As the New Mexico Legislature prepares to convene for this year’s session on Jan. 19, all eyes are upon the House and Senate, as members introduce a dizzying number of bills to try to curb the propensity for corruption while balancing a $6.5 billion budget to meet the needs of the state’s 2 million residents.
At political stake are legislators' very positions in power. All 112 seats are up for grabs in the June primaries and general elections in November. By that time, a push for ethics and campaign finance reform either will have failed again—another near miss in a long line of them over the last two decades—or have been a direct hit.
Whether the actions, or inactions, of the Legislature serve as a motivator to unseat incumbents depends on voter turnout, which has political science professors, former legislators and at least some voters closely monitoring what's about to unfold in the following months.
"Usually when there is scandal of this magnitude, then there is a great deal of anger, and that can lead to an anti-incumbent fever that really does have an effect at the ballot box," Dede Feldman, a former Democratic state senator, tells SFR. "Of course, the deck is always stacked in favor of the incumbents, but the countervailing pressure is the mood of the public, and if the public believes that there are certain politicians who aren't exactly helping matters, then there will be a move to 'throw the bums out.'"
Feldman's reference to scandal, of course, doesn't refer to just one case in particular. It happens every year, the latest fall from grace, that of former Secretary of State Dianna Duran.
Now a convicted felon, Duran spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the very office she promised to clean up and then skated in a plea bargain, serving 30 days for a crime that carries a sentence of up to seven years. She's due to be released from the Santa Fe County jail in a little less than a week, her state pension still intact, even though the Legislature passed a law in 2012 designed to eliminate that kind of "golden parachute" scenario.
Duran's virtual free pass rankled more than a few people as the New Year approached. From the beauty salons to the grocery stores to the coffee shops, it was the talk of the town as New Mexicans wondered out loud how such a thing could occur.
"You've got normal people who break the law, and they get the book thrown at them, and you've got someone in the upper class who breaks the law, and nothing happens," says Mitch Buszek, a Santa Fe resident and political coordinator for MoveOn, an online petition advocacy group. "We've got to start holding their feet to the fire, or else the bad stuff is condoned, and it just keeps on occurring."
And if Duran's sentence wasn't a tailor-made example of the proverbial "slap on the wrist," now enters Gov. Susana Martinez, in the early morning hours of Dec. 13, upstaging everything, with a holiday after-party at the Eldorado Hotel, where responding Santa Fe police officers ended up being a buzz kill.
According to audio recordings, Martinez, in slurred words, demanded emergency dispatchers cough up the name of the person who complained about their ruckus inside a fourth-floor room and downplayed the scenario when confronted by cops in the hotel lobby.
In the end, Martinez, a former prosecutor who apparently forgot that all dispatch calls are recorded, put New Mexico on the viral map. Her pronunciation of "pizza" has been deconstructed at length and has become the butt of jokes, but that took a back seat to her inebriated treatment of public servants and what some say was obstruction of justice through intimidation.
While the New Mexico Legislature certainly has no control over passing bills that would clamp down on the social transgressions of its governor or keep tabs on the possible addictions of those who hold state offices, it does have the capacity to pass ethics and campaign finance reform, the core of the problem, often rationalized as a "few bad apples" in a citizen Legislature mostly made up of hard-working, ethical members.
Abuse of office has persisted for years, but it seemed to reach its apex late last year, and now it's safe to say that the stage is set for some soul searching at the Roundhouse and another debate about trying to legislate morality.
But they better make it quick. It's only a 30-day session, traditionally dedicated to deciding how the state is going to balance its budget, and Martinez, a Republican, calls all the shots on which nonbudgetary bills will be heard.
There are ways, however, of circumventing her consent, and it comes in the form of passing a resolution to put certain issues before the voters as constitutional amendments. And a freshman Republican senator from Albuquerque, Jim Dines, is leading the charge with a resolution calling for the establishment of an independent ethics commission.
"We seem to have an unfortunate number of situations of ethical violations, and the commission would have the authority to not only initiate, but investigate the violations that may be occurring, then adjudicate them or refer them to the appropriate agency," says Dines, a retired attorney who says he received no PAC money or contributions from lobbyists during his campaign.
On the House side, Minority Whip Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, has introduced a series of bills, including one that died last year that would establish an ethics commission by state law.
While the bills seem simple enough, the process is anything but that.
"It's like watching a three-dimensional game of chess on Star Trek," says Santa Fe's Peter Wirth, a Senate Democrat who's held office for more than a decade."Why do you think nothing ever gets done in US Congress?"
Or, in the case of the proposed amendment, it's like a "Who's on First?" sketch: A measure originating in the House of Representatives, for example, has to pass there, and then there has to be a similar resolution in the Senate. And if the Senate decides to add on to the House resolution, then it has to go directly back to the House for a look-see; if the House doesn't like what the Senate has added, then it rewrites the document, at which point it could be referred to a conference committee, where, behind closed doors, anything goes. It can even be entirely rewritten in a process where bills can be outright hijacked, sometimes scarcely resembling the first draft.
It sounds a lot like the game of Telephone, where everybody gathers around in a circle and what's uttered into the first ear takes on a whole new meaning when it comes out the last mouth at the conclusion of the game.
Now add a 42-member Senate controlled by Democrats and a 70-member House with a Republican majority, and the game just got more complex, with all sorts of special interests and lobbyists and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions that have all but paid for the predetermined votes, and what you've got is more like puppeteering.
What's more, Dines' resolution needs a majority of votes from members of both chambers, not just the majority of those present, a big distinction where a full quorum is often hard to summon, especially during a monthlong session. And you can bet, Wirth says, that plenty of legislators will be off tending to their own particular bills and interests.
This year, Wirth is working on a bi-partisan attack to shine a light on "dark money." While New Mexico, like other states, tried to cap campaign spending, the US Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that political action commitees can spend as much as they want, that money is free speech.
The measure, also carried by Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park, would expose who exactly is behind the massive donations. Voters have a right to know, as they see it.
"We cannot limit the contribution amounts, but we can require disclosure of donors," Wirth says.
Not only would that law mandate that PAC donors reveal themselves, it stipulates that PACs may not directly coordinate with political candidates or political parties while emptying their deep pockets.
Reform isn't the only issue. Another big one is bringing the state into compliance with the Real ID Act. Designed to curb terrorism, the federal law was enacted in 2005, but its implementation has languished, only now reaching critical mass.
This fall, confusion reigned over whether airports and federal facilities would accept New Mexico IDs after early January. While federal officials said recently that our state's driver's licenses are valid for domestic flights for two more years, White Sands Missile Range and Sandia Labs this month stopped accepting them.
The Real ID Act is supposed to put the Department of Homeland Security at ease by making sure all states comply with federal standards that call for proof of US citizenship with a birth certificate, Social Security card, passport and/or proof of residency.
Caught in the middle are the estimated 20,000 undocumented residents who need to drive and for more than a decade have been able to get a New Mexico driver's license.
One solution is to issue them a driver's privilege card with a disclaimer across the bottom.
Pro-immigrant rights groups argue that would merely stoke fear in immigrants in cities where police work in conjunction with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Like in Farmington, where immigrants who work in the gas and oil fields are scared to death every time they see a police officer in the rearview mirror, according to Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a labor rights organization in Santa Fe.
The Martinez administration has taken the stance for the last several years that repealing the state law would prevent fraud and identity theft among those who flock to New Mexico to apply for easy IDs.
"But what's going to happen is we're going to start stigmatizing law-abiding citizens," says Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos. "Thousands of immigrants have lived here for years. They are members of this community. They pay taxes. They work hard. They've done nothing wrong and just about everything right, and yet we're going to try to make life even more difficult for them."
Also on the table is Senate Republican William Sharer's annual tax reform measure, which seeks to rid the state of personal and corporate income tax while lowering the gross-receipts tax rate.
This session, Sharer says, he will concentrate on trying to squeeze a half-million bucks for a pair of studies on the ramifications of knocking down the state's portion of the GRT rate to 2 percent from 5 percent.
"We do know that our current system is a nightmare; only big business can maneuver through it, and the locals are left paying the bill," says the San Juan County politician, a small business owner who represents Farmington. "This is not good for local business or for the people of the state. We must fix this, but most legislators are afraid the cure will be worse than the disease."
It's something to keep on the radar, because on Jan. 4, in a carefully orchestrated press conference in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Albuquerque, Martinez made her budget priorities known. They include spending $100 million on public safety, education and job creation.
Once that dog-and-pony show ended, Joe Kabourek, executive director of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, issued this statement:
"Until we address the culture of corruption in the Martinez administration, no budget proposal will be able to take us from being the worst-run state in the country to being the thriving economy that New Mexicans deserve."
And so the partisan onslaught begins in another case of political deja vu. Gov. Bill Richardson became the focus of a federal investigation for a "pay to play" scheme, forcing Richardson to withdraw his nomination as US commerce secretary. Martinez, who ran on a promise to clean up the residue left from the Richardson administration, has now come under scrutiny for her own questionable governance, including the wholesale outsourcing of behavioral health providers, weak stances on environmental protection and open records, and discrepancies in campaign contributions that made her top political strategist the focus of an FBI investigation.
Is it just politics as usual in what some like to refer to as "Old Mexico," a fact of life that's unavoidable in the oldest state capital in the country? Or is the New Mexico Legislature's tendency for shenanigans a mere microcosm of American politics at work in every legislature across the country?
Maybe it's a semblance of the two: It is, after all, a temporary part-time job, where common folks get a shot at holding political office but are only paid $165 for each day they're actually at the Roundhouse, which makes them all the more susceptible to kickbacks, bagmen, movidas or backroom deals.
Gabriel Sanchez, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, says in order for things to truly change, it's up to the legislators themselves, because normal, everyday residents have resigned themselves to scandal.
"It's gotten to the point where New Mexicans are saying, 'What's the point of voting?'" Sanchez says. "The bigger picture is that the reforms that we're talking about require members of the Legislature to actually relinquish their power and authority and go against their inherent self-interests."
It sounds more like the first step in a 12-step program, where admitting your problem is the most crucial.
But if past actions are a predictor of future behavior, then an independent ethics commission is doomed to failure, and New Mexico will continue to be one of nine states that doesn't have one.
The Wall of Shame is rife with the names of those whose accomplishments in elected office have been upstaged by incarcerations or shameful resignations.
Phil Griego, a Democratic State senator and former Santa Fe city councilor, was involved in legislation to sell a state-owned building on the front end and then brokered the sale later on the back end, in what was clearly a conflict of interest. But Griego pleaded confusion and ignorance, and he still collects a pension after voluntarily stepping down amid an ethics inquiry just before the end of last year's session.
Manny Aragon served a four-year stint in federal prison after serving three decades as a Democrat in the state Senate. He'd always championed the underdog. The epitome of a powerbroker, Aragon rose from poverty and virtually ran the Roundhouse for a number of years, only to be convicted of defrauding the state of nearly $4.5 million in the construction of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse in Albuquerque. He pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy in 2008.
Robert Vigil, a Democrat, served as the state treasurer up until his resignation in October 2005; he was eventually sentenced to 37 months in prison on one count of attempted extortion. His predecessor, Michael Montoya, pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering in November 2005 and admitted to taking bribes as far back as 1995.
Since Vigil, nearly 50 bills have been introduced over the last decade to curb what some view as widespread corruption, but to no avail, according to Feldman, who chronicled various scandals in her 2014 book, Inside the New Mexico Senate: Boots, Suits and Citizens.
And lost in the sensationalism, and the undeniable joy that more than a few get from witnessing the missteps of others, is that pesky constitutional mandate to balance the budget. Alongside the governor's spending plan is a different approach from legislators.
"We need to first meet the priorities of the state's current programs and plan and priotize for the future," says Peter Campos, a Democrat who's on the Senate Finance Committee. "I know it sounds like a platitude, but it's true."
Medicaid has to be paid for. Something has to be done about the 30 percent vacancy rate in jobs at the state's correctional facilities, and a big issue these days is trying to stem the exodus of nurses from public health facilities by paying them a little more. Same goes for a boost in the yearly salaries of entry-level teachers.
So from the balancing the budget to balancing corruption, from passing bills that would usher in tax reform to figuring out how to handle the Real ID Act, legislators have their work cut out for them.
Then there's gun bills, and proposals to alert the community when someone who's mentally ill has gone missing, and legalizing agricultural hemp and the effort to get rid of daylight saving time.
How about time for serious reform?
Meet your 2016 Legislators
From the pomp and circumstance that kicks off the session on Jan. 19 to the final gavels at noon on Feb. 18, New Mexico’s 112 legislators are on tap to plan the state’s budget and consider other proposals. Remember, they’re working for us. Help them earn their $165 per day per diem by weighing in. Here’s a list of those elected to represent all or part of Santa Fe County:
Sen. Carlos Cisneros
District 6, Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, Santa Fe and Taos counties
Sen. Peter Wirth
District 25, Santa Fe County
Sen. Nancy Rodriguez
District 24, Santa Fe County
Rep. Carl Trujillo
District 46, Santa Fe County
Rep. Brian Egolf
District 47, Santa Fe County
Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard
District 43, Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, Sandoval and Santa Fe counties
Rep. Nick Salazar
District 40, Colfax, Mora, Rio Arriba and San Miguel counties
Occupation: Government relations
Rep. James E Smith
District 22, Bernalillo, Sandoval and Santa Fe counties
Sen. Jim R Trujillo
District 45, Santa Fe County
Luciano “Lucky” Varela
District 48, Santa Fe County
Sen. Ted Barela
District 39, San Miguel, Santa Fe, Bernalillo, Lincoln, Valencia and Torrance counties
Occupation: Project Manager/Trainer
Legislative committee hearings and sessions of the House and Senate are open to the public, and legislators just love it when you attend to scowl or smile at them, as the situation dictates. Be forewarned that some committee rooms have extremely limited seating, and Roundhouse personnel are typically very serious about making sure the fire marshal is happy. That means if you care, you should arrive early and maybe bring a jar to pee in. Learn about schedules, track bills and much more at nmlegis.gov