Sunday, March 22, 2009

Legislative Wrap Up

The Budget:

Overall, the session was rudderless, except for Senate Finance Chair John Arthur Smith's success in steering the ship away from a strong current headed for the shores of Deficitlandia. At the beginning, following the governor's lead from last summer, when he was dubbed "Dr. No", some legislative leaders appeared willing to ignore Smith's warnings and push what can only be called a liberal agenda (perhaps afraid of the sound of the word "liberal" some liberals in the legislature have taken to calling themselves "progressives") which would, under current financial conditions, have required a tax increase. Better to have a tax increase this year, was the logic, than next year, an election year. Smith was able to keep this current in check by pointing out that unless the tax increase was huge, poor prices in the oil and gas industry could easily force legislators to convene is special session to raise taxes a second time, much closer to election time. This unpleasant possibility, combined with Smith's power as Chair of Senate Finance, tended to keep spendthrift tendencies in check. Indeed, a special legislative session will almost certainly be held in September, to assess the financial condition of the state treasury. No other single legislator came close to having as strong an impact on the big-ticket legislative agenda as Sen. Smith.

So the bill to acquire the College of Santa Fe failed at the last moment. So did the bill to increase education funding 15%, along with it's siamese twin, HB 331, which changed the funding formula to help relatively poor districts. So did the SunCal TIDDs, the Las Cruces downtown TIDDs, the Santa Fe Opera rehearsal hall, an enhanced legislative pension bill, and other projects. Moreover, a bill to curtail some of the more excessive abuses in the double-dipping of retired state employees passed, as well as other fiscally sound measures to keep pension funds and health care funds solvent. The budget appears to be in fairly good shape, with room for adjustment up or down according to the flow of revenues in the next few months. Although Smith was not the only fiscal conservative calling for fiscal conservatism at a moment it was desperately needed, he deserves a great deal of credit for showing solid leadership on budgetary issues, and sticking to his guns.

Ethics Reform

Perhaps the most unsettling feature of the New Mexico political system in recent years is the decline in ethical standards, with scandal after scandal erupting year after year, and a good deal of evidence that "pay to play" politics has indeed become, as convicted kickback artist Michael Montoya asserted to those he shook down for cash, part of the way New Mexico does business. Liberal Democrats, who gained a few seats in the legislature last year, came to the session with a full package of reforms, and backed by a strong tailwind of public outrage over numerous scandals and violations of the public trust by public officials over the years. Had many of these bills succeeded, it would have been a historic example of the importance of elections. Unfortunately, most reform legislation failed, killed by political insiders, many of whom pose as liberal reformists in caucuses and party functions. Over 40 bills dealt with ethics reform of one sort or another. The most valuable of these, creating an independent ethics commission with subpoena powers, failed miserably. Another bill allowing judges to impose enhanced sentences of public officials convicted of corruption, failed as well. So did SB 263, requiring businesses bidding for state contracts to reveal their campaign contributions. And the cavalier attitude of the legislature toward ethics reform was evident in the passage of campaign funding limits (these have been in place at the federal level for three decades and in most states) but making them take effect only after the 2010 elections. Great example of moral courage, right?

Perhaps the most important single reform was not even part of an ethics bill package, but rather was HB 393, opening up conference committee meetings to the public, and sponsored by Rep. Joseph Cervantes, who has never been accused of being a flaming liberal. The impact of this bill was felt immediately, before it has become law, with the withdrawal of amendments to SB 854, in an open conference committee session immediately following the end of the legislative session. The maneuver by Smith to open the conference committee up in fact provoked the Speaker to call Smith a "racist S.O.B." in front of a group of reporters. The passage of this bill has a huge impact in reducing the strong powers of legislative leaders to manipulate the legislative process behind closed doors and pass bills that would not withstand public scrutiny. The other internal reform, allowing webcasts of committee meetings and the action on the floor, was enabled at least in great part because another not-too-flaming liberal, Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones shamed the leadership into allowing webcasts to become part of the political culture of the state, a long overdue reform.


Anonymous said...

Dr Gacia-

Once again you have outdone yourself with the great coverage of the legislative session. As residents of southern NM we do not receive the proper coverage of the actions in Santa Fe. Can you go a step further and provide a score card as to how in your eyes our represtations did in Santa Fe.

I was in Santa Fe and I was hoping to visit with Sen Nava and she cancelled my appointment after me and a group of citizens drove all the way to visit with her.

Jose Z. Garcia said...

I will have a write-up shortly. I'm trying to get together with the Southern DAC legislators to hear their points of view, so it may take a couple of days

Anonymous said...

Excellent description of the legislative session. One comment: you refer to "the liberal agenda" which sounds uncomfortably like the terms used on conservative talk radio. Having said that, of course liberals have an agenda, because they would to see the state devote more resources to such things as universal health care and, within that rubric, more attention to the needs of the mentally ill.

Jose Z. Garcia said...

I certainly don't want to sound like a conservative talk radio show host, and I didn't intend to use the term "liberal agenda" as though wanting health care for all, better schools, living wages for workers, and so on, were part of some evil conspiracy. So I apologize for my use of words, which appears to have exposed a conservative bias I didn't know I had in this piece. The bias is that I felt this year it was better to be fiscally conservative
on the spending side than to raise taxes. This isn't so much a commentary on my ideological reluctance to raise taxes as it is on my distrust of the current political class to do the right thing with a tax increase.

I would not object to raising gross receipts taxes by .75% for a 15% increase in education IF the bill had tied the increase to improvements in school performance. It did not, just adding 5 more days to the curriculum, which does not guarantee better outcomes.