Monday, February 27, 2012

A Final Look At Session 2012; The Real Story From The Top Sources In New Mexico Politics, Plus: Latest Exits And Entrances In Roundhouse Races 

The echoes are again bouncing around the Santa Fe Roundhouse. The janitors are buffing the floors, removing the last of the scuff marks from the sometimes bustling, but also often dormant 30 day legislative session. The lawmakers--all 112 of them--are home either preparing for election bids or announcing their retirements. Now with a couple of weeks of separation from the action, the Alligators, Wall-leaners, and insiders are ready to provide the final perspective and political reality you won't get anywhere else. Off we go as we present their take:


The fabled Roundhouse is starting to feel like a hamster wheel, where there is a lot of running around but no direction. In the 2011 session legislators gave Governor Martinez a pass on any kind of agenda since she was entirely new to state government and had been in office only a couple of weeks. But goodwill fell off when she began taking credit for the Legislature's budget, and for bringing the state back from the brink of financial ruin which she calls a "structural deficit." Under the State Constitution there is no deficit spending in New Mexico, and Legislators dislike others taking creditor for their work even when it's a new and green Governor.


In a 30 day session the budget is paramount and for 2012 the Legislature passed a budget which enjoyed rare unanimous support in the House, and ultimately strong bipartisan support. Governor Martinez did not take an active role in the budget process, and tinkered around the edges. The Governor seems uninterested in the tedious budget work of spreadsheets and accounting. The Governor's input was again delegated to Chief of Staff Keith Gardner, who is "the decider" for all policy except when he is overruled by the Fifth Floor and that man behind the curtain (political advisor Jay McCleskey). Ultimately, the budget this year again reflects the handiwork of Appropriations Chairman Kiki Saavedra and Vice-Chair Lucky Varela in the House, and Democratic John Arthur Smith in the Senate. In the past Speaker Lujan played a key role in the budget, but not in this--his last session.


Governor Martinez was passionate again on driver's licenses, but her only achievement is to have Democratic legislative votes for Republicans to exploit in the November election. Exhaustive efforts by some legislators to forge compromise, including several Republicans who see the folly and harm in gridlock, fell on deaf ears upstairs. But Governor Martinez remains unyielding to any middle ground. So as predicted New Mexico will endure another year with a badly flawed system that requires immediate change. Unless the Senate goes Republican in 2013, an outcome nobody realistically expects, Gov. Martinez will eventually have to compromise, or finish her term with the state exactly as she found it on this issue. The criticism remains that the Governor in unable to transition away from campaigning long enough to govern.


Even one of the Governor's closest allies--Sen. Rod Adair--called this the least accomplished session he has experienced, and most everyone in the capitol would agree. In a 30 day session the Governor essentially controls the agenda by executive messages authorizing legislation. But in the second week Gov. Martinez withdrew 34 of the 44 messages she had issued authorizing legislation. The House allowed the Governor to back out of her own messages to deal with the tidal wave of bills introduced on the broad messages as originally worded. The Senate wouldn't accept the Governor's retreat, and that left the entire session agenda in limbo. Nobody can recall a Governor withdrawing executive messages much less withdrawing almost all authorizations well into a short session. The Executive agenda seemed both an afterthought, and rehash of issues from 2011, which generated no enthusiasm or heat from any legislators or the public.

Education initiatives died in committee or from last minute filibusters after slow played. The designee for Secretary of Education is unlikely to ever be confirmed by the Senate, and there seems to be no consensus for any education reforms. Election year tax breaks were received skeptically. Democrats managed to place the Governor in a box by passing legislation which would give a tax break to New Mexico business corporations, but which would also require a few non-New Mexico "big box" corporations to give up a favored tax advantage by "combined reporting."

Strained relations between the Governor and legislators, Senate and House, Democrat and Republican, did not improve over the session. The mood was one of resignation to the status quo. Moderate Republican legislators (Sens. Asbill and Harden) are already announcing retirement rather than battle the "Fifth Floor" in June. The coming elections will inevitably strain relations ever more, and the next two years look to be even more contentious.


An emerging perception here in Santa Fe is that the Governor's office doesn't seem to care much that it has not moved any kind of agenda despite two sessions under the belt. She may be counting on the 2012 elections to change her fortunes, but the Governor could use help with her math. The ruling by the state Supreme Court on redistricting during the session took the air out of those hopes. The Governor's outright exasperation with the political process suggest she is now just waiting on a call from Washington or the Justice Department and the state has seen that story before.


Leaderless House Democrats operated as 36 free agents with the Speaker ill and retiring. Discussions about new leadership were discouraged so as not to jinx a possible Republican takeover of the House. House Republicans are showing two distinct camps consisting of older experienced members in the leadership, and the younger members and freshmen trying to move legislation and assume leadership roles. Votes in the House were unpredictable and unexplainable by any partisan alignments.


The Senate remains the strong-willed chamber, and now even more solidly in control of the moderate Democrats and Republicans. Senator Smith and his Senate Finance committee kept to their tight budgets, and ultimately stood in the way of the Governor's goal for more tax cuts and greater spending on capital projects. Senator Smith also gave the Governor a way out of her misguided veto last session to assure shore up the unemployment fund now and not just kick the can again down the road. The business sector had few initiatives this session, and seems equally perplexed about how to get the state moving again.

Many of the Governor's cabinet appointees were confirmed by the Senate this session. Then there was the odd scenario of the Senate confirming the Governor's appointees at the same time the Governor was trying to un-appoint her appointees over the State Fair casino fiasco, and amid allegations of the pay to play deal at the Downs at ABQ. As with the executive messages the Senate seems unwilling to keep allowing the Governor mulligans.


Santa Fe is waiting for something to happen, and someone to make things happen, but nobody now knows where it will come from. The 2012 session was mostly a walk down memory lane full of nostalgia. Tributes to Speaker Lujan and his 38 years in the House, tributes to other retiring legislators, and even tributes to former legislators. That nostalgia is also for the past days of milk and honey, and for a time of strong, experienced and skilled political leadership in the capitol.

Now that's what you call the real story and then some, and you didn't even have to pay for it. Well done Gators. If you were clueless about what really happened up there, you aren't anymore. They don't call this place "The Home of New Mexico Politics" for nothing.


Meanwhile, not to be too hard on them, but the ink-stained wretches doing the heavy lifting for their conservative editors seem confused and baffled over what happened in Santa Fe. They come with a marathon 2,300 word review that attempts to explain why certain legislation did not pass, but the review soon gets lost in the weeds. The problem? The conservative press can't seem to separate the Governor's good polling from the administration's lack of political acumen. Or just doesn't want to.

Well, at least the state's largest newspaper gave it a stab. The bloggers--some who now call themselves "journalists" and who are firmly in the Susana camp--simply do not report on mishaps that afflict the Fourth Floor. We are reminded of the time when we said one of them could very well end up working for Susana. The howls of juvenile self-righteousness were enough to scare a coyote. But our prediction was indeed accurate. They are working for the Administration, they just aren't getting an official state paycheck.


Rep. O'Neill
ABQ Dem State Rep. Bill "The Fighting Irishman" O'Neill apparently won't suffer a head bashing from the Governor's political machine after all. O'Neill has opted out of a re-election bid for his seat and instead will seek the Dem nod for the state Senate seat held by Dede Feldman. She announced her retirement Friday.

O'Neill's House district in the NE Heights and North Valley is considered a swing district and his defiance of Martinez on repealing the law that allows undocumented immigrants to get a driver's licenses put him squarely in the sights of the Guv's political operatives. But not now. O'Neill will start his Senate nomination bid as the front runner. Former Dem Party executive director Laura Sanchez, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says she is also running so this sets up a pretty good race if Sanchez can come up with financing from environmental and women's groups she is close to. As an incumbent and with time short, O'Neill will have an advantage in that department.

However, Dem activist and Sandia Labs environmental consultant Chris Catechis told me late Sunday that he is just about ready to get in the race. His wife is state director for northern Congressman Ben Ray Lujan. An entrance by Catechis would make for two Anglos and one Hispanic contender for the nomination. It's getting more interesting by the day.

The Feldman Senate seat is Dem performing so no R's need apply, but the O'Neill House seat is now in play and offers the R's a realistic opportunity for a pick-up. Same goes for the seat of Dona Ana County Dem State Rep. Joni Gutierrez who has announced her retirement from the House. She will make a run for Democratic National Committeewoman from NM, a position being vacated by Mary Gail Gwaltney.

Earlier, GOP State Senators Vern Asbill of Carlsbad and Clint Harden of Clovis announced they are retiring. Both seats are expected to stay in the R camp in November.

There will be a number of new faces in the Legislature next year, but analysts say the prevailing dynamic seems destined to remain gridlock. The House has been favorable towards some of the major legislative goals of the Governor. The Senate has not and thus you have the fewest number of bills passing in the recent legislative session than anytime since the 70's.

But, remember, there are many conservatives who supported Martinez who do not want a bunch of bills passing, Gridlock to them is nirvana. the fewer bills passed, the better. Fun for some. Not so much for others.

This is the home of New Mexico politics.

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