Even though the state Senate wasn’t present for the second day of the special legislative session, the partisan bickering intensified Saturday with Republicans accusing House Democrats of shirking their duties. In response, Democrats said Republicans are using crime-and-punishment legislation as a cynical political ploy while giving less attention to New Mexico’s budget deficit.
In this rare election-year special session, the Senate late Friday passed several bills, most of which are part of a “solvency package” to address the deficit. Then, shortly after midnight Saturday, the Senate voted to adjourn.
In doing so, the Democrat-controlled Senate left before it could act on three House crime bills — including reinstating the death penalty — pushed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, vowed later Saturday to stay in session and force the Senate to return next week. Raul Burciaga, director of Legislative Council Services, said Saturday that if that happens, the Senate would have to return Thursday. But such extra time is not free. Each day of the special session costs taxpayers more than than $50,000. Each chamber has passed its own “feed bill” to pay for the session, but neither has passed both the House and the Senate.
“If they want to shut down state government, I guess that’s their prerogative,” Gentry said of Democratic senators. “But we’re trying to be the grown-ups in the room.”
He called the Senate’s departure disrespectful to the families of victims of violent crime who came to Santa Fe on Friday to testify at a House committee meeting.
A spokesman for the governor was even harsher. “This is a flawed hodgepodge of bills that Senate Democrats cobbled together in the middle of the night so they wouldn’t have to consider legislation to crack down on dangerous criminals,” Michael Lonergan said in a statement. “Their proposal isn’t serious, and their unwillingness to negotiate and compromise is arrogant.”
Though the vote to adjourn split along party lines in the Senate, nearly all of the solvency bills were approved by huge bipartisan margins.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, told reporters Saturday that the Senate did its job. Smith said he and Senate Republican leader Stuart Ingle of Portales worked for several weeks on the budget measures.
As for the crime bills, Smith said, “I suspect after the election, the emergency won’t exist.”
His reference was clear, a jab at Martinez and House Republicans for pushing reinstatement of the death penalty now instead of during the regular 60-day session starting in January, when diminished time pressures would mean more people would have a chance to testify on the proposal.
Gentry said the House would amend some of the Senate bills on the budget. That would mean the Senate would have to come back to accept or further amend the legislation. He and other House Republicans followed through on Saturday afternoon when they added an amendment to Senate Bill 2. The bill would transfer $220 million of reserves from a tobacco settlement fund to balance the budget from the last fiscal year.
Smith told reporters that such amendments amount to “tweaking for political purposes.”
Democratic Rep. Christina Trujillo of Albuquerque said, “I don’t want to say it’s a political movida, but it sounds to me like it’s a political movida.”
On Saturday, a group of 11 Senate Republicans told reporters that their Democratic counterparts should have waited until the Senate could hear the crime bills.
Senate Democrats “are not the dictators of New Mexico,” said Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington. “We’d certainly like our friends to come back.”
The animosity spilled over to social media. The governor’s supporters were busy on Twitter bashing Senate Democrats. “Very clear that Senate Democrats would rather campaign and raise $$ than consider legislation to crack down on dangerous criminals,” tweeted Martinez spokesman Chris Sanchez.
And the state Republican Party in a statement accused Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, of adjourning the Senate “so he could attend a campaign rally.”
Jim Farrell, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats, said Sen. Sanchez on Saturday attended a party in his honor given by advocates of a drug rehabilitation programs in Valencia County. “It wasn’t a campaign rally and it wasn’t a fundraiser,” Farrell said.
Gentry said the House and the Senate were close on the dollar amounts of the various budget fixes approved by the Senate. “But not on priorities,” he said.
The Senate package included $174.6 million in spending reductions for state agencies, including 1.5 percent cuts to the Children, Youth and Families Department, the Department of Public Safety and Public Education Department. Gentry said the cuts for those departments weren’t acceptable.
Smith responded, “We avoided having to have furloughs for corrections officers, law enforcement officers and educators. We were getting close to the state writing hot checks and drastic furloughs.”
One bill would return $89.8 million in unspent capital construction money to the general fund. Another would reduce the gross receipts tax reimbursements for food and medical services, which the state pays city and county governments. This would save the state $7 million, but it would reduce funding to Santa Fe city government by nearly $700,000 next year and Santa Fe County by $211,000. Those cuts in aid to local governments would get larger each year.
Though most of the finance bills cleared the Senate easily, one made it through by just one vote. That was Senate Bill 5, which would delay for two years the implementation of planned corporate income tax reductions. The House Ways and Means Committee voted Saturday to table the bill, effectively killing it. The bill, which is opposed by the governor, would keep the rate at 6.9 percent temporarily. This would add $13.8 million in revenues to the current year’s budget and $23.4 million in revenue to next year’s budget.
The Senate also approved a bill that would make it legal to research industrial hemp. In 2015, the Legislature passed a similar bill by wide bipartisan margins, but Martinez vetoed it. She said the small amount of the chemical THC found in industrial hemp — the chemical found in much larger concentrations in marijuana — could present problems for law enforcement.