Oct. 28, 2016
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Egolf holds a press conference before the start of the special session.
Steven Hsieh

A Tale of Two Chambers

The Legislature’s special session drags on amid partisan squabbling

October 5, 2016, 12:00 am

In this week’s cover story, SFR invites readers to discover an ongoing resurgence of theater taking place in our community. But you’ve already paid admittance to another sort of performance.

At an estimated cost of $50,000 a day, our legislators continue acting out a political drama with dire stakes: a special session to address the solvency of New Mexico. Staged at the Roundhouse, this spectacle in the art of sausage-making unfolded over the weekend and continues to build this week. An end date is anybody’s guess.

When Gov. Susana Martinez first floated the idea of a special session to fill New Mexico’s $600 million budget gap for last year’s deficit and the expected shortfall in the current fiscal year, she envisioned a four-hour fix. “We walk in and walk out,” she suggested in July.

But the governor then pushed a rash of crime bills onto the agenda late last month, including a proposal to bring back the death penalty, all but ensuring the prospect of a quick session would evaporate into the realm of fantasy. On Wednesday, Sept. 28, the Martinez administration quietly fed the governor’s agenda to select news outlets (not this one) before officially proclaiming the special session around dinnertime the next day.

Democrats immediately accused the Fourth Floor of using the session to play electoral politics for the upcoming November contests. (A recent Albuquerque Journal poll shows that 65 percent of New Mexicans support reinstating capital punishment.) “The radio ads are on the air. The postcards are in the printer. We know what they’re going to say,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas (D-Albuquerque) would later proclaim.

At least one Republican, Sen. Lee Cotter of Las Cruces, already mailed out ads (flagged by New Mexico In-Depth) hitting his opponent for not believing “people that murder our brave police officers and innocent children in cold blood deserve the death penalty.”

As the clock ticked past midnight Friday evening, 12 hours into the session, our state’s lawmaking bodies appeared to be legislating in different universes.

The Democrat-controlled Senate shuffled between its high-ceilinged chamber and a committee meeting room on the third floor, pumping out solvency bills with orchestrated gusto. Cuts to capital outlay projects easily passed. Another round of across-the-board cuts, from environment to education, received unanimous yes votes. Only a proposal to delay a scheduled corporate income tax reduction faced significant contention, passing narrowly on the party line. All in all, the Senate passed 11 bills aimed at reducing deficit. And then they voted to adjourn.

“I’m going home,” said Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez (D-Belen) to reporters as his colleagues poured out of the chamber. “I’m knocking on doors tomorrow.”

Senate Democrats touted their half-day budget fix as an achievement in efficiency and teamwork. “Both parties in Senate worked together to solve the crisis,” reads a tweet from their official account.

The Martinez administration quickly hit back. “Don’t let toughening our crime laws get in the way of a good party,” tweeted Joseph Cueto, a communications staffer for Martinez, spotlighting a Facebook post from Sanchez telling his supporters that a scheduled campaign event would go on as planned.

As Senators headed home for a few days, members of the Republican-majority House, holding a Judiciary Committee hearing in a nearly empty chamber next door, had more macabre concerns.

“Maybe you should have chosen firing squad? Or public hanging?” asked Rep. Brian Egolf, the House Minority Leader from Santa Fe, noting a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs used to paralyze, anesthetize and, ultimately, kill convicted felons sentenced to the ultimate punishment. His questions over execution methods fit in a long list showing that bill sponsor Rep. Monica Youngblood (R-Albuquerque) didn’t do her homework. How should a court examine a condemned woman who is potentially pregnant to determine whether, in fact, she is pregnant? What safeguards should the state put in place to ensure it doesn’t execute innocent people?

Youngblood had been standing in the committee spotlight for nearly four hours, making her case to reinstate capital punishment for people convicted of murdering children, police officers and corrections workers. A couple hours before Egolf’s line of questioning, a line of supporters, from law enforcement to the families of violent crime victims, made impassioned pleas to the committee. Religious leaders, criminal defense attorneys and an advocate for the disabled made known their objections against the bill.

That was day one. Now, six days into a session marred by partisan bickering, our legislators have made a small dent on the “worst budget crisis in New Mexico history,” as House Speaker Don Tripp (R-Socorro) put it. The House passed three Senate budget bills, totaling $107 million in cash transferred to state coffers.

But the Legislature still has its work cut out. Heftier bills, like a transfer of $219 million from a pool of settlement dollars that came from Big Tobacco to help cover deficits in both the last and current fiscal years, heads back to the Senate after the House Finance Committee added a minor amendment. A proposal to cut agency funds, totaling $174.6 million, seems poised for heated debate after House Republicans on Monday morning trotted out their own budget plan that takes more out of higher education and less out of corrections, public safety and the Children, Families and Youth Department.

Another debate began to brew this week over taxes. House Republicans killed a proposal by Democrats to delay planned corporate income tax reductions for two years. But they did put forward a bill that would delay a film industry incentive for one year. (“Have you seen Hell or High Water? Go see it,” exclaimed Rep. Bill McCamley (D-Mesilla Park) in his defense of the industry.)

The House of Representatives recessed on Monday and is scheduled to convene again on Wednesday, Oct. 5. Due to a procedural rule that requires one legislative body to return if the other meets for three days (not including Sunday), the Senate is expected to convene again by Thursday, Oct. 6.

We needed the intermission.


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