Ortiz y Pino
A Swing and a Miss
Just before the conclusion of the Legislature, I suggested to a television reporter that if Gov. Susana Martinez ever had an agenda for the session, it wasn’t apparent to me.
My flip comment brought down a series of angry emails and phone calls from voters, the gist of which was: “So what was your agenda, Mr. Wise Guy?”
That was a pretty apt question, because in fact the Democratic majority in both houses of the Legislature didn’t have an agenda—at least not one discernible to a casual observer.
That combined aimlessness from both branches of state government made this session a confusing one. Not surprisingly, it was also just about the least productive session of any in the past eight years.
Even though I was not a big fan of Gov. Martinez’ predecessor, I have to say Bill Richardson could never have been accused of agenda invisibility.
“So what was your agenda, Mr. Wise Guy?”
Each year of his tenure, he sent down a lengthy list of topics he wanted addressed. He held the reins of government firmly, and he wanted to accomplish a great deal. He demanded action on hundreds of issues each year.
Richardson would have called press conferences to declare victory on most of the issues by the time the lawmakers left town—regardless of whether things had actually gone his way. He knew that legislative “success” was largely a matter of how the press framed it, so he was quick to help frame every single issue for the media—almost always as successes.
He would never have allowed a legislative session to end on the squeak and a sigh that this one did, at least not without engaging in some browbeating. His was a governance style honed by his years in Congress. Martinez may develop a similar skill at carrot-dangling and stick-waving, but this first time around her hand-eye coordination wasn’t encouraging.
Here are four major issues that should’ve/could’ve/would’ve been handled successfully by Richardson that were fumbled painfully by Martinez.
The cap on movie industry tax credits, which the governor pitched as: Hollywood vs. public schools. She backed off of her original demand for a 15 percent, $45 million maximum rebate and agreed eventually to 25 percent and $50 million. There was never a need to draw this line in the sand. The actual difference in savings for the budget is miniscule, while the risk of driving away large chunks of the sole growth industry in our economy is enormous.
When she grudgingly signs the larger number, she will be taking a step backward politically—while not reducing the state's financial risk in the slightest: a classic lose-lose scenario.
Saving public employees after the Legislature stuck it to them. This was a missed golden opportunity. Legislators drew up their budget long before Martinez was ushered onto the fourth floor. They opened the door for her to pick up an easy, popularity-building win when they opted to increase the amount public workers and teachers have to pay into their pension plans.
Instead of becoming an instant heroine for all those thousands of teachers and public workers by finding some other way to balance the numbers, Martinez chose to adopt the Legislature’s budget in almost every detail. This was a time-saver for a harried new administration. But it amounts to whiffing on a big, fat slow-pitch gift.
Riding the fence on unemployment insurance, another high-risk, low-gain maneuver the governor is contemplating. Even the Association of Commerce and Industry (which never supports tax increases) is urging her to sign the bill. It would raise the amount employers have to pay for each worker to ensure the unemployment fund remains solvent.
But Martinez is hesitating. She threatens to veto the measure because it will “hurt private employers.” I got news, guv. If you don’t enact this relatively small business tax increase and the fund goes broke (the Department of Workforce Solutions says this could happen by November), we lose all control over rates. Because then, automatically, they go to Level 6, the highest rate possible. That would really hurt. There is no upside to this veto. Why are you even considering it?
Driver’s licenses for foreign nationals, the hallmark issue of this session. It is perhaps the one which best demonstrates the new governor’s inability to be flexible. A Senate version tightened up some of the most discussed flaws in our policy. But she wouldn’t compromise because it didn’t abolish the licenses completely. So she got no change at all when she might have declared a victory by “ending abuses.”
Her first legislative session won’t be what she is remembered for. There are plenty of chances down the road for this governor to recoup public confidence. But her footwork needs to get a whole lot more agile for that to happen.
Jerry Ortiz y Pino is a retired social worker, community activist and college instructor. He is in his second term as Democratic state senator for District 12 in the New Mexico Legislature. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.