of the complicated reform plan, doesn't the state simply doesn't raise the retirement age for everyone--public safety personnel included--to the mid 50's for public safety and near 60 for others?  That's a common plan across the nation. The answer was: "We looked at that but nothing came of it."

Raising the retirement age is a lightning rod for the politicos, but doesn't it make more sense than fiddling with retired workers' cost of living adjustments and making them and current employees pay even more into PERA? And coming back time and again for another fix and more contributions?

Often the most effective solution is the simplest. It's astonishing that none of the major players, the Governor, the legislators or the media, are not pounding the table over this biggest of holes in PERA.

As long as the retirement age stays artificially low--no required age as long as you have either 25 or 30 years on the job--the PERA reformers will continue to demand more contributions from workers and retirees, even as their health insurance costs climb.

The House could resolve this by approving the $76 million cash infusion into PERA that is included in the Senate bill, strip out everything else and mandate a new task force to study a minimum retirement age. 

The best solution in this case may be simple, but it requires courage. That's about as bountiful around this issue as Lobo basketball wins.

EDUCATION WEEDS

This is a bit in the weeds but if the state is ever going to reverse its poor standing in education achievement it's going to have to make much more headway in Indian Country where dismal stats have a disproportionate impact on that standing. From the House Dems:

House Bill 4, a bill to provide the equivalent amount of the full federal Impact Aid to schools and school districts that serve Native American students, passed the House floor. . . House Bill 4 seeks to address decades of imbalance in the distribution of federal education funding.

Currently, instead of distributing Impact Aid funds to the neediest districts in full, 75% of federal Impact Aid funding is credited to the State Equalization Guarantee, a formula used to calculate and administer public education dollars across each school district. With House Bill 4, an equivalent amount in funding awards will go directly to tribal and other federally impacted school districts. . .An estimated $65 million a year is diverted away from New Mexico’s tribal schools and school districts. 
House Bill 4 passed the House floor by a vote of 54-2 and now goes to the Senate for consideration.

WHERE'S THE NET?

So they can get super high speed Internet in the booming SE NM oilfields but can't get it in Indian Country in NW New Mexico or on the Rez?

Businesses and residents in the southern end of a southeast NM county likely will have high-speed internet by the end of the year. The Hobbs News-Sun reports the New Mexico Department of Information Technology announced a new public-private partnership expected to build much-needed broadband infrastructure in Lea County. Officials say the move will accommodate the current economic expansion occurring in the Permian Basin.

How about one of those partnerships in rural McKinley, San Juan and Cibola counties and on the section of the Rez in NM? The state and the state's congressional delegation are losing credibility when they argue they are trying when the rich boom county of Lea gets it in what seems like a snap of their fingers. Come on, guys--that would be you Martin, Tom and Ben Ray.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Early Childhood Trust Fund May Not Be Trustworthy, Plus: A "Hair Pulling" Econ Report 

That "Early Childhood Trust Fund" is headed to the Governor's desk soon and lawmakers and the Guv are doing much backslapping, but the fund comes with major catches. The catches are likely to prevent the $300 million fund from growing anywhere near the $1 billion supporters hope and maybe not growing at all.

The measure approved, Senate Bill 3, calls for a certain amount of energy-related tax collections to be diverted in years when total state cash reserves exceed 25% of spending levels.

Because of the unprecedented SE oil boom, for the next budget year the state for the first time will keep cash reserves of 25 percent. As the oil boom continues but naturally tapers off and recurring state spending increases--we've gone from $6 billion to $7.6 billion in two years--carrying a 25 percent reserve every year is near fantasy. Reserves of ten percent are normal, 25 percent is historic.

$20 million of the trust fund is slated to be appropriated in July of 2022 and $30 million a year each July after that. New Mexico is currently ranked last in the nation in child well-being in the Kids Count Data Report. If the initial $300 million grew with more cash injections, the amount of investment income available for early childhood would increase. Since the state is requiring that cash reserves hit 25 percent before the fund gets additional money what you see is probably what you get for the foreseeable future.

Also, the bill says if the state budget is threatened with deficit spending the early childhood fund could be raided:

. . . Money in the. .  fund may be expended in the event that general fund balances. . . will not meet the level of appropriations authorized from the general fund for a fiscal year. In that event. . .the legislature may appropriate from the fund to the general fund. . 

The early childhood trust fund is a baby step not a grand leap to provide universal pre-k and other programs for children ages zero to 5. The bill's sponsors, Rep. Doreen Gallegos and Sen. John Arthur Smith, have placed a nearly impossible hurdle to grow the fund in the manner of the $20 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund or to otherwise guarantee the new fund's permanence. Baby steps are fine, just don't call it walking the walk. Because it isn't.

HAIR PULLING REPORT

Here's one that will have both the left and right pulling their hair out. The left because it's about more nukes, the right because it shows that making New Mexico's economy noticeably less dependent on the Feds is a pipe dream:

The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous branch of the U.S. Energy Department, would see its budget increase by 18.4 percent to $19.8 billion next fiscal year, partly to ramp up production of plutonium pits at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Weapons spending would climb to $15.6 billion to help modernize the nuclear stockpile.

And then there's this:

. . . A 2019 economic-impact analysis. . . found that Sandia National Laboratories is responsible for creating 1,100 new jobs while contributing $509 million to New Mexico businesses and $96.6 million in state gross receipt tax revenue. The Economic Impact report also found that the Sandia contributes $784 million to small businesses in New Mexico and “manages economic development programs that leverage the people, technologies, and facilities of the Labs to deploy technology in support of Sandia’s mission and to create jobs.” 

So much for "diversifying" away from all that. Do we need to? How about cutting the crime, ramping up the education levels and encourage small business growth? Now that's "diversifying."

A TEACH-IN

Did you know:

In 2018, the number of current and retired public school employees in the Roundhouse surged to 16, according to legislative bios. 

We're sure they like making the rounds at the Roundhouse but the way things are going the retired teachers may have to be called back:

. . . Skyrocketing numbers of people with bachelor’s degrees (are) stepping into classrooms without teacher training. It’s a trend that syncs with a drop in the number of teaching candidates emerging from the state’s university education departments. But those teachers quit at much higher rates than traditionally trained teachers because, and like many beginning educators, they don’t feel properly supported for the rigors of the job. The teacher shortage plays out in the day-to-day lives of students through larger class sizes in some schools. . .

Teachers appear to be in store for another raise this year (4 or 5 percent) as Santa Fe continues to whittle away at the many vacancies.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Clashes For Congress: Chase Takes To Tube To Head Off Herrell Ahead Of Pre-Primary, Plus: Serna Hones In On Native Support 

Claire Chase
Fearing a rout at the March 7 Republican pre-primary convention that could cripple her candidacy, southern congressional hopeful Claire Chase is taking the highly unusual step of launching a "six figure" TV ad buy before the pre-primary to make up ground on Yvette Herrell, her chief rival for the coveted GOP nomination.

In her ad posted on Facebook Chase is show with a gun slung over her shoulder. Herrell comes in for a swipe getting dinged as "a career politician"

Haunting the Chase campaign are past Facebook posts ridiculing Trump and his presidential run. Herrell is expected to have those posts widely viewed via paid media leading up to the June 2 primary. Chase's TV ads put her in damage control mode and on the offense. Her campaign says:

We’re grateful that the outpouring of support for Claire’s candidacy from conservatives has put us in a position to let voters know early that Claire is the only pro-Trump political outsider in this race.

Herrell, the 2018 GOP nominee who lost a close race to Dem Xochitl Torres Small, is the heavy favorite at the pre-primary where contenders seek an official spot on the June ballot by garnering at least 20 percent support from the delegates. Failure to do so is tantamount to a death knell for a candidacy.

With or without TV ads. Chase is expected to cross that 20 percent threshold but by how much is critical. If she can keep Herrell in her sights at the convention Herrell will be denied valuable momentum.

A third candidate, Las Cruces businessman Chris Mathys, is in the race but a footnote to the high-powered Herrell-Chase rivalry.

Chase's most recent finance report showed her with over $550,000 in cash. Herrell reported over $460,000. Chase hails from a wealthy SE oil family and money is not an obstacle. Spending on very early TV whose main purpose is to influence several  hundred delegates reveals how expensive and hard-fought this campaign will be. Herrell does not have the same fund-raising capacity as Chase so it will be interesting whether she sees the need to respond with her own TV buy.

Watching avidly from the sidelines is Rep. Torres Small whose worry beads are never far from her side. How could they be as the R's start to go all out to get her out.

NORTHERN ACTION

Serna
The contest for the Dem nomination for the northern congressional seat has become a highly competitive battle. Santa Fe District Attorney Marco Serna is seen lagging front-runners Valerie Plame and Teresa Leger Fernandez but he still has some arrows in his quiver, including a play for the up in the air Native American vote. From Marco's spin room:

Serna announced that former Third Congressional Candidate and current President of the Navajo Nation San Juan River Farm Board, https://www.dinehbenally.comDineh Benally, endorsed his campaign. Benally endorsed Serna for his “family” and “community” driven campaign across the diverse district. “I am honored and humbled to have such strong Navajo support. . . we are sending a strong message that I will fight tirelessly for the Navajo people and Navajo Nation in Congress,” said Serna. 

The endorsement is nothing to sneeze at since the district's population is 20 percent Native American and overwhelmingly Democratic.

All three front-runners are expected to get 20 percent delegate support at the Dem pre-primary convention and win official spots on the June ballot. This one, kids, is like the Dem Prez derby. There's  no end in sight.

ROUNDHOUSE NOTES

ABQ Dem state Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino acknowledges that his bid to legalize recreational marijuana this session is dead. . . GOP Rep. Rod Montoya says Dem Rep. Nathan Small's proposal to revamp the Public Regulation Commission is "premature" and a "blatant power grab" on behalf of MLG. At a committee meeting Both D's and R's expressed support for Montoya’s take, pointing out that a PRC reform measure is on the November ballot. Why not let the people speak first?. . .

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Monday, February 10, 2020

Red Flag Law Is Green Light For Cervantes; Former Guv Candidate Makes Comeback, Plus: Does Red Flag Weaken Senate Coalition? And: GOP US Senate Race Could Lose A Contender  

Sen. Cervantes
State Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Cervantes engineered the surprise of Session 2020 when he pulled a rabbit out of his hat and managed to usher through the state Senate the controversial Red Flag law that stirred emotions statewide. Before the vote we wrote:

Cervantes says he will now seek a compromise on Red Flag. Thirty of 33 NM county sheriffs oppose the law. If he can come up with a bill that passes the Senate, his new nickname might be "Joe the Magician."

That nickname may not stick but the Red Flag victory does appear to mark a turn in the fortunes of the 59 year old Cervantes who has served in the House and Senate for 20 years (the Senate since 2013) and is often cited as the legislator with the most unrealized potential.

For years the articulate Las Cruces lawyer has tried to break through only to fall short. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee he participated in an ill-fated coup attempt of then-Speaker Ben Ray Lujan. He was forever toying with a run for the southern congressional seat only to retreat. Finally, in 2018 he pulled the trigger and sought the Dem Guv nomination, but the effort was half-hearted and he finished third behind MLG.

Then came one of those out of the blue moments--the arrest of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Martinez on aggravated drunk driving charges. The mishap cost Martinez the chairmanship and in slid Cervantes.

Martinez sat on the Red Flag bill in 2019, a major priority of Gov. MLG. Cervantes played ball, despite an uproar in rural New Mexico, and pushed through amendments that got the bill before the full Senate. The final vote in favor Friday was 22-20.  The bill is expected to win approval from the House and be signed by the woman who dashed Cervantes' gubernatorial dream, but who now is a key ally in his transition from just one of the pack to pack leader.

The Red Flag vote is a major win for the Fourth Floor as well as Cervantes. Conservative-leaning Democrat George Muñoz of Gallup did not, as many expect, vote with other like-minded Dems and the chamber's Republcians to stop the bill. His vote was so key that Lt. Gov. Morales issued a statement saying: "I applaud State Senator George Muñoz for his very courageous vote." (Some goodies from the Guv to follow?).

Is the Munoz defection the prelude to the gradual waning of the conservative Senate coalition that has held sway for so long? That seems likely. The pressure on the Senate to moderate is enormous. The House today is a blazing blue, aflame with liberal rhetoric and passing legislation that represents the views of the major cities.

The failure of the rural block to stop the Red Flag bill had sheriffs, gun rights advocates and conservatives of all stripes flocking to the capitol in protest. It was a seminal defeat for them and will be followed by more setbacks as the state's population continues to realign.

By design the Senate is more restrained than the House and is not about to become a hotbed of liberal activism. However, it will move toward the center and center-left more frequently. The Red Flag decision signals more Blue votes to come in the years ahead.

SENATE POSITIONING

It appears not all of the six GOP US Senate candidates will get considered for an official spot on the June primary ballot when state Republicans hold their March 7 pre-primary convention. Candidates last week filed required petition signatures with the secretary of state to earn that consideration. One of our Alligators has the news:

Joe, Candidates were required to turn in 1,503 valid signatures from registered Republican voters. Rick  Montoya turned in 39 sheets of signatures. Assuming every sheet was full (of which many were not) and that every signature was valid, he'd have 780 signatures. In other words, he is not going to make it to the pre-primary. 

Gavin Clarkson turned in 1,934 signatures. That gives him, should all of his signatures be valid, a buffer of 431 signatures. Mick Rich didn't turn in many more signatures than Clarkson and Louie Sanchez not many more than Rich. Mark Ronchetti turned in over 10,000 signatures to lead the field. Elisa Martinez came in strong with between 4 and 6 thousand signatures. Ronchetti might take a hard look at the signatures of some of his weaker competitors and consider challenges to see if he can bump them from pre-primary consideration. Ditto for Elisa. 

It will take support from 20 percent of the pre-primary delegates to get on the June ballot. Candidates who don't will have the option of gathering more signatures to make the grade. However, no candidate who has failed to garner 20 percent convention support has gone on to win a GOP primary.

Dem US Rep. Ben Ray Lujan is unopposed for the Dem Senate nomination. The seat is being vacated by Dem Senator Tom Udall.

SENATOR WALSH 

Longtime Santa Fe reader Rick Lass comes with this on our coverage tof the US Senate race:

You did not mention that Libertarian Bob Walsh will be running for Senate this year. While he is unlikely to win, his race will determine whether the Libs keep Major Party status in 2022. Former Governor Gary Johnson ran as a Libertarian in 2018 and got over 15% against Senator Heinrich and Republican Mick Rich. Bob obviously doesn’t have the name recognition as Johnson but it could be a place for Republicans to express their displeasure with the current state of the Republican Party.

Good point, Rick. It's already an uphill battle for the R's for the Senate seat and with Walsh perhaps peeling away GOP votes it will make for an even steeper climb.

NO SS BREAK

We received a number of reader emails on the proposal to exempt Social Security from NM income tax, but the bill has already been put down. It was a spirited debate during which we learned SS was not taxed in the state until 1990.

The proposed tax break was slowed in part because of the relatively well-off status of most senior citizens while NM ranks 50th in the nation in child well-being. Look for the debate to resume next year.

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Thursday, February 06, 2020

Impeachment Drama Gets Just A Glance, Budget And Red Flags At Roundhouse, Santa Fe's Plaza Problem And Some Caucus Clean Up 

Senator Tom Udall called it a "solemn"moment but from afar it hardly seemed so. The Senate's vote to acquit President Trump of two impeachment charges received only a glance over the shoulder. The Iowa caucus debacle, the State of the Union featuring a handshake refusal and a ripped speech and the third impeachment of a US President all blurred together like a blender mixing varied colored fruit.

The fruit is decidedly bitter in DC while in the smallish burg of Santa Fe peace and goodwill, generally reign during the short thirty day legislative session, The main order of business, a $7.61 billion state budget for the year beginning July 1, has passed out of the House with a 7.5 increase over the current budget, thanks to the oil boom.

The terror in Santa Fe is that the boom will bust and a general disdain for spending in any climate by many lawmakers is especially pronounced in the lairs of the Legislative Finance and Senate Finance Committees. Thus the budget sets aside a record setting reserve fund of 26 percent or $2 billion. That should be enough when the sky falls.

The Governor did not argue. She will again get state employee and teacher raises and continue to back fill the deep hole of vacancies left in state government by her predecessor.

The budget bill also puts up $300 million for an early childhood trust fund that will generate a modest amount of annual dollars compared to the need.

It didn't make your phone ding much with "breaking news" but the lack of rancor over the budget was a relief of sorts when compared to the unrelenting acrimony on Capitol Hill. Of course, give it time and that could change at the fabled Roundhouse, but for now an Election Year peace prevails.

Speaking of interrupting the peace. . .

Our head count shows that red hot Red Flag bill going down narrowly in the state Senate, but then it was amended in Senate Judiciary perhaps giving it just enough life to squeak through. It now states that only a member of law enforcement, not household or family members, could ask the courts to take a gun away from someone thought to be a danger to themselves or society. For sure, the full NM Senate vote on that promises to be more suspenseful than the dyed-in-the-wool impeachment vote was in the US Senate.

NO SAN FRAN, PLEASE

Please Mayor Webber, don't let Santa Fe turn into San Francisco:

About 50 merchants gathered. . . .to share concerns with Mayor Alan Webber and Santa Fe police in light of robberies and other low-level crimes, , , in the downtown area. Some complained of verbal harassment from panhandlers, burglaries and break-ins, having to clean up vomit and feces and finding drug paraphernalia. . . Police initiated an operation it calls “Downtown Focus.”. . .  A police bicycle team will also patrol the area. . . Earl Potter, owner of Five and Dime General Store said he did not think any of the measures . . will go anywhere unless police develop a personal relationship with merchants.

Mayor Webber also said there is a need for more behavioral health services and that the businesses "are asking police to put a Band-Aid on a serious issue." He added "that homelessness is not a crime but the city does need people to call police" when someone misbehaves.

All of that is true but it does not negate the need for better law enforcement to keep the historic Plaza area free from behavior that ruins the area for tourists and locals alike. "Vomit and feces?" If that isn't a call for tougher (and unapologetic) city action, what is? 

CAUCUS CLEAN-UP

A couple of notes about the 2008 NM Prez caucus we blogged of this week. Former Santa Fe New Mexican political report Steve Terrell writes:

Hey Joe, greetings from the Old Reporters Retirement Home. I enjoyed reading your memories of that disastrous 2008 NM caucus. What a time. One little correction: You said Bill Richardson was practically living in Iowa, which is true. But his campaign didn’t end there. It lasted one more week, when he came in a distant 4th in the New Hampshire primary. I was there, covering what would turn out to be the final days of his campaign. I was in Iowa too that year. And that time their caucuses went quite smoothly.

Richardson did indeed go on to New Hampshire after his Iowa caucus loss in 2008 but the campaign was a dead man walking. Big Bill came in fourth in Iowa, garnering just 2.1 percent of the delegates. Obama won the most delegates with Hillary Clinton coming in second.

We also blogged it "took years" for then NM Dem Party Chairman Brian Colón to recover from the disaster that befell the NM caucus when it took nine days to get a final count and with the national media breathing down his neck. A Colón watcher says not really. "Brian went on to win the 2010 Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor so the recovery period was not that long."

Today Colón is the State Auditor with a vibrant social media presence. That has earned him the blog title of "Most Photographed Man In New Mexico." With that, he has fully "recovered."

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Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Could Biden's Problems Become Xochitl's? Plus: Candidates Get Their Signatures, And Grumbling Over Santa Fe Spending  

Centrist Dem Prez hopeful Joe Biden failed to break through in Iowa and raising questions about his viability going forward. If he is knocked out it could have an impact on the race for the southern congressional seat held by first term Dem US Rep. Xochitl Torres Small.

So say political observers who believe a more liberal nominee than Biden, such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, could pump up President Trump's numbers in the conservative leaning district. That in turn could cause problems for Torres Small who won the district in '18 by less than 3,000 votes over Republican Yvette Herrell.

It isn't only the prospect of a liberal nominee that has Dems fingering their worry beads. They point out out that billionaire Dem Michael Bloomberg has carved out a position as an outspoken advocate for gun control, an unpopular position in the 2nd CD. If he's the nominee Torres Small might have to run and hide on that issue. She made a point of showing herself hunting with her gun in one of her widely viewed TV campaign ads.

Republicans are desperate to take back the seat as they have no leader of statewide or congressional standing. They have been wiped off the map by the state's Blue Wave. Currently, NM Supreme Court Justice Judith Nakamura is the ranking Republican in the state and that is not a position from which you dabble in politics.

Federal candidates filed their petition signatures with the secretary of state Tuesday in preparation for the March 7 major party pre-primary conventions where delegates will vote on placing the contenders on the June 2 primary ballot. They will need to get 20 percent support there. If not, they would have to gather more signatures to make the ballot.

There were no major surprises but Andrew Perkins who was offering token primary opposition to Dem US Rep and US Senate candidate Ben Ray Lujan, failed to file signatures. As a result he will apparently not be on the June ballot. That leaves Lujan unopposed for the nomination. He and six Republicans running for the GOP nomination all filed signatures.

JUDGE FILINGS

Also filing petition signatures Tuesday were the statewide judge candidates:

Republican Ned Fuller is running against Bacon and Republican Kerry Morris is running against Thomson. Thomson and Bacon were appointed to the court last year. By law, appointed justices must run in the next statewide general election in order to keep their seats. Running against Court of Appeals judge Zach Ives is Republican Barbara Johnson, and Democrats Shammara Henderson, Kerry Kiernan and Jane Yohalem along with Republican Gertrude Lee are competing for a second Appeals Court judgeship.

TRUST FUND

It began legislative life as a $320 million "trust fund" for early childhood but it's shrunk to $300 million and could shrink more when the Senate gets to the plan.

The $7.61 billion state budget approved by the House Appropriations Committee Monday did the trimming. That had advocates for the long-proposed constitutional amendment to fund early childhood saying their plan is more solid because it would be funded annually by a small percentage of the nearly $20 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund and not dependent on oil revenue as the trust found would.

Some lawmakers are jittery over putting so much of the oil surplus into the trust fund. They worry that oil boom revenues will not keep pace with spending. However, the Senate Finance Committee, which has been unfriendly to the early childhood amendment in the past is still unfriendly.

The House is again expected to pass the constitutional amendment. A possible compromise floating is to have the Land Grant Fund used for a dozen years as a source for early childhood and then let the trust fund from oil revenues take over. By then, the reasoning goes, the fund would be large enough to generate annual interest that would be more consequential.

If the early childhood trust fund is reduced more (there's talk of going to $290 million or less), the interest the fund generates each year would be reduced accordingly.

MONEY GRUMBLING

The Dems argue that when  accounting for inflation the state's General Fund budget has barely budged the past decade. That's why they say the jump in spending from around $6 billion to $7.6 billion in two years isn't that big of a deal. Bu that isn't stopping conservatives from grumbling and loudly, Here's some equal time with reader Dave:

New Mexico's state budget plan: There is a budget surplus. Bad mouth and demonize the oil industry who contribute nearly 40 percent of the state's income. Give all your pals in NM govt big raises. Hire more govt employees. Spend like there is no tomorrow. Then raise taxes on the citizens because you are afraid you spent too much and won't know what to do when the next economic downturn comes. When it all backfires, blame someone else. Stay in power long enough to max out your govt pension. Laugh the whole way to the bank. Tell the people all the good you are doing. They aren't paying attention. Move to a more prosperous state when you retire and vote for people just like yourself. 

Hear that all you Roundhouse big spenders? Okay, now back to your punch bowls. There's a party going on.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Better Them Than Us: The Year Was 2008; Iowa Caucus Chaos Recalls NM Fiasco, Plus: Latest On Six Seekers Of GOP Senate Nod And: Same Top Three In Northern Congress Clash 

Monahan 2008
Better them than us. The Iowa caucus vote-counting disaster last night immediately brought to mind New Mexico's own struggles with caucus voting.

It was 2008 when the system here broke down and later was permanently discarded. The Democratic presidential caucus resulted in heavy turnout and some 17,000 provisional ballots that could not be counted on caucus night. The race between Obama and Clinton was as tight as a drum, but it took nine days to manually count the provisional ballots and finally declare that Clinton had overcome Obama by just one percent.

Before it was over CNN and other national media blackened New Mexico's eyes over the long vote count and for the long lines that had developed at the sole voting location on caucus day in Rio Rancho. It took years for then Democratic Party Chairman Brian Colòn to recover his reputation from the rout.

New Mexico, which adopted the caucus in 2004 to decide its delegates to the national Dem convention, did so at the urging of then Governor Bill Richardson who had national ambitions and wanted the spotlight to shine on New Mexico and his own future presidential plans. His team put tougher a first-rate plan and executed. The party was celebrated for the error free performance. But in 2008 Big Bill was running for president himself and practically living in Iowa where his campaign abruptly ended when he showed poorly in that year's caucus. The money and professionalism of '04 was not present in the NM Democratic Party caucus of '08. The result was the aforementioned caucus chaos and national black eye.

New Mexico in 2012 returned to the presidential primary system where to this day it is safely conducted in June. We say safely because by then the Dem Prez race is decided and our primary has minimal impact.

While some bemoan that New Mexico no longer strives to be a major player in picking the White House occupant, the fiasco that befell us when we played that game still smarts. A June primary seems just right today as we still await complete results from the pained Democratic Party of Iowa.
As we said, better them than us.

Here is the link to our in-depth reporting of that chaotic caucus week in New Mexico.

The year was 2008. I was there and that's how I remember it.

THE SIX SEEKERS

Montoya, Ronchetti, Martinez, Rich, Sanchez, Clarkson 
Here they are, all six of the GOP candidates seeking what could be the thankless job of taking on Dem Rep. Ben Ray Lujan for the open US Senate seat.

The group has been busy attending county preprimary conventions in preparation for the statewide pre-primary March 7 convention at which half of the candidates could be effectively pushed out of the race. That often occurs when a candidate fails to win at least 20 percent of delegate support necessary to get an official spot on the June primary ballot.

Warriors in the two major opposing factions of the GOP have lined up behind weatherman Mark Ronchetti and shooting range part owner Louie Sanchez. Because of that they can fairly be called the very early front-runners. But as we appraise the action the campaign has more of a wide open feel to it.

Mick Rich was the '18 GOP Senate nominee and lost the race to Dem Sen. Heinrich, but contractor Rich has name ID and personal wealth. Elisa Martinez, a well-known anti-abortion activist, started the campaign that way but has been working to broaden her message. Gavin Clarkson served in the Interior Department in the Trump administration and was the GOP secretary of state nominee in '18. Rick Montoya is trying to carve out a message as the strongest Trump backer. We wouldn't rule anyone out yet and will wait for that March preprimary to do some sorting out.

However, Dem Lujan has $2 million in the bank, the race is not being targeted by the national R's and no R has won a NM Senate race since 2002. Whatever R emerges victorious is going to need some mistakes by Lujan who so far hasn't been very cooperative.

STILL A THREE WAY

Nothing in the latest money reports covering the final quarter of 2019 changes our view that the race for the Dem nomination for the northern congressional seat is a three way battle featuring Valerie Plame, Teresa Leger Fernandez and Marco Serna.

Plame has broken through the symbolic $1 million mark in total fundraising due to her national fame. But Leger Fernandez has held her her own with Plame in cash on hand. Serna lags but holds third place in cash in the seven way contest.

All three have a good shot at getting at least 20 percent delegate support at the important March 7 Dem preprimary convention. A candidate who fails to jump that hurdle almost always sees the money dry up.

Five Republicans are vying for the GOP nomination to face off with the Dem winner in the November election to determine who will replace Rep. Ben Ray Lujan. But in this all Dem all the time district no R's really need apply. The race will essentially be settled on primary night, June 2, when the Dem winner is crowned.

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