Special Session Crib Notes
How much legislation would a legislator legislate if a legislator could legislate legislation?
We'll find out. Gov. Susana Martinez has stuffed a busy 2011 special session with hot topics and a pet issue or two.
Lawmakers gathered Tuesday, Sept. 6, and their mission was to redraw the boundaries of the state's voting districts for:
• Public Education Commission
• Public Regulation Commission
Redistricting has to be done once a decade right after the Census comes out. The goal is for districts to include an equal number of people, and as we all know, pockets of our state can experience sudden growth spurts. So this time, the Westside of Albuquerque will probably pick up some seats, and sparsely populated areas will lose them.
Redrawing the borders is a touchy topic because it can change the political leanings of a district. A faithfully Democratic enclave could suddenly skew more right when more voters are lumped in, or vice versa. The process can be "agonizing," according to the Legislative Council Service, and politicians sometimes have to settle for a measure that may cost them their seats.
The last time it went down in 2001 under Gov. Gary Johnson, Dem lawmakers and the GOP guv couldn't work out their differences, so the issue landed in court. The price tag for their inability to compromise? About $3.5 million in legal fees. And the state—or rather, taxpayers like you—picked up the tab.
This extra legislative gathering doesn't come with an expiration date. It costs about $50,000 per day. Last go-round, it took about 17 days.
But in 2011, Martinez has stirred in a whole heap of beef, too. She sets the agenda for a special session, and in addition to redistricting, she's tossed in bones of contention such as banning driver's licenses for foreign nationals and a few other divisive topics. The guv said lawmakers should be able to shoulder the hefty workload and insinuated that a handful of them usually handle redistricting while the rest slack off. Predictably, legislators scoffed at the notion and returned fire by pointing out that Martinez wouldn't know because she's never done it before. This all went down a few days before the session started, so one can only guess at how friendly this thing is going to be—or how long it's going to take.
(P.S. The City Council is also working on its once-every-decade redistricting, but that's not done at the state level by the Legislature. A city committee is working on that and will have to make a recommendation to the Council by Oct. 5.)
There are also a few practical issues on the table, including: keeping the unemployment fund afloat, kicking more cash to the food stamps program and giving state businesses a leg up when seeking government contracts. And they're going to talk about impeaching Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr., who's admitted to previously having a problem with OxyContin and who is accused of misspending campaign money.
With that, your ever-handy Alibi presents a quick-and-dirty guide to the big concerns of the supersized special session.
Like a reanimated corpse rising from the grave, this is the issue that just won’t quit. Martinez hammered on it during her campaign, tried to shove it through during the regular session in January and resurrected it this month. Rep. Andy Nuñez (the legislator from Hatch who doesn't claim a political party) once again brought forth a bill that would require Social Security numbers from those who want a driver's license or state-issued ID.
Like a reanimated corpse rising from the grave, this is the issue that just won’t quit.
In response, Dems coughed up what they see as a compromise bill. The measure from House Speaker Ben Lujan (Nambé) would mean that noncitizens would have to renew their licenses every two years instead of every four to eight. They'd also have to prove that they're residents of the state.
Martinez says the move is nothing more than a gimmick.
Also caught up in the debate: The guv's lineage. She admitted in an interview with Univision that her grandparents were undocumented but added that times were different and it was a pre-terrorism world.
Explosions R Us
As the brutal wildfires raged this summer, perky white tents popped up in dirt lots near you with the biggest and blastiest firecrackers around. Fourth of July approached, and Martinez and Mayor Berry began calling for people to skip the patriotic playing with fire in 2011. But we learned that neither the governor nor any other public official could ban the sale of fireworks altogether. Some kinds—such as firecrackers and bottle rockets—could be outlawed but not all.
As the brutal wildfires raged this summer, perky white tents popped up in dirt lots near you.
The Legislature might remedy that right quick. Rep. Nate Gentry (R-Albuquerque) introduced a bill that would allow the guv to proclaim a state of emergency and restrict the sale and use of fireworks when the fire danger rating is high.
Buried in a Merger
Rep. Paul Bandy's (R-Aztec) bill calls for the Cultural Affairs and Tourism departments to become one. But deep within it is a little-discussed provision called the African American Cultural Center Act. It outlines a plan for a governor-appointed board headed by a governor-appointed president that would have control and authority over all of the property of the African American Performing Arts Center and Exhibit Hall.
Martinez touts the plan as a government-shrinking maneuver.
In early April, Martinez axed all funding for the center with a line-item veto. Joby Wallace, president of the center’s board of directors, told the Alibi the guv's move came as a complete surprise. "We had no idea this was going to happen," she said in April. The Governor's Office had not stopped in to examine the programs, she said, and no one called to let the center know the funding was yanked.
With this bill, the governor would also approve the center's director.
The stated primary purpose of the bill, though, is to merge the Tourism and Cultural Affairs departments, which the tourism folks are not happy about. Tourism would be swallowed by the much larger Cultural Affairs, officials complained, even though the industry brings billions to the state each year. Martinez touts the plan as a government-shrinking maneuver.
Can't Read? Can't Pass.
This issue is also known as "social promotion." It's another of the guv's favorites. She's long said if third-graders aren't sufficiently literate, they shouldn’t go on to fourth grade. Rep. Mary Helen Garcia (D-Las Cruces) sponsored a similar measure in the regular session. The retired principal told the Alibi that not passing third-graders who can't read has always been the rule of thumb. The update makes it so that parents can't intervene.
It has bipartisan sponsorship.
The bill that's been introduced to the special session outlines that kids can only be held back once. It also provides for remedial programs to assist students who are struggling. It has bipartisan sponsorship from Sen. John Arthur Smith (D-Deming) and Rep. Nora Espinoza (R-Roswell).
Politics and Potholes
Brick-and-mortar projects are rolled up in capital outlay bills, which make their way through the Legislature every session. They're good for the economy, with the government hiring construction firms to fix things up around the state. But this year, during the regular session that ended mid-March, legislators played chicken with $237 million slated for such improvements. In the end, everyone lost.
In the end, everyone lost.
In Albuquerque, we missed out on cash to improve:
• the Silver Gardens affordable housing project
• Los Griegos Health and Social Services Center
• West Mesa High School
• the UNM Health Sciences building and Chemistry building
• Tramway between Comanche and Candelaria
Here's how it went down: Republican Sens. John Ryan (Albuquerque) and Rod Adair (Roswell) whiled away precious time by talking nonsense on the floor. They were trying to force Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez (D-Belen) to allow the guv's social promotion bill to be heard. The filibustering duo ran down the clock so the capital outlay measure couldn't be put up for a vote. But their plan didn't work. In the end, neither measure made it through the process, and the state missed out on improvement money.
But legislators have a second shot. If they don't blow it by playing games, there's a good chance it will pass.