Sine die: Bi-partisanship was buzzword but not everything was kum ba ya

By Trip Jennings and Danielle Prokop, New Mexico In Depth
Feb. 15, 2018

The final legislative session of Gov. Susana Martinez’s tenure passed into history Thursday.

What a difference a few months makes.

Last May, state lawmakers were in crisis dealing with a yawning budget gap and no money for the state’s universities and colleges or the Legislature after Martinez vetoed that money.

A special session restored funding to those two areas. But state lawmakers were testy with one another and the governor. And Martinez was in no mood to pay the Legislature compliments.

Fast forward to Thursday, when state lawmakers on the House and Senate floors mixed joking with serious business as they debated and passed legislation up to the noon hour, the 30-day session deadline. Their largest task — a $6.3 billion state budget — was already on its way to Martinez’s desk having cleared both chambers Wednesday night.

While state lawmakers and the governor were not singing kum ba yah, most everyone seemed, if not happy, then not angry.

In a post-session news conference Martinez praised the Legislature for its bipartisanship,” singling out the Senate Finance Committee for doing “the right thing.” Headed by Democrat John Arthur Smith from Deming, the bipartisan committee increased money for “public safety and crime fighting” in the proposed state budget sent over by the House of Representatives midway through the session.

Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe struck a similar tone.

“Every conversation this office has had with the executive branch has been productive and friendly,” Egolf said to a gaggle of reporters.

However, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, also a Santa Fe Democrat, sounded almost wistful in a what-might-have-been way about the gubernatorial/legislative relationship.

“There was a window — certainly the governor came in with a lot of goodwill and then there’s been just a tremendous amount of frustration and just not a lot of engagement” over several years, Wirth said.

Noting the November election when voters choose a new governor, Wirth said “I think we’re going to turn the new page here moving forward and it’ll be very different and again, I’m positive about our state, but boy do we have a lot of work to do.”

New Mexico’s plentiful finances from a revived oil and gas industry certainly helped to generate a more conciliatory atmosphere this year. Instead of struggling with a budget gap, state lawmakers had to figure out how to spend more than $300 million they weren’t expecting.

Ultimately, state lawmakers decided to apply the new money to state agencies and programs that were trimmed in recent years when oil and gas prices bottomed out a couple of years ago, plunging the state’s revenues.

The proposed budget includes pay raises for state workers, with bigger pay bumps going to state judges, elected district attorneys and their respective staffs as well as public defenders around the state. State police and correctional officers also got higher bumps in pay increases.

The state’s public school teachers also received pay raises as did non-teacher school employees. And the state’s child care assistance programs received a boost in funding — a priority for both state lawmakers and Martinez. The budget also included more than $30 million to remediate a brine well sinkhole in the city of Carlsbad.

Of course, state lawmakers focused on non-budgetary measures, too. State lawmakers passed an omnibus crime bill that Wirth and the governor praised, with Martinez all but saying Thursday she would sign it.

The legislation will toughen certain penalties, such as for felons in possession of a firearm, while authorizing correctional facilties to enroll soon-to-be-released offenders in Medicaid. The government’s low-income health insurance program offers treatment programs for mental illness, which is a factor in many crimes, according to judges and law enforcement authorities.

A perennial early childhood proposal wasn’t so lucky. Legislation to pour money into early childhood programs statewide by tapping the proceeds from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund failed for an eighth year. Advocates, however, promised to return next year with a same proposal when a new governor is on the Fourth Floor.

Transparency also was an afterthought for state lawmakers for yet another year.

Most bills that would have shined a light on how state government and the Legislature works failed to clear the Legislature, the exception being SB67, which reversed a measure passed in 2016 that reduced the amount of expenses that lobbyists and their employers must disclose.

Here’s a rundown of issues New Mexico In Depth covered during the 30-day legislative session and how proposals fared.

Transparency on the back burner

New Mexico has a poor record when it comes to government transparency, and fixing that was not the priority in the 2018 legislative session with it’s back-and-forth finger-pointing between New Mexico’s executive branch and state lawmakers about who is more secretive but little movement on actual legislation.

Senate Majority leader Wirth told NMID when asked about the lack of action on transparency that in a 30-day session the budget overshadows other priorities. He added, “I’m committed to continuing to look at these, and moving them forward. I do think when we have a governor that’s on the same page that’ll be a huge plus.”

This year, the governor’s office released two messages related to transparency. On January 24th the governor greenlighted debate on making lawmaker’s capital outlay allocations public. Senate Bill 54, sponsored by Sen Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, mandated that disclosure but didn’t go far, running up against a wall of resistance from rural legislators. Currently, those details are secret.

When asked about the governor’s directive to make lawmaker spending public, Wirth said that the fourth floor extended a mere gesture, but did not actively lobby lawmakers.

“Well there’s a big difference between sending a message and actually coming down here and fighting for it,” Wirth said.

January 30th, the governor sent an executive message bidding the Legislature to make emails in which lawmakers discuss public business subject to the state’s open records laws.

But no bill matching that description was put forward this year. In other words, not one lawmaker stepped up to take on that battle.

Conversely, a bill that would force state agencies to be more open to public scrutiny was not considered relevant by the governor.

Senate Bill 88 would have mandated public disclosure by any state agency, department or office involved in certain types of legal settlements, including sexual harassment, and the amount of taxpayer money used “for actual or compensatory damages and attorney fees.”

Martinez never gave the green light for the legislation.

Rue said he would bring back the legislation next year.

When asked if this legislation will be considered next session, Wirth agreed that sexual harassment is timely. Wirth pointed to the reforms of legislative policy which involves outside council in cases of harassment.

“Look, we did it internally with our new sexual harassment policy, that was a big step forward that we did internally,” said Wirth. “But, there’s always pushback, change is hard.”

For years, attempts by state lawmakers to strengthen lobbying disclosure rules have met with little success. As reported by the Center for Public Integrity in 2015, New Mexico ranks 43rd in the nation when it comes to rules for lobbyist disclosure — earning an “F” grade.

That grade will not improve in 2018, as two bills modifying gaps in lobbying disclosure laws, introduced by Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, were killed in committee.

The first SB 107 would have required lobbyists to file a report within one week of the session’s end listing specific legislation lobbied for or against. The reports would have been publicly available alongside public expenditure reports kept by the Secretary of State’s Office.

The other, SB 173, or the “full disclosure bill,” would have required registered lobbyist employers to report aggregate spending on lobbying.

One bright light was passage of Senate Bill 67, which fixed a mistake the Legislature made in 2016 when it struck rules requiring lobbyists to report in the aggregate amounts they spend less than $100. This will be the second time the “fix”, as it’s known, has passed. Last year it was vetoed by the governor.

Martinez said in her final post-legislative press conference that she had not yet seen the latest version of the bill but is committed to promoting accountability.

“I support transparency,” Martinez said. “If you’re receiving gifts or meals whatever may be, I support the fact that you should be transparent with the public so they can know which lawmakers are receiving those benefits.”

Education

New Mexico educators and child wellbeing advocates went into the 2018 legislative session hopeful because of an improved budget outlook. It was even better than they expected.

An additional $99 million was added to projected revenue for fiscal 2018-19 in the middle of the session, bringing “new money” to nearly $300 million. Barring some line item vetos from Gov. Susana Martinez, public schools are getting a big chunk of that money.

“We came into the session hoping we could get about one and a half percent teacher raises and we got two and half percent, and 2 percent for others. That’s good,” said Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, a former high school teacher.

The State Equalization Guarantee, the largest source of school districts’ funding, is also seeing a bump this year. “I think on that side, we did about as well as we could have expected,” Soules said Wednesday afternoon. “And as more money came in, more money was put toward education than I have seen in the past.” The increased spending will help to backfill two rough years for schools across New Mexico.

An effort to return money the state took from school districts’ reserve funds to balance its budget in 2017 — about $40.8 million — met with partial success. Budget negotiators for the House and Senate on Wednesday agreed to send $5 million to shore up school districts’ cash balances, with an additional $10 million to come from funds not distributed from the State Equalization Grant, said Sen. John Arthur Smith, the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

Soules said he believed the school districts will get much of their reserve funds either way. “It’s not what it ought to be, but it’s less likely to get vetoed,” he said. Governor Martinez has referred to districts’ cash balances as “slush funds.”

The budget that passed Wednesday also includes a $2,000 bump for teachers at each of the state’s three tier licensure levels. By improving teachers’ pay, said Sen. Majority Whip Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, “we’re hoping to stop some of the leaving to other states where the pay is more substantial and working conditions might be better.”

The budget also boosted early childhood programs by $37 million, Stewart said, which included funding for PreKindergarten and the K-3 Plus program. The K-3 Plus program adds 25 days to the school year for low-income students in Kindergarten through third grade. Several dozen school districts around the state participate in the program.

When it comes to child wellbeing issues, things were also looking up as the session began. As part of its own budget negotiations, Congress extended the Children’s Health Insurance Program for 10 years, getting rid of that uncertainty for states, and putting $31 million back in New Mexico’s hands that it would have had to spend to insure 11,000 New Mexico children whose families made too much for Medicaid, but who would otherwise not be able to afford insurance.

The Children Youth and Families Department also got the entirety of its $25 million request for child-care assistance. CYFD Secretary Monique Jacobson had argued that the money was needed to cover the cost for increased child-care quality and higher reimbursements for providers, as well as because more children were being served.

“I was really happy to see that legislators prioritized us,” Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, said Wednesday. She is an early childhood educator who runs a five-star faith-based center in Sierra County with child care, New Mexico Pre-K and home visiting programs.

As a provider, she said expanding childcare subsidies would be one of the best investments the state could make in early childhood education because it has a “two-generation” effect, caring for children and helping parents go to work or school, and because it leverages federal money.

“Where we keep coming up on these barriers is people believe that childcare is babysitting and pre-K is education, when I’m telling you that if you’re at a four- or five-star program they mirror each other. There is not a difference,” Dow said.

She was pleased that her Early Childcare Accountability Act passed because it will provide hard data to show the effects of quality childcare on school readiness.

Where early education fell short was in the eight-year quest to take extra distributions from New Mexico’s sovereign wealth funds to pay for programs that target children from prenatal to age 5.

Bid to tap land grant fund for early ed made it further than ever before stalling

There were three measures seeking extra money for early childhood programs. One sought money from the Severance Tax Permanent Fund, by Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, and another from Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, sought an extra 1.5 percent distribution from the Land Grant Permanent Fund.

A constitutional amendment seeking 1 percent from the Land Grant fund from Reps. Javier Martinez and Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, made it further than it’s ever gotten — past the House and the Senate Education Committee. It stalled in the Senate Finance Committee.

“It’s one thing to vote no. It’s another thing to stand in front of the schoolhouse door,” Maestas said about the fact that HJR 1 was never given a hearing in Senate Finance.

Maestas added, however, that “to pass something of that magnitude in a 30 (day session) is very difficult.”

Sharon Kayne, communication director of New Mexico Voices for Children, which puts out the annual Kids Count report, said her group was fairly pleased with the final budget because of its increases to education and support for child care assistance.

“We’re disappointed that the Land Grant Permanent Fund amendment failed yet again, but we’re gonna keep working on it,” she said.

She said since NM Voices started pushing for the constitutional amendment, state funding for early childhood initiatives has expanded by 60 percent, “so there has been some significant improvement. It’s just taking a very long time. And you know, babies can’t wait to grow up.”

Kayne said advocacy groups have supported the Land Grant approach rather than looking for funding to come out of the general fund because it’s the only pot of money big enough, unless the state made substantial changes to personal income tax rates or repealed the 2013 corporate tax cuts.

Republicans and many Democrats have long hesitated to tap the fund because it generates hundreds of millions of dollars for education each year and because its primary source — oil and gas — is not a renewable resource. They want to pile up the profits from oil and gas drilling so that the fund can replace those revenues when the fossil fuels run out. Another reason some Republicans, including Dow, said they were against the proposal is because they don’t believe the capacity exists to spend the $150 million the proposal would generate.

“I’m gonna keep my eyes out this year because I think we’re gonna see home visiting dollars reverted, I think we’re going to see pre-K dollars reverted,” Dow said. The Legislature appropriated $1.5 million more for home visiting, even though 13 programs were only at 45 percent capacity, she said. And the PED received $8 million more for preschool, even though it only requested $4 million.

“How can you ask for a hundred million when we can’t even spend the expansion,” she asked.

Crime took center stage

Just as soaring crime rates around New Mexico — and in Albuquerque, particularly — have dominated news headlines in recent months, so, too, did the issue consume much of the oxygen during this year’s 30-day session.

For the first time in recent years, lawmakers had the luxury of buttressing the criminal justice system, rather than leaving in place an inadequate status quo or outright slashing already spare budgets.

Things were bleak coming into the session: Albuquerque and the state have steadily climbed to or near the tops of national rankings for violent crime and property crime; cities and counties have complained about difficulties in staffing up their police and sheriff’s departments; New Mexico judges are the lowest paid in America; prosecutors have said they don’t have enough attorneys or other resources to keep up with crime; and the state’s chief public defender last year was held in contempt of court after refusing new cases for indigent defendants — a move he said was necessary because his department has been chronically cash starved.

Before the session, the governor outlined a familiar agenda to tackle crime. She advocated for reinstating the state’s death penalty for certain crimes, expanding the three-strikes law, ratcheting up penalties for a host of crimes, providing immunity for police officers accused of civil rights violations and undoing a commercial bail reform effort overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2016.

Judges and some lawmakers offered a different path, and they backed it up with studies and statistics showing that the only demonstrated deterrent to crime is the specter of being caught. That meant more police officers, not necessarily stiffer punishments, could perhaps blunt statewide crime, they said. Further, some lawmakers said underlying issues such as mental illness and substance abuse needed to be addressed with funding and services to help address the crime problem.

In the end, the Legislature seems to have more strongly adopted the latter approach, as opposed the governor’s favored ideas.

Lawmakers in both chambers passed what they called an “omnibus crime package” by huge margins. The bill would increase penalties for felons caught with guns and require two more steps before convicted drunk drivers could remove alcohol-sensing ignition interlock devices from their vehicles.

The package seeks to help officials at the state’s prisons and jails screen people for mental health issues before they’re released — and to get them enrolled in Medicaid if they’re eligible. Another section actually decreases penalties for a host of nonviolent crimes.

The final element seemingly speaks directly to a presentation New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura led for legislators early in the session. It provides bonuses for veteran police officers in an attempt to keep them in law enforcement and stop the staff hemorrhaging at many of the state’s police and sheriff’s departments.

Wirth, the Senate Majority Leader, characterized the crime package as “a new road map for how to deal with criminal penalty bills and treatment – deal with both sides of the issue.”

And Martinez indicated she planned to sign the bill into law.

“I am pleased that lawmakers finally acted on a number of proposals to crack down on crime,” Martinez said in her news conference Thursday.

The governor specifically touted the pay increases for state police and correctional officers in the budget. Both groups would see pay raises on average of 8.5 percent.

Lawmakers boosted spending across the criminal justice system. Judges, court staff, Corrections Department and state police officers, prosecutors and public defenders are all set for significant cash infusions if Martinez signs the budget passed by legislators.

Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez received the largest increase of all. Albuquerque’s top prosecutor had asked before the session for a $5.4 million increase; Martinez said she like to see him get even more. After wrangling over the budget between the Senate and the House, lawmakers have settled on a $4.3 million hike for Torrez’s office.

“I am proud to work across party lines with the District Attorney,” Martinez said.

Most of that increase comes in the form of recurring dollars — meaning it will carry over to next year and the year after that. About $800,000 of that is one-time money to help Torrez’s agency to address a backlog of cases, Sen. John Arthur Smith said Thursday.

Sylvia Ulloa, Jeff Proctor, and Marjorie Childress contributed to this report.

Copyright 2018, New Mexico In Depth (http://nmindepth.com/2018/02/15/sine-die-bi-partisanship-was-buzzword-but-not-everything-was-kum-ba-ya/)