State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, told constituents gathered at Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse on a gray Sunday morning that before the election, he thought he'd be having a "different conversation" with them about the upcoming 60-day legislative session that starts in January.
But that was before Republicans took control of the New Mexico Legislature's lower chamber for the first time in more than 60 years.
With a 37-33 advantage in the House for at least two years and another 4 years in the governorship, the GOP now has more power to implement the party's legislative agenda than it has in decades.
The state Senate, where Democrats hold a 25-17 advantage, will see "a whole string of bills" previously stopped in the House when Democrats held the majority there now "screaming into the Senate," Wirth said.
Democratic senators, Wirth said, must focus on "core Democratic issues" and by setting their own agenda and "can't just sit here and play defense" against the House Republican agenda. He wondered "what kind of tone" the opposing party in the lower chamber will set. House Republicans, for instance, could finally clear a so-called parental notification bill that would require minors to notify parents they're getting an abortion, he said.
While Democrats control the Senate, majority lawmakers in that chamber often undergo ideological divides on core liberal issues, with rural Democrats exhibiting streaks of independence from urban colleagues and the state Democratic Party.
House Democrats "have a whole set of rules" that will protect the minority party, he said, recalling the days when former state Rep. Dan Foley, R-Roswell, "a master at using the rules to assist the [Republican] agenda," would stall Democrats' agenda with filibusters by describing Roswell public works projects in "in detail" as Democratic lawmakers sat like "stool pigeons as we're watching Republicans run the show."
"I thought for a minute and I said, 'No, the Republicans are doing exactly what they were elected to do,'" Wirth said he responded to a question from a caller to a radio show denouncing Republican filibusters.
He also praised the House Democrats selection of Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, as the minority leader.
Wirth said Democrats and Republicans could find common ground on fixing a "completely broken" and "regressive" tax code.
In response to SFR's question about whether lawmakers would try to pass legislation that would force online retailers like Amazon that sell products to New Mexicans but don't have to pay gross receipts taxes on those sales because they're not located in the state, Wirth responded that's another "basic fairness issues" and that the state could "bring in a chunk of revenue" by taxing those entities. "Is she willing to engage in tax reform for the state of New Mexico?" Wirth asked of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
For the past two years, Wirth's legislation that would require outside groups making independent expenditures in elections to disclosure donors supporting those expenditures has passed in the Senate but died in the House, "right toward the end of the session," he said. Nonprofits on both sides of the political spectrum, like labor and anti-abortion groups, have opposed the bill. It might get further this year, he said, noting that Rep. Jim Smith, R-Albuquerque, will co-sponsor the bill on the House side and naming Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, as another Republican ally in the House in his fight to pass the legislation. He encouraged the audience to personally interact with lawmakers instead of "through the mailer that comes every other day" during campaigns.
The bill would also etch a definition of illegal coordination between outside spending groups and campaigns, which is already prohibited on the federal level but is not enforced by Republican Secretary of State Diana Duran, who has cited a lack of a state definition in the law of coordination.
Journey Santa Fe organized the conversation with Wirth, who responded to audience questions.
A board member of New Mexicans for Gun Safety in the audience told Wirth that citizens have feared to testify on issues because citizens are able to open carry firearms in the Roundhouse. Wirth responded that last year he unsuccessfully attempted to amend Senate rules to restrict the ability of people to bring weapons into Senate committees.
Wirth, a state lawmaker for ten years, chairs the Senate Conservation Committee.
In response to questions about water issues, With says that while up to 77 percent of water in the state is used for agriculture, he doesn't view conservation as a rural versus urban issue. He questioned the project that would divert water from the Gila River and praised Gov. Martinez for signing his legislation that limits a subdivision's ability to use domestic wells, despite objections from oil interests.
Audience members cheered at a question about how the Democratic Party can better represent interests of its constituents.
Wirth responded that "what seems to have been lost are Democratic senior statesmen" and called the selection process of candidates during the primary elections "broken."
"I hope we can send a signal that the Democratic Party is not dead," he said