The late-night Roundhouse sessions and heated debates are over and—at least for now—New Mexico will soon get down to the business of putting a host of new laws into effect.
Despite what some describe as an unproductive, highly politicized session, state lawmakers passed a range of bills this year. They banned corporal punishment in New Mexico schools, for one. They established the state’s first health insurance exchange. They passed a requirement that the state’s Taxation and Revenue Department produce an annual “tax expenditure budget,” starting in the 2012 fiscal year, so that New Mexicans can see exactly who benefits from the state’s labyrinthine tax code.
Gov. Susana Martinez’ own agenda, despite frequent challenges from Democratic lawmakers, achieved several of its goals. Katie’s Law, a cornerstone of Martinez’ campaign, will expand to require DNA collection for all felony arrestees .
Another bill imposes a new performance rating system on every public school, using letter grades from A to F.
A bill creating a tax credit for locomotive fuel, aimed at wooing Union Pacific Railroad to relocate from Texas to New Mexico, also succeeded.
According to SFR’s analysis, approximately 60 percent of the bills introduced in the state’s House of Representatives and fully 71 percent of those introduced in the Senate came from Democrats. Democratic bills also had a stronger passage rate in both the House and Senate than Republican bills. Overall, the passage rate for introduced bills—just more than 20 percent in both chambers—was on par with past 60-day sessions in 2009 and 2007.
But even an average bill-passage rate wasn’t enough to bring to fruition Gov. Martinez’ full agenda, as presented in her Jan. 18 State of the State address.
Martinez’ most public failure was a bill aimed at barring driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, which died on the final day of the session after a last-minute committee of lawmakers from both chambers failed to agree on proposed amendments. Other initiatives, such as requiring photo identification at the voting booth, increasing penalties for DWI offenders and corrupt public officials, and ending “social promotion” in schools, failed as well. With them went the challenges to New Mexico’s death penalty ban and abortion rights,
as well as a host of measures that would have increased the revenue to the state’s coffers by taxing alcohol and out-of-state corporations.
Normally, 60-day sessions provide lawmakers with enough time to pass legislation that is more ambitious and broader in scope than 30-day sessions, which are limited to budget-related issues. Fred Nathan, the executive director of the Santa Fe-based think tank Think New Mexico, says the 2011 session was unique.
“It’s just clear that this was a session where there wasn’t a lot of appetite for bold initiatives and reform,” Nathan, whose organization supported a bill to bar political contributions from lobbyists and government contractors, and another to promote smaller schools, tells SFR. “It was just a difficult landscape in which to pass those kinds of bills,” Nathan adds. “There seemed to be more of a small-ball approach.”
As the sponsor of two major reform bills that did pass, the expansion of Katie’s Law and the A-to-F school rating system, state Sen. Vernon Asbill, R-Eddy, might disagree.
Still, he acknowledges that the 2011 session was politically unusual.
“This is a strange session because the Legislature is feeling the governor out and the governor is feeling the Legislature out,” Asbill tells SFR. “It has a strange tint to it that we have not experienced in my years here.”
Asbill, who has been a state senator since 2005, says he doesn’t think the strangeness comes from the presence of a Republican governor at odds with a Democratically controlled Legislature.
“It’s strange because it’s somebody new, and it’s a different style of administration than everybody’s used to,” he says. “Part of it is just between the methods by which [Martinez] is administering right now—she’s got a lot of people surrounding her that are new to administering legislation.”
But to House Speaker Ben Luján, D-Santa Fe, what Asbill describes as inexperience seems more like intransigence.
On March 2, a press release from Martinez’ office quoted her accusing Luján of breaking House rules to block a vote on repealing the law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses.
“She doesn’t understand our House rules; she was premature in making that statement,” Luján tells SFR. “It’s unfortunate that Gov. Martinez has chosen to make this session a very divisive type of legislative session and just tried to promote her campaign promises and her campaign issues.” Luján says Martinez and her staff never made any effort to discuss important bills, such as the budget, with the House’s Democratic leadership.
Even so, a bipartisan budget—one that keeps the 25 percent reimbursement for films produced in New Mexico, but caps the state’s yearly payout at $50 million—passed just before the end of the session. So did a bill establishing a joint-chamber, bipartisan committee to redraw the boundaries around state House, state Senate and congressional districts. Redistricting committees generally hold public hearings over the summer and then meet in the fall for a highly politicized special session—if only because Martinez has already committed to reviving some of this session’s most controversial issues there.
In the meantime, she’ll have until April 8 to sign bills that passed both chambers. Any bills the governor doesn’t sign are “pocket vetoed”—essentially, dead through lack of action. In 2010, Gov. Bill Richardson pocket vetoed just more than 7 percent of the bills passed by the Legislature.