A lawmaker’s conscience is one thing, but his loyalty to his caucus is another. So when it came time for Republican state Rep. Bob Wooley of Roswell to vote on a bill reinstating the death penalty, he put aside his own objections to capital punishment.
“The governor wanted it,” Wooley said Thursday in explaining why he joined all other Republicans in the House of Representatives in backing the measure. “Sometimes, you have to vote with your caucus,” Wooley added.
Another GOP House member who went along with her caucus instead of her personal beliefs was Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage of Kirtland. In a recent candidate questionnaire submitted to The Albuquerque Journal, she said she would oppose reinstating the death penalty. But then she also voted Thursday for the bill to revive capital punishment in New Mexico.
And so the special legislative session originally intended to resolve the state’s budget deficit came to be dominated by partisan politics. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez added the death penalty and two other crime-and-punishment bills to the agenda of the session. Then Martinez scheduled the session to start just weeks before the general election in which control of the Legislature is at stake.
Infighting followed. Democrats said Republican House members introduced the crime bills in the middle of a financial crisis simply to try to get an edge in campaign ads for coming weeks. The session ended Thursday afternoon on an anti-climactic note with approval of a solvency package to save the budget, stopping nearly a week of political maneuvering and bickering.
The Democrat-controlled Senate took less than a half-hour to pass three bills aimed at resolving the state’s budget deficit, along with a bill to pay for the special legislative session. Immediately afterward, the Senate voted to adjourn, letting the Republican-sponsored crime bills die.
Senate Republicans all opposed adjourning. Senate GOP Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales said the crime bills should have been heard, even though there probably were not enough votes to pass them in the Senate.
As for the House, it voted to adjourn before the Senate even voted on the economic bills.
Senators spent only parts of two days in the special session, and all their time was devoted to finances. Majority Democrats in the Senate focused solely on fixing the broken budget.
Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, began speaking out last spring about the need for a special session to tackle the state’s revenue problems.
He told The New Mexican after the Senate adjourned Thursday that the budget crisis is not over. “Having less than 1 percent in reserves isn’t sending a strong message to the bond markets,” he said.
During the special session the House Republicans insisted that public schools’ budgets not be touched, and the Senate on Thursday agreed. But Smith said that not cutting the education budget only means that public schools will be “the first in line” for reductions when the Legislature returns for the regular 60-day session in January.
Smith said new revenue streams are needed to stabilize the state budget. He said that, during the special session and the negotiations that led up to it, Gov. Martinez never offered a specific plan. “All the governors I’ve served with, they all had plans,” Smith said.
Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said “the governor and her staff developed, scored, and discussed many scenarios with both the House and Senate, but John Arthur Smith was hell-bent on two things — raising the gas tax and protecting his legislative retirement.”
In a statement of her own, Martinez said: “I’m pleased that, at the end of the day, legislators chose not to raise taxes, strip our job-creation programs, or peel back vital improvements to our tax code and business friendliness. Instead, we tightened our belts so that our families don’t have to.”
But she said she was disappointed that, “at many points in the budget conversation, legislators simply put election year politics ahead of making tough decisions. I believe that posturing prevented us from reaching an agreement prior to calling the special session and resulted in budget legislation that leaves a lot to be desired.”
The politics were pitched during debate on the death penalty.
Democrats said the crime bills pushed by Martinez and House Republicans were a purposeful distraction engineered to produce political attacks on Democrats, especially Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen. Sanchez is the legislator the GOP most wants to oust in November.
Even before the session started, Republicans had sent mailers attacking two incumbent Democratic senators portraying them as soft on crime because they oppose the death penalty.
The House descended into raw partisan posturing early Thursday with a marathon session to discuss the death penalty bill that began after 12:30 a.m. and lasted until almost 6 a.m. Democrats and Republicans fought bitterly over the measure, even though everyone involved knew that bill had virtually no chance of passing in the Senate.
House Democrats complained that the Republicans began debate on the controversial legislation with no public notice in the predawn hours when interested citizens wouldn’t be likely to come to the Capitol or even watch the proceedings over the Internet.
“I’m not proud of this moment in the House. Not one bit,” said House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, shortly after discussion on the bill began.
Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, sent a tweet during the debate challenging the commitment of Republicans to doing a good job. “Multiple House Republicans are *sleeping* in the house lounge during #DeathPenalty debate. That’s how seriously they’re taking this,” McQueen wrote.
And Rep. Elias Alcon, D-Milan, even compared House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the past the partisan division over capital punishment was not so rigid. Several Democrats backed the death penalty and several Republicans opposed it.
Four sitting GOP House members voted to repeal the death penalty in 2009, but all of them voted Thursday to reinstate it. The four are Reps. Larry Larrañaga and Jimmie Hall of Albuquerque, Dianne Hamilton of Silver City and Andy Nuñez of Hatch. Nuñez was a Democrat in 2009.
Larrañaga told The New Mexican that he’s come to believe the death penalty should still be an option for prosecutors, citing recent killings of law enforcement officers and children that have shocked the state.
Nuñez has said he does not think the sentence of life without parole has been effective as an alternative to capital punishment.
Most legislators headed home Thursday afternoon, and many in tight races went straight to the campaign trail.