A special legislative session set to begin at noon Friday appears headed for a standoff between a Democratic majority in the state Senate and a Republican governor pushing a tough-on-crime agenda.
Against the backdrop of an election in which control of the Legislature is at stake, Gov. Susana Martinez will ask lawmakers to take up three criminal justice bills, including a proposal to reinstate the death penalty, while the Senate’s top Democrat maintains lawmakers must focus on forging an agreement to fix the state’s steep budget deficit.
While Martinez has set the agenda for the special session, Senate leaders appeared poised Thursday to go their own way.
“We’re focusing on the budget,” Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said when asked if he would allow legislation reinstating the death penalty to have a vote on the floor of the Legislature’s upper chamber.
Sanchez declined to discuss the slate of criminal justice bills proposed by House Republicans, including an expanded “three strikes” law intended to send more repeat criminals to prison for life sentences and a measure that would require a life sentence for anyone convicted of child abuse resulting in death regardless of the child’s age.
While debate over hot-button legislation such as reinstating the death penalty or broadening the state’s “three strikes” law could prompt protracted debate as advocates pour into the Roundhouse for a series of emotional committee hearings, Senate officials signaled they do not expect the criminal justice legislation to advance far in the Legislature’s upper chamber.
Senate officials said they intend to call in only enough personnel to staff a single committee, the Senate Finance Committee, an indication criminal justice bills are not expected to pass a vote by the panel.
“The House will pass it. The Senate will kill it,” Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said of the prospects for a death penalty bill.
Martinez has called relatively few special sessions, minimizing such clashes with Democrats in the Legislature. But in 2011, when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate, legislators rebuffed her efforts to tack controversial issues, such as changing the state’s policies on issuing drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants, on the agenda of a session intended for redistricting.
Democrats have accused Martinez of raising the death penalty and other criminal justice measures to distract from the issue that prompted calls for a special session in the first place: a budget deficit totaling $220 million from the fiscal year that ended in June and another shortfall expected to reach $430 million in the current budget year.
Legislative leaders have discussed a special session for at least two months as the state’s financial outlook darkened amid a slump in the oil and gas industry.
Lawmakers were still searching Thursday for hundreds of millions of dollars to balance New Mexico’s budget.
As negotiators continued trading numbers, legislators eyed cuts in government spending, including reworking the state’s formula for funding public education, requiring public employees to pay more into their pension plans, slashing tax incentives for the film industry and sweeping up cash reserves from local school districts. A key Republican negotiator said Wednesday the governor has also agreed to legislation closing some tax loopholes, potentially boosting revenue without raising taxes.
“Everything is on the table,” said House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro.
The ongoing negotiations seemed to buck the typical practice of governors and legislative leaders agreeing on budget legislation before meeting in special session and left a question mark over the outcome of the session.
But the top Senate Republican said a bipartisan solution is taking shape.
“We’re finding some common ground,” said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, noting any agreement on patching the budget deficit will require approval of two-thirds of the members of each chamber in order to take effect immediately. “I think everybody realizes how serious this is.”
Ingle said he expects the session to continue until Saturday or Sunday at the latest, suggesting deliberations over a budget deal may not drag past the weekend.
Lawmakers are expected to caucus with their parties Friday morning, convene at noon, present legislation and then caucus again.
A deal on the budget is likely to include several separate pieces of legislation — a separate bill for each change to the tax code or public school funding formula.
All legislation will be assigned to committees. Criminal justice bills will begin in the House and, if passed on only a party-line vote, will end up in the Senate Finance Committee where Democrats form a majority. Legislation repealing the death penalty in 2009 also went before the Senate Public Affairs Committee. But unlike that panel, the Senate Finance Committee likely will be more inclined to focus debate over capital punishment and three strikes legislation on the associated costs — the line of argument that drove repeal efforts seven years ago.
Ingle argues the House Republicans’ criminal justice legislation deserves a vote by the full Senate.
“I think the people of New Mexico want this,” he said, noting the public outcry after the recent killing of a 10-year-old girl in Albuquerque and the fatal shooting of a Hatch Police Department officer this summer.
And whether reinstating the death penalty or stiffening sentences passes or not, Democrats like Sanchez argue Republicans will still have made a political point by forcing legislators into a vote on such visceral issues weeks before the Nov. 8 election.
With the bills on course to hit obstacles in the Senate, however, it appears unlikely the legislation will really define the session as much as a budget deal that will require bipartisan agreement.