Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Legislative Wrap Up

The following article, written by me, appears in the current issue of Capitol Report:

The 2009 legislative session ended neither with a bang nor a whimper but with a public outburst by the Speaker of the House, permanently captured and endlessly reproducible, sound by sound, through the miracle of contemporary digital electronic technology. Speaker Ben Lujan is not the first legislative leader to vent frustration at a last-minute tactic that killed a bill in the waning moments of the session. But his indiscretion in doing so in front of reporters and in light of the ironic circumstances of his bill's undoing (in complaining to Sen. Smith he deserved a phone call he implied he would have pulled the amendment had he known it would be scrutinized in public), guaranteed the story would circulate widely, including embarrassing details about the bill in question.

But Sen. Smith's remark to reporters immediately after the incident--"Obviously, the Speaker had not had as good a session as I've had"--suggests a frustration that runs deeper than the loss of a bill. Indeed, a quick review of the session reveals the Speaker's ability to deliver votes failed at key moments, particularly at the end of the session. What happened? My take here, certainly not definitive, is indebted to several persons, players in the arena or close observers, who shared their thoughts.

When it finally became clear the governor was not going to Washington, insiders opted to pretend the same old Big Bill was still in town. No one was more clearly the architect of this strategy than Speaker Ben Lujan, who has ruled the House for years as a kind of rubber stamp for the governor's agenda, and for whom the governor spent considerable political capital last year helping Ben Lujan Jr. become a congressman. Lujan's approach was simple: hold party discipline together for a few key votes, ask for a tax increase to pay for ambitious projects, and let Dr. No (Sen. Finance Chair John Arthur Smith, who indicated he would use his clout to keep expenses within the limits of projected revenues) take the heat for killing spending bills.

This approach ignored two critical new realities in the political landscape. First, it ignored the implications of the fiscal crisis, which eliminated capital outlay funds (normally distributed to each legislator to be used as they please) this year. Some legislators depend heavily on bringing these funds back to their districts. Given the Speaker's loyalty to the governor, he has in the past been able credibly to threaten the governor's use of the line item veto. This year, with no capital outlay funds to get vetoed, the Speaker's leverage was reduced.

Second, it ignored the implications of the lame-duck status of the governor, deeply aggravated by both his loss of moral authority and the presence of Lt. Governor Diane Denish, whose almost-was-but-still-about-to-be status suggested power was already shifting away from the governor. Sensing this, the governor sharply curtailed his strong-arming of legislators, focusing on a few choice capital projects. But with the governor's presence and authority diminished, the Speaker was forced to expend more of his own political capital. When this capital ran out, the Speaker ran into problems.

One example: the Speaker asked for support to pass a massive $400 million tax increase for education, a 15% increase. Neither the governor nor the Senate seemed disposed to fight for this bill, but the Speaker was able to wrestle 37 out of 45 Democrats to vote for it. Sure enough, it died in the Senate. Among those voting for the tax increase were many legislators who had come to Santa Fe with a fistful of ethics bills and the backing of the public for reform. And yes, many of the ethics bills passed through the House with the Speaker's help. But they too failed in the Senate. When members realized the Speaker had convinced them to vote on record for a massive tax increase that never had a chance of passing through the Senate, and that they would go home without having passed comprehensive ethics reform legislation into law, their confidence in the Speaker's leadership waned.

On the last day of the session, when the Speaker tried to twist arms to pass the Albuquerque TIDDS bill (a SunCal spending project that was heavily lobbied during the session), something he wanted badly, he was unable to do so, getting a tie vote. On a second try, he was able to persuade Rep. Joni Gutierrez (Las Cruces) to vote for the bill (she normally does what he says, but opposition to the bill surfaced in Las Cruces and she refused to vote on the first role call vote), as well as Rep. Rick Miera and Rep. Bobby Gonzalez. But meanwhile other legislators were withdrawing their support for the bill, including Rep. Gloria Vaughan and Rep. Dianne Hamilton, both from Southern New Mexico. Again, the bill failed on a tie vote. It is highly unusual for a Speaker to lose a key vote on the floor of the House and the Speaker's outburst at Sen. John A. Smith should be seen in the context of this embarrassment in front of a packed gallery.

In the Senate John Arthur Smith threw down the gauntlet at the start of the session about spending, backing up his assertions with updates about revenue projections, which show declining revenues until 2013. Given the rudderless nature of the session Smith provided the most consistent leadership in both chambers. Sen. Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, who told people he was seriously considering a run for governor, provided virtually no evidence he really intended to do so. In a year in which the public was begging for comprehensive ethics reform, and in which a governor lost a cabinet seat over ethical accusations, Sanchez appeared to be leading the charge to kill ethics legislation, saying, "we are good people," ignoring the housing scandal, the two state treasurers now in jail, the sentencing of Manny Aragon to jail for blatant corruption, the Rio Rancho wi-fi scandal, and the growing evidence that the unprecedented flow of money in the political system, virtually unregulated, has multiplied unethical and illegal temptations several-fold. Ironically, one of the few reform bills that passed, sponsored by Rep. Joseph Cervantes, opening up conference committees, was the catalyst for the chain of events that led to the Speaker's outburst at Sen. Smith.

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