Alibi V.14 No.14 • April 7-13, 2005 

Ortiz y Pino

The 2005 Legislative Session

A civics lesson from the front row

If you judge the results of a legislative session by the weight of legislation produced, the meager output of the 2005 60-day session seems sparse indeed. But this year's tiny mound of bills-transformed-into-laws comes wrapped far more elegantly and was delivered far more efficiently than some of the bulkier, noisier versions of recent years.

Only time will tell with certainty if this tidier approach turns out to be an improvement over the splash and storm pyrotechnics of the past. What we can explore right now, though, is how the legislative product shaped this year and what that process might say about the immediate future in New Mexico.

In a sense, the final 59 days were all anti-climatic once the events of day one unfolded. Two things happened on that first day, which in retrospect served to script the entire next two months of drama. The first was the selection of the Senate leadership. The second was the unfurling of the final revenue projections for the coming year. All the action of succeeding weeks swung between those two pivots. To understand what went on subsequently requires an understanding of how crucial those two first steps were.

First, the leadership issue. For the past four years the Senate's Democratic majority had been a turbulent family divided by the struggle for control between the mainline Democrats allied with their traditional leader, Manny Aragon, and the smaller splinter progressive wing which followed Richard Romero's lead and formed a surprise coalition with the minority Republicans.

This created an almost unworkable situation in which frequent eruptions of hostility among the Democrats alternated with strident confrontations with the Republicans, stubborn refusals to cooperate with the House of Representatives and acts of rebellion aimed at Gov. Bill Richardson.

If this sounds like the preface to a textbook about futility, it also made for colorful reporting opportunities, frequent television sound bites and dramatic sessions on the Senate floor. What it didn't do much of was produce legislation that dealt reasonably with the state's growing inventory of problems.

The departure of both Aragon and Romero created a special opportunity for this year's session, and several experienced Democratic Senators offered themselves to the effort to re-energize and reshape the process. Ultimately Sen. Michael Sanchez was selected to be Majority Floor Leader while Sen. Ben Altamirano (a 38-year Senate veteran and the quintessential "good guy" trusted by all factions of both parties) was chosen as President Pro Tem.

Altamirano brought the careful even-handedness to his role that everyone assumed he would. But Sanchez' selection created much more of an intriguing mystery. No one doubted his intelligence or work ethic, but his reputation, earned over several terms as judiciary committee chairman, was of a man easily irritated, someone who would not endure stupidity or uncooperativeness with grace.

In the galleries where lobbyists, support staff, observers and assorted wall-leaners gather, there were more than a few bets placed on how long it would take for Sanchez to lose it and a lot of others on what (or who) would prove to be the final straw before he self-immolated. It never happened.

Despite repeated opportunities to respond in kind to inflammatory inducements (dangled in his face with equal enthusiasm by Democrats and Republicans alike), the Belen Democrat handled the key position with great skill and equanimity. In doing so, he set a tone of respect and tolerance that was only rarely challenged, even in the final, hectic hours of the session when lawmakers' nerves had grown raggedy and caffeine added to adrenaline to produce a shortage of civility.

Two examples selected from the events in the wee hours of the final Saturday morning will serve to demonstrate Sanchez' ability as Senate Leader. Mishandling any one of them could have produced gridlock and effectively ended the work of many weeks while the clock ticked away and egos and tempers clashed. That was precisely how last year's Senate spent its final hours, spinning wheels in impotent argument while unable to finish work on many crucial pieces of legislation.

So at 3:15 a.m., when a notoriously difficult-to-handle Democratic senator suddenly decided to announce (in a voice loud enough to awaken slumbering reporters trying to sneak in a few minutes of shuteye) that his pet piece of legislation had to be heard immediately or he'd throw a temper tantrum right and tie the final hours up in knots, Sanchez quickly hustled him off to discuss the matter in private.

The bill was moved up on the agenda, quickly acted on and the assembly stayed afloat. Sure, there were plenty of mutterings about giving in to blackmail, spoiling the children, not standing up to bullies—but the Senate kept on functioning.

A few hours later, an equally voluble Republican senator took the floor to debate, one who'd demonstrated repeatedly during the previous two months his ability to talk about any subject under the sun (a particularly dangerous talent to wave around in a crowded legislative body, which prides itself on the tradition of never interrupting a speaker while he holds the floor) for two or three hours at a time.

You could hear the communal groans leaping from multiple throats at the prospect of dozens of new-born pieces of potential legislation, dying in silent agony while the gentleman from Rio Rancho waxed eloquent as the clock ticked down.

But again the majority leader averted disaster. He surfaced a pet piece of legislation that the talkative Republican cared about, offered it a timely hearing and induced succinct discussion, effectively ending the threat of a filibuster and holding the careening trainful of maverick legislators securely on track.

Meanwhile, over in the House of Representatives, things didn't go as smoothly during the endgame. For days an inspiring group of brave people with cancer, HIV-AIDS, crippling arthritis and other painful disorders had spent full session after session in the House gallery, waiting for action on the medical marijuana bill by that body (the Senate had passed it two weeks previously). It was third on the House floor agenda on Thursday; still third on Friday; still third on Saturday.

As the week wore on and the routine of watching other bills skip over the medical marijuana measure got to be infuriating, the smiles on the advocates' faces grew more and more strained. The House never did get around to voting on it. And in that failure there is more than enough blame to share.

The story of how the Medical Marijuana bill died this year has been told before; it is the type of tale that makes sneering cynics of many political observers. For now I mention it only to illustrate just how chillingly easy it can be to block legislation (good, bad, indifferent) and how many planets have to slide into confluence for something to get all the way through.

It clearly takes strong, effective leadership to make the system work right. The final hours in the House of Representatives were lacking that type of effective leadership. The result was a meltdown in which many potentially valuable bills got lost.

But besides leadership, for the system to work well it also takes at least enough money to pay the costs; in other words, it takes adequate revenue. In government, revenue is known as taxes. That brings us to the second pivotal event that took place on the very first day of the 2005 Legislature, one which definitively affected everything else that went on during the session, the release of the Richardson administration's projections for revenue available to finance the next fiscal year of state operations.

There was a lot of revenue to discuss this year. World oil and gas prices keep going up, and the result for New Mexico is a bonanza of revenues skimmed from severance taxes on that ever-more valuable natural resource. Furthermore, the economy in New Mexico is so dependent on federal government spending that it is doing very nicely in comparison to other states in our region.

As long as the deficit spenders in Washington keep lavishly financing defense, research, energy and other projects in our state, it will produce a healthy economic crest for New Mexicans to ride on. When other states are booming, we don't do as well, but our lows don't dip as deeply, either, so being Washington's red-haired stepchild isn't all bad.

All of which meant that there was almost $300 million in new dollars—revenue that is considered recurring and hence available for the day to day operations of state government. And there was another $400 million in nonrecurring revenues, a label not always easy to grasp. (I mean, if there will be a similar amount next year and there was a similar amount last year, doesn't that seem a lot like it is recurring? But some things are best not questioned, I suppose.)

Nonrecurring money is available only for one-time expenditures, not the day to day stuff. This means it goes largely for capital outlay: construction projects, water rights purchases, highways, infrastructure—big, showy, extremely visible projects. The kind that people remember. The kind that politicians love because they frequently involve ribbon cutting, groundbreaking, naming rights and photo opportunities.

Trouble is, both the governor and the Legislature love capital outlay projects but can't always agree about just which ones ought to get funded. You'd think that with $400 million available (this year alone!), there'd be plenty to go around. But an incredible amount of energy, political capital, time and hand-wringing was expended on the sculpting of that chunk of public spending during the session. The final outcome was in doubt until the last minutes of the session when several pieces of the whole package got approved in the Senate's final burst of productivity. They'd escaped the House meltdown by getting passed on Friday, early enough to avoid being log-jammed.

So the capital outlay piece of the puzzle this year avoided becoming the hotly contested prize over which blood got spilled in the past when governors and legislators vied for the booty or used it to gain leverage in some struggle over other aspects of the legislative or budgetary process.

And because there was $300 million in new money available for operations, it proved possible to finish both Houses' work on the budget a full week before the end of the session, something only the most veteran of observers could ever remember having happened in the past. Legislators have always aimed to reach budget agreement early enough that they have time to override any vetoes the governor attempts. But usually they have struggled to get it done prior to adjournment. That means the governor has been able to slice and dice to his heart's content with no override to worry about.

Not this year. And taking away that option meant there was no arm-twisting, no threat of a special session to hold over the Legislature's head. It also meant the tax reduction package Gov. Richardson had made a big issue of before the session started had to pay its own way. Since government operations for the coming year were already provided for in the budget without including any new tax cuts, any new reductions in taxes would have to be balanced with some equivalent revenue increase.

This produced the scaled-back compromise package of cuts that both branches say they can live with (and avoided any belly-bumping contests over precisely which branch loves or hates taxes more). The new tax cuts are targeted to benefit the middle class (unlike last year's, which benefited primarily the upper income tax brackets) and the working poor. As such they will stimulate the state's economy far more directly than did the income tax rate reduction accomplished last year and could spur job growth, and actually thereby increase state revenue.

As for the $4 billion state budget for the coming year, it manages to increase spending on schools by $130 million and leaves teacher groups angry at being short-changed. It increased Medicaid spending by $80 million and leaves health care advocates sputtering over a $10 million shortfall. It provides raises for public employees but not enough to offset the increased cost of insurance and living.

In short, it avoids the disastrous cuts in services and programming that other states have had to face. It is what all the experts say democratic legislation produces: a good compromise. It leaves all involved parties feeling a little short-changed, but it avoids destroying any of the crucial governmental functions.

Finally, very little of the legislation that garnered all the headlines during the session actually made it to the governor's desk. And that must have made the governor very happy. Assuming, as many do, that he is actively building toward a presidential run in 2008, he would be very happy not to have controversy swirl around his every step. Abolish the death penalty? Define marriage? Restrict abortion? Raise taxes on alcohol? Tell Albuquerque city government that you know better than they do how to deal with uncontrolled growth? Outlaw cockfighting? Those are the kinds of controversies that spell trouble for presidential aspirations, the kinds of controversies that leave half the people thoroughly pissed, no matter where you come down.

So those issues, debated so furiously in committees and in editorial pages, somehow never made it out of the sausage-making machine we call the legislative process. Next year? Don't hold your breath.

Hey, we came out of the session with a workable budget, a lavish capital outlay package, a modest tax cut, a few embellishments of public policy and a minimum of rancor. That may not sound like a lot, but we didn't go backward—and we haven't always been able to say that.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.