By Milan Simonich/The New Mexican
January 17, 2016
New Mexico’s 30-day legislative session doesn’t start until noon Tuesday, but the infighting is underway.
Republicans control the Governor’s Office and the House of Representatives. Democrats are the majority party in the Senate. Rancor between the two legislative chambers dominated last year’s session, and already the most powerful man in the Senate is at odds with the most powerful woman in the state, Gov. Susana Martinez.
“I don’t think the leadership in the Senate is going to be bullied or intimidated by the administration or any of her allies in the House,” Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said in an interview.
Given the bad feelings, a key question heading into the session is whether confrontation between the House and Senate will destroy any prospect of compromise and cooperation on legislation.
Sanchez, an attorney, gets along well with the Senate minority leader, Republican Stuart Ingle, a farmer from Portales. “He’s vital to the work that gets done in the Senate,” Sanchez said. “He’s calm. He works hard. We recognize that we have philosophical differences, but we also recognize that we each want the state to move forward.”
There’s no such respect between Sanchez and the most outspoken Republican in the Legislature. Rep. Nate Gentry, the House majority leader from Albuquerque, regularly criticized Sanchez last year when Senate committees killed initiatives by Republicans. Gentry did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
At the end of that bitter session last year, the bad feelings between the House and Senate majority leaders were obvious to everyone. “Michael Sanchez failed New Mexico,” Gentry said. He blamed the Democrats’ Senate leader for the defeat of bills that Martinez and House Republicans supported, including a measure to hold back hundreds or thousands of third-graders who scored low on standardized reading tests.
Sparring between Gentry and House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, is also routine.
“Representative Gentry is far more focused on trying to set up Michael Sanchez for defeat in his re-election than he is on legislation,” Egolf said in an interview last week.
Like Ingle, House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, has not engaged in any such personal criticisms. Still, Tripp, Gentry, Sanchez and Egolf will be under a public microscope for the next month. Their parties are naturally divided on many issues, such as whether labor unions should be barred from charging fees to those who decline membership. Republicans want to outlaw compulsory fees as a matter of personal choice. Democrats oppose the idea, saying everyone who shares in the benefits of a union contract should pay a fair share of the negotiating expenses.
The greater question may be whether debates on high-profile bills will be civil, so the state budget and other proposals are not bogged down.
In addition to the five leaders, a handful of other legislators could have pivotal roles this session.
Sen. Lisa Torraco, R-Albuquerque, is an attorney and a former prosecutor who has smooth and respectful relationships with Democratic senators. Torraco’s knowledge of the criminal justice system may be especially important in how senators react to a series of bills from Republican House members who want to lengthen criminal sentences.
Aside from Sanchez, the most influential state senator may be John Arthur Smith, a Democrat from Deming, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. Smith, at 74, has a streak of independence that can confound members of both major parties.
Smith opposes the proposed constitutional amendment by some fellow Democrats to use gains from the state’s $15 billion land grant endowment to expand early childhood education.
But Smith, in a 180-degree reversal, turned against Martinez last year on her attempt to repeal the state law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. Smith joined Ingle in sponsoring a bill that would let undocumented immigrants continue to receive a New Mexico driver’s license while still making the state compliant with the Real ID Act, a federal identification law.
Smith and Ingle are so influential that most Senate Republicans — 11 of 16 — rejected Martinez’s push for the repeal. Children of immigrants rushed to Smith to shower him with hugs.
This year, Martinez and House Republicans have backed off their attempt to repeal the driver’s license law. Instead, they are offering a bill that would create driving privilege cards for immigrants, though Democrats say the conditions are so restrictive that the proposal is unworkable. For instance, immigrants who want a privilege card would have to prove they have lived in New Mexico for at least two years before they could even apply.
In the House of Representatives, three freshmen could have significant roles in setting a tone for the session.
Democratic Rep. Patricio Ruiloba is a retired Albuquerque police officer who supports driver’s licenses for immigrants as a matter of public safety. Ruiloba, 48, said the more state residents with driver’s licenses, the easier a job police have in sorting out who’s behind the wheel of a car they’ve pulled over.
Ruiloba said he and numerous other police officers also are skeptical of a bill by Gentry and Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, to amend the state Hate Crimes Act to include law enforcement officers to the list of protected classes. “Based on the information I have on it now, I would not support it,” Ruiloba said. Bill cosponsor Pacheco also is a retired police officer.
Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, a Republican from a swing district in Albuquerque, showed a willingness to work with rival Democrats on a high-profile bill last session and will revive the initiative this year. She teamed with Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, on a bill for solar energy tax credits. Martinez vetoed it without explanation, but Maestas Barnes and Stewart are proposing the measure again.
The third freshman to watch is Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, who has introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to automatically register all eligible voters.
“The traditional paper-based registration systems and deadlines we have now are no longer necessary due to technological advances. They undermine our democratic process,” Rep. Martinez said. If the House and Senate approve his bill, the measure would go before the state’s voters in November.