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In the Round

January 17, 2007, 12:00 am
A citizens' guide to the 2007 legislative session.

It's the day after yesterday.

The pomp and circumstance of Jan. 16, opening day for the 2007 state legislative session, has subsided. The music has faded. The hundreds of first-day rubberneckers in the gallery have filtered out the door.

Gov. Bill Richardson's opening speech Jan. 16 prepared legislators for a busy session, with both unsettled issues from the previous Legislature (minimum wage) and new ones (tough carbon emissions for vehicles).

"I know I'm not the most patient person," Richardson acknowledges in his speech, but says that the state can't afford to waste any time. "The people of New Mexico are calling us to act. We can't slow down. We have too much to do."

Now the calm is over. Welcome to the storm.

***image3***Legislators will spend the next 60 days in the pit of the state capitol, duking it out in a good and bloody old-fashioned New Mexico cockfight. Thousands of bills and resolutions will be introduced, passed, shelved and fought over before the last legislation standing stares into the glaring red eye of Gov. Bill Richardson's veto pen.

There will be battles aplenty won and lost in the Legislature on both statewide issues (minimum wage, ethics reform, water, etc.) and local (courthouse funding, tort claim caps and-you guessed it-water), with 60 days and an estimated $1 billion surplus to burn. Making sense out of all those cents is another challenge entirely.

"There's potential to do a lot of good in a 60-day session, but there's also potential that we could do a lot of damage within 60 days," Sen. John Grubesic, D-Santa Fe, says. "It's an avalanche in terms of the flurry of legislation we see, so we'll have to stay focused and deal with the issues that really need to be dealt with instead of getting bogged down in nonissues."

Easier said than done. A 60-day state legislative session is New Mexico's most frantic and prolonged exhibition of political theater, and yet few people outside the Roundhouse (and maybe not all the people inside) understand the chaotic mechanisms that make it all work (or not).

Fear not, fair citizen. SFR has compiled the following guide of legislative procedures, people and issues for the 2007 legislative session.

Let the games begin.

Legislature 101

Here are a few basic facts about the chaos that's about to rain down on Santa Fe:

The Legislature: New Mexico has a citizens' Legislature (i.e., unpaid beyond per diem and expenses) consisting of 70 ***image4***representatives (serving two-year terms) and 42 senators (four-year terms).

There are 13 lawmakers entering their freshman legislative session (seven Democrats and six Republicans), but the balance of power in both the House (42 Democrats and 28 Republicans) and the Senate (24 Democrats and 18 Republicans) is decidedly with the Dems.

The session: A 30-day session occurs during even-numbered years and is limited to financial matters and any issues designated by the governor, while a 60-day session occurs in odd-numbered years (such as this) and is open to pretty much anything and everything. The extra month does little to ease legislative gridlock and, if anything, only heightens the bedlam. This year's session began noon Jan. 16 and runs through noon March 17.

"It's basically a free-for-all in a 60-day session," Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, D-SF, says. "We ***image10***basically have to be experts on everything, because ultimately we're involved in proposing or supporting or voting for a lot of issues in a 60-day session."

The process: Legislators have until Feb. 15 to introduce bills. Bills are passed on to committees, and that-not the horse and pony show otherwise known as the official proceedings on the Legislature floor-is where the real action happens. Any prospective bill has to survive an average of two to three committee reviews (there are at least 26 standing legislative committees) before a bill can move forward.

Bills that survive committee review are voted on by the body (House or Senate) in which they were introduced. Bills that pass both houses land on the governor's desk (plus or minus any amendments) to either be signed or vetoed. Bills that pass Bill become law. Any bill not acted upon by April 6 is "pocket" vetoed.

The Players

If you think all politicians are created equal, we've got a convention center on Marcy Street to sell you. Here are a few of the movers and shakers who will either reign supreme or make a lot of noise over the Roundhouse for the next 60 days:

Gov. Bill Richardson and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish: In theory, the executive branch holds little practical sway (other ***image9***than veto power) over legislation. In reality, Richardson and Denish-in her role as Senate president-routinely set much of the legislative agenda. But not everyone listens.

"The governor has declared this the Year of Water, but I think the Legislature is going to declare this the Year of the Legislature," Rep. Daniel Foley, R-Chaves, says. "We're going to try and get back some of that power that we've systematically given away over the last four years."

Rep. Ben Lujan, D-SF: Lujan survived a December coup attempt over his speaker of the House title by House Majority Floor Leader Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Cibola. With his leadership temporarily secure, Lujan will continue to be the primary gatekeeper for all major legislation through his ability to ***image11***appoint committee members. Since all legislation lives (and dies) by committee, Lujan is an important friend to have.

Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Cibola: Martinez took a hit when his attempted ousting of Lujan failed, but he's still the House majority floor leader, and that position­-alongside obvious disenchantment with the old guard-gives Martinez one of the bigger sticks to swing at this political piñata party.

Rep. Daniel Foley, R-Chaves: Foley was a pain in the Democrats' ass even before he was recently named House minority whip. It's not just a clever name. Foley's propensity for flogging Lujan-he was instrumental in stalling Lujan's minimum wage bill last session-is seen as a large reason Foley took over as whip, and Rep. Thomas Taylor, R-San Juan, is assuming the role of House minority leader this session.

Foley insists that his new leadership role will be more protagonist than antagonist as state Republicans unveil their "Progress New Mexico" agenda for the 2007 session.

"I think you're going to see a different tone from the Republican House members this year," Foley ***image6***says. "Instead of just being the party of 'no' and opposing everything, we're working on putting forth a positive agenda." Foley's counterpart is Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Bernalillo, the House majority whip.

Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Valencia: If Foley is the "divider" of the House, Sanchez is the "uniter" of the Senate. While Sen. Ben Altamirano, D-Catron, pulls weight and rank as president pro-tempore, Sanchez is the band-aid holding Senate bipartisanship together. State Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, D-Doña Ana, the majority whip, is a major force in the Legislature, one of the few women in a leadership role and the lawmaker who will be pushing the ban on cockfighting this session.

Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Chaves: Minority Leader Ingle isn't the same firebrand as Foley, but both legislators share a common constituency (Chaves County) and a fervent desire to move Republican agendas forward in the face of stiff Democratic resistance. Ingle is joined by Minority Whip Sen. Leonard Lee Rawson, R-Doña Ana, in the Senate leadership.

Santa Fe's Delegation

Amid all the tumult and shouting on statewide issues, local legislators will be hammering away at local proposals. Here are some of the items currently on the legislative menu for Santa Fe's lawmakers, all of whom are Democrats:

Sen. John Grubesic: In addition to lengthy city and county funding requests, Grubesic plans to push government ethics reform, bolster law enforcement, work on DWI treatment ***image12***options and increase funding for youth organizations like Warehouse 21. Grubesic also will seek $250,000 in funding for a mental health court proposed by First Judicial District Judge Michael Vigil.

Rep. Ben Lujan: In addition to his speaker of the House duties, Lujan will try to resuscitate a minimum wage increase, improve education funding, combat DWI and domestic violence and reintroduce a proposal to help low-income families pay their energy and heating bills. In addition, Lujan is seeking legislation that would provide supplemental funding for counties that operate their own correctional facilities (like Santa Fe).

Sen. Nancy Rodriguez: Rodriguez sponsored the Housing Trust Fund Bill that passed in the last legislative session and is poised to carry a bill that will enable the Legislature to address the state's affordable housing problems. Rodriguez also is looking to improve water infrastructure in Santa Fe (specifically the Buckman ***image13***Diversion project) and improve services and programs for the homeless, needy, disabled and elderly populations in addition to seeking increased funding for local public schools.

Rep. Jim Trujillo: Trujillo plans to work on funding for capital outlay projects requested by the city, county and nonprofit organizations like St. Elizabeth's Shelter as well as additional funding for the Santa Fe Rape Crisis Center and a proposal that would fund a program directed at helping minority-owned and operated small businesses in Santa Fe. Trujillo also is looking to increase funding for after-school programs, fund a study to look into the disproportionate incarceration of minorities and is again looking to carry a bill (after two previous failed attempts) to ease the state's large uninsured population by increasing coverage for low-income individuals.

Rep. Lucky Varela: Varela will spend much of his time haggling over the state budget in his position as chairman of the influential Legislative Finance Committee. He also plans to support city capital outlay projects, placing restrictions on the "payday loan" industry and raising the salaries of low-income workers (through a minimum wage increase) in general and teachers and state workers in particular. Varela also is working with Lujan on the energy assistance program for low-income families and is looking to support tax relief for the middle class.

Rep. Peter Wirth: Wirth plans to work on raising the cap on state tort claims, regulating mercury emissions at power plants, closing a tax loophole for multistate corporations and seeking funding for a statewide charter boarding school based in Santa Fe that would cater to students who excel in the arts. Wirth also is working on a conservation easement tax credit, supplying the Santa Fe school district with funding to increase security and introducing a bill that would require insurance companies to accommodate employers who want to extend health insurance benefits to employees with domestic partners.

The Issues

There's never a shortage of things to bicker over in a 60-day session-and not nearly enough newsprint to cover them all-but here is some of the legislation that will be snagging headlines and sparking confrontations over the next several weeks:

Budget surplus: There really can be too much of a good thing. In this case, the Legislature will be working with a surplus of approximately $1 billion culled largely from oil and gas revenues.

"Having a budget surplus makes matters a bit more interesting, because a lot more people are coming in and requesting funding for their programs," Lujan says. "It makes it that much harder to deal with all the different legislation that's going to be proposed."

Everyone is looking for a piece of the pie, and there are plenty of big-budget pastries to go around.

Crime: Perps are a perpetual target of the Legislature, and this year is no different. Attorney General Gary King has unveiled a legislative package targeting sex offenders that would include increased penalties for Internet sex crimes, GPS tracking of paroled offenders and life sentences for repeat offenders convicted of crimes against children. He also wants to see additional dollars go to treating juvenile sex offenders while they're still young.

"We think we can help some juveniles before they go on to become older offenders," King says. "And overall, in general, it's going to be one of our highest priorities to make sure our state is not seen as a haven for sex offenders."

Education: Last year, Gov. Richardson proclaimed that 2006 was the Year of the Child. Although several initiatives (such as salary raises for teachers) were implemented, it was more like the Year of the Mild, with legislators failing to implement many of the governor's proposals.

Undeterred, Richardson is already beating the drum to further increase teacher salaries and fund education proposals for Native American students in addition to $60 million in capital ***image7***outlay projects to cover construction and renovation costs at state charter schools, colleges and universities. Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Bernalillo, a member of the Legislative Education Study Committee and a teacher with Albuquerque Public Schools, says the committee is looking to increase collaboration between higher education institutions and high schools in an effort to better prepare New Mexico teenagers for college.

"We're tired of the education community not working together," Stewart says. "We always hear from the higher education institutions that the kids aren't ready. Well, we need to better understand where the gaps are so we can better align the high schools with the college entrance exams." Also of note, Stewart says she wants to see passage of a bill that extends the school year for youngsters, in kindergarten through third grade, who live in high-poverty areas.

Energy: This is the era of An Inconvenient Truth, and while the budget surplus is due primarily to oil and gas revenues, legislators will be looking to address both climate change and alternative energy resources.

The "E'07" Coalition-an alliance of 20 state environmental advocacy organizations-is pushing (with legislative support) two bills in particular. One, the New Mexico Environmental Health Act, would work to ensure quality standards for water, air and ***image14***soil. The other, the Land, Wildlife and Clean Energy Act, is part of Richardson's clean energy package and would entail using oil and gas revenues to fund land and wildlife conservation efforts and the development of clean energy (wind, solar, etc.) projects.

"We are overjoyed that the governor has put forth an ambitious clean energy package," Sandy Buffett, executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico, says. "We're optimistic that the governor will be putting his efforts behind getting those energy proposals passed, and we definitely support those efforts."

Buffett says her organization will be tracking more than 300 bills this session that have "major ramifications" for New Mexico's environment.

 "We have a huge agenda facing us, and we're going to be on the defensive a lot, since most of those bills will likely be attempts to chip away at the state's ability to protect the environment," she says.

Ethics reform: An effort to impose restrictions on campaign contributions and other ethics reforms failed in the 2006 session despite public outcry over state political scandals. It didn't help reform advocates that the issue was raised during a critical election cycle, but with re-election (and term limits) comes renewed vigor.

Gov. Richardson has announced an extensive ethics reform package based on the recommendations of the task force he created last May. Among the recommendations are limits ($100 during a legislative session and $250 otherwise) on gifts given to state officials, employees and candidates. Statewide races also would match the federal contribution limit of $2,100 per individual and $1,050 for district elections and races for the Public Regulation Commission. In addition, Richardson-via the task force-is proposing the creation of an independent ethics commission, improvements on campaign finance reporting and phased-in public financing of elections that would start with judicial candidates.

"I'm very optimistic," Rick Lass, the co-director of Voting Matters, says. "Overall, I think the recommendations ***image15***are strong but realistic at the same time. They're definitely not too lenient. I'd like to see public funding of elections extended beyond the judiciary, but if they pass any of the recommendations it will be a good first step toward restoring public confidence and making public officials more accountable."

Minimum wage: A failure to reach a compromise on a minimum wage increase during the 2006 session was a blow to prominent politicos like Lujan, who made the ill-fated bill his pet project. Lujan initially favored an immediate increase to $7.50 but says that benchmark will likely have to be gradually reached if the bill hopes to pass this session.

"If we can at least do [$7.50] within a three-year period, I think it's something that we can make happen," Lujan says. "But I still can't imagine anybody being able to support a family with anything less than that amount."

Many legislators are hoping a federal minimum wage increase (which recently passed the US House) will make the point moot, but Lujan has an extra 30 days to twist arms on an issue that's near and dear to the hearts (and wallets) of voters. But he will still have to overcome furious opposition from business interests and Republican legislators like Foley.

"The last thing that we need to do in New Mexico is take one more arrow out of our quiver when it comes to economic development," Foley says. "It's a federal issue and it ***image5***needs to be addressed federally. Someone ought to get Speaker Lujan cable TV so he can watch C-SPAN and see them debate it in Congress."

Water: The dearth of the world's most abundant resource in New Mexico is always an issue, but now it's officially been bumped up to "Year of" status with Richardson's declaration that 2007 is the Year of Water. The governor's agenda includes a $100 million package to be used for infrastructure, conservation and environmental restoration.

"The lack of water is certainly a big statewide issue," Rodriguez, a member of the interim Water and Natural Resources Committee, says. "It's a critical situation, and the longer we wait to secure our state water rights, the worse it gets with all the development we're seeing. But we also need to ensure that the actual water is there. Water rights are just pieces of paper if the water isn't there."

Wirth, another member of the Water and Natural Resources Committee, expects that a significant portion of the budget surplus will be allocated to improving water infrastructure. In addition to domestic well rights, Wirth is working on implementing Santa Fe-style sustainability measures statewide and is looking to carry a bill that would create a law comparable to Santa Fe County's requirement that developers show an existing 100-year water supply or bring water rights to the table before new permits for residential subdivisions are issued. Consuelo Bokum, director of water projects for 1,000 Friends of New Mexico, says 1,000 Friends will be backing a bill that looks to make domestic wells more accessible to water rights holders (like ranchers) and also to smaller water users.

Close to Home

Both the city and county have a laundry list of funding requests on the table. Here's a brief rundown of some of the major proposals for both:

Santa Fe County: In addition to infrastructure (roads, water, etc.) projects, the county's legislative agenda basically comes down to three words: courthouse, courthouse, courthouse.

The new courthouse facility, like Bigfoot, is an oft-discussed, unrealized behemoth. Unlike said mythical beast, the courthouse project received a funding boost with the passage of a ***image16***general obligation bond in November. But it's still strapped for cash-anyone have an extra $10 million?-and the county will rely on the Legislature for a helping hand.

"That is one of the priorities in terms of capital outlay," Varela says. "I'm pretty sure that we'll be able to get adequate funding to help build the new court facility because we have some real serious problems there and we need to address them."

City of Santa Fe: The city's official legislative agenda totals some 28 pages and includes proposals for everything from Santa Fe River restoration and the Railyard project to funding for the new convention center and renovations on police headquarters. "It might be a little bit more than in past years," Mayor David Coss says. "When you add ***image17***up the total dollar amounts, it's certainly more than we know we'll get. But it's always an exercise in prioritizing what the needs are."

This year, Coss says, the city has moved slightly away from having water as its top issue, and is looking for dollars for the river, the parks, to help Warehouse 21, the Farmers Market and the Trust for Public Land's work on the Railyard.

Legislators also will work to raise the cap on state tort claims as a result of continued controversy over the lack of compensation several residents have received from the city after their homes were devastated by sewage line breaks [Outtakes, Sept. 27, 2006: "Raising a Stink"].

"I know that there's a problem with the cap," Varela says. "We will more than likely take a look at that and see if we can come up with a reasonable cap that will pay for these damages that are being caused to some of these homes."

Wirth is on it. After receiving complaints from constituents affected by sewer line breaks, Wirth says he will seek to raise the current tort cap of $100,000 (which hasn't been updated since 1976) to a more reasonable amount of $300,000.

Wild Cards

Any state legislative session has its share of off-kilter bills and resolutions. Hell, that's what makes the whole thing bearable. Legislators won't disappoint this time around either as several square pegs will be hammered out in the Roundhouse this session. Here are some of the most substantial:

Cockfighting: New Mexico's status as the only state (other than Louisiana) where rooster-on-rooster combat is still legal has been a chicken bone of contention in the Roundhouse for years, but the Legislature has nevertheless repeatedly tried (and failed) to ban the practice.

"It's a gruesome sport that is long overdue for being banned," Rodriguez, who sponsored a failed ban two years ago, says. "But I think there is more momentum now than there's ever ***image18***been, and the chances of passing a ban are very good right now."

Richardson recently announced he'll support the ban.

"We're cautiously optimistic," Lisa Jennings, executive director of Animal Protection Voters and Animal Protection of New Mexico, says. "I would say that, with the governor's support and the support of the majority of New Mexicans, the Legislature has a lot of good reasons to support a ban this year. The fact is that our polls show that 81 percent of all New Mexicans and 76 percent of Hispanics support a ban, so I think if legislators don't support a ban they're actually turning their backs on a majority of New Mexicans."

Defense of Marriage Act: Previous attempts to clarify New Mexico's marriage laws to include Adam-and-Eve not Adam-and-Steve provisions have tanked. Given the current backlash toward conservatives, the passage of a DOMA seems unlikely, but the rumor mill is still churning out gossip that the GOP will give it a try.

"I have not heard of anybody on my side that has said they're going to introduce that legislation," Foley says. "But that doesn't necessarily mean that they're not going to; they just haven't told me about it yet."

For their part, Democratic legislators fully expect the GOP to launch the issue as a way of muddying the already murky waters of a 60-day session.

Lottery reform: No, this legislation won't improve your chances of hitting the Powerball. Rather, it's a bill-conceived by think-tank group Think New Mexico, endorsed by the governor and supported by Varela, among others-to reform the program that offers college scholarships to in-state students attending state college and universities using New Mexico Lottery revenues.

Problem is, the demand for scholarship dollars is expected to exceed available funds by about $18 million beginning in 2011. Lottery officials are exploring the possibility of tightening ***image8***eligibility requirements and reducing the tuition dollar amount to balance the books.

"We think both of those solutions send the wrong message to kids," Fred Nathan, executive director of Think New Mexico, says. "For a lot of these kids, the scholarship program is the only way they'll ever be able to get a college degree."

The proposed bill-which will be sponsored by Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Valencia-instead advocates a 6 percent increase (which will bring it up to 30 percent) in the amount of lottery dollars allocated to scholarships as well as instituting tighter controls on the New Mexico Lottery by removing procurement code exemptions and requiring that at least two members representing education sit on the state lottery board.

Microstamping bill: Grubesic has patterned this pet project after a California law that would require gun manufacturers to install microstamp technology that imprints a serial number on bullet casings (to connect shells to weapons) on any new semiautomatic firearm sold in New Mexico.

"Law enforcement is behind it, and I think it's a good idea," Grubesic says. "It will hopefully make criminal investigations a whole lot easier."

Smoking ban: Legislation proposing a statewide smoking ban was introduced by both the House and the Senate during the 2005 session. The House version, sponsored by Rep. Al Park, D-Bernalillo, nearly passed before dying on the Senate floor on the session's last day. Cheryl Ferguson, communications director for New Mexicans Concerned About Tobacco, expects that the new bill (also sponsored by Park) stands a better chance.

"We've had a number of New Mexico communities that have taken action since the 2005 session, so we feel good about the prospects this year," Ferguson says. "We've got 14 communities now, including Santa Fe, with very strong ordinances. It's a trend that more and more states are passing statewide legislation as it becomes more and more clear that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Knowing that, I think governments are realizing that this isn't something that's just a nuisance; we really need to take action, so that's what governments are doing now."