Colorful start to the 50th New Mexico legislature; Rep. Ben Lujan narrowly re-elected House Speaker

Jan 19, 2011

Santa Fe, NM – The 50th New Mexico legislature is off to a colorful start. Governor Susana Martinez addressed lawmakers this (Tuesday) afternoon to start the session, but not before a vote in the House that had many people guessing about who the next Speaker would be. From our capitol newsroom, KUNM's Jim Williams had this report.

"It is my privilege to stand before you as New Mexico's twenty seventh governor."

Martinez was clearly aware of the significance of where she stood in the House chambers, the first woman to address the New Mexico legislature as governor. She began with echoes of her campaign for office.
"By working together," Martinez said, "we will take our state in a new direction, embracing bold change over the status quo, choosing progress over complacency, and putting aside partisan differences to achieve lasting results for New Mexico families."

She and lawmakers face a budget shortfall of between 250 and 450 million dollars, and a sluggish New Mexico economy.

"It's easier to take the reins when times are good," Martinez said, "when revenues are high and jobs are plentiful. But that's not the hand we are dealt."

Martinez said shared sacrifice and decisive action are necessary. She's proposing cutting the budget by three percent, with a one-point-five percent cut to K through 12 administration leading the way.

"Now you've heard some special interest groups say this can't be done. They claim there is no waste in the bureaucracy. Not even one point five percent. I don't buy it, and neither do the people of New Mexico."

She reiterated that she wants the state's film industry incentives cut from 25 percent to 15 percent, stressed that she would veto any tax increase that gets to her desk. And Martinez repeated her assertion that jobs are leaving the state because of regulations, that need to be adjusted. She proposes a Red Tape Reduction Act, and the creation of an office of business advocacy that would help businesses break through what she called "regulatory roadblocks", "and in doing so send a loud message and a very clear message: New Mexico is open for business."

Martinez said education must be reformed, and echoed words of former President George W. Bush:

"We must end the culture of low expectations. Stop accepting failure."

Her reform package includes adopting a grading system to evaluate schools so struggling students can be more quickly identified. She also wants to end the practice of promoting children from one grade to the next before they're ready, and pay the state's best teachers more. Toward the end of her speech, Martinez called for reinstating the state's death penalty, which was repealed in 2009, and for making it a crime for public officials who fail to report pay-to-play. She also wants to create a public corruption unit in the Public Safety Department. But the biggest rounds of applause came with these two lines:
"When people have to show a photo ID to rent a movie, it's not too much to ask to show a photo ID to vote and if we're going to tell New Mexicans we're serious about securing the border, we must stop giving drivers licenses to illegal immigrants."

Lawmakers had mixed reactions to Martinez's address.

"I heard a lot of, for lack of a better term, campaign rhetoric." Senate Majority Leader, Belen Democrat Michael Sanchez said she was short on specifics. He took issue with Martinez's assertion that only 61 percent of the education dollar in New Mexico is spent in the classroom. Individual districts, he said, will have the power to make cuts wherever they want. "And I think those school districts will cut where there is waste. And if there is, I think they're the appropriate ones to do it. It's at the local level. And that's why we give them the autonomy we give them. If they're not doing what we say they're supposed to be doing, or if we see there's something wrong, then you know we have other avenues up here to try to stop it if there's that much waste going on, but it'll be interesting to see how the school districts react to it."

Sanchez took the opportunity to point out that, in her speech, Martinez promoted tax subsidies to get Union Pacific Railroad to move a hub from El Paso to Santa Teresa New Mexico.

"On the one hand," he said, "she was talking about taking away subsidy for one industry and then giving a subsidy to another, so I'm not it's gonna be a fun session. We're gonna enjoy it, and hopefully the acrimony will be minimal."

Some lawmakers expressed concern that Martinez's tough language on certain issues would diminish New Mexico's compassionate image. Democratic South Valley Representative Miguel Garcia said he was "dismayed" at what he called her one-two punch on the death penalty and immigrant driver's licenses. Most immigrants, he says, have benefited the state. Garcia said, " the driver's license helped them kind of make contributions to the society that they live and work in and that their kids get an education in. And it kind of took them out of the shadows, and kind of made them a contributing member of our society. And to neglect them the driver's license is gonna be a real step backwards."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat, said Martinez's talk of spending cuts was "music to his ears", especially her call for education administration cuts. "Oh, I think she's being very careful," Smith said. "She wants to do things differently when it comes to education. And I've been here, quite frankly, twenty two years, and we've done the same thing every year with education. And I think we need to give her an opportunity to try and do something a little bit differently."

Albuquerque Republican Senator Bill Payne said he'd never heard a clearer State of the State address in terms of what the administration's priorities for the legislature are. "The legislature right now is pretty clear on where the executive stands on a lot of things," Payne said, "and whether or not they wanna test her we'll see in the next sixty days, but I think it was a very hard hitting speech, and I think it will be a speech most of New Mexico will understand, and I suspect that's where most of New Mexico is right now in their feelings about the political process, that they would find most of that worthy of their support."

Payne says he doesn't think the budget will be a contentious issue, primarily because the legislature's budget proposal isn't far from Martinez's. Some of the details, like the education piece, could get contentious, but he says the real battle is likely to take place in the House, where earlier in the day, Representative Ben Lujan narrowly retained his speaker position. This, after Republicans nearly recruited Democratic Representative Joseph Cervantes to challenge him and get their votes. Republicans decided at the last minute against the idea, having heard from constituents that they shouldn't vote for a Democrat. Payne said there are two schools of thought, "one the Republicans remain united as a caucus, or they were fractured to the point where they couldn't, to mount, you know, a coup and have other like-minded Democrats join them in change over there. So you know that's subject to interpretation, we'll see by the end of the session whether that was a good plan or a bad plan."

The man that House Republicans ended up nominating, who narrowly lost, Farmington Representative Thomas Taylor, said his caucus looked at both options and made a strategic decision.

"It is the status quo, we're still in the minority," Taylor said, adding "if the status quo continues, then in the next election, we'll have an advantage because nothing changed when we had an opportunity, and it was blocked by the status quo."

Lujan, meanwhile, will go about the business once again of assigning chairs and members to committees. In a speech following the vote, Lujan said he was "deeply humbled and honored to continue to serve as speaker." He made no reference to the close vote in the House. From Santa Fe, for KUNM, I'm Jim Williams.