SANTA FE – A new dynamic lies ahead for the Democratic leadership of the New Mexico Senate, with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez about to begin a second term after a resounding re-election win and a Republican majority poised to take over in the House for the first time in 60 years.
While some progressive groups will likely count on the Senate being a bulwark of sorts against GOP-driven legislation, at least one Senate Democrat has already called for changing some chamber procedures given the new political landscape.
The man at the center of it all, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, recently expressed confidence to civic and business leaders in Albuquerque that leadership of the Senate and House will be able to work together despite their political differences, saying the Legislature will not “end up like Washington, D.C.”
But in an interview, Sanchez, the Senate’s top-ranking Democrat, also described the Senate as a “pretty independent body” and said the chamber will stick with time-honored procedures for dealing with bills during the coming 60-day session.
“We’ll continue to do what we’ve always done, which is to look over the legislation carefully,” he said. “We have a process and procedure that have served us well in the past.”
The current process has prompted criticism – specifically from the governor – that Sanchez simply bottles up legislation he does not like. He has disputed such claims.
And with the new GOP-controlled House expected to send the Senate legislation that has gotten fatally sidetracked in recent years – examples could include a voter ID bill and so-called right-to-work legislation – Sanchez’s vow to work with the House and desire to avoid political battles could face serious tests.
Other bills expected to face scrutiny in the Senate include two high-profile proposals backed by the governor: a mandate that third-graders who cannot read proficiently repeat the grade level; and a proposed repeal of a 2003 law that allows immigrants in the country illegally to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses.
As majority leader, Sanchez has the authority to decide which bills get voted on by the full Senate, and in what order. However, he does not have unchecked power to assign bills to committees for vetting.
Senators were not up for re-election this year – but they will be in 2016 – and Democrats currently have a 25-17 majority in the chamber.
At least one Democratic member has chafed at the Senate’s way of doing things. Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, has been critical of Sanchez for not bringing up some business-backed bills for a vote by the full Senate after they cleared all assigned committees.
In 2015, he says, it’s even more important that be done.
“Now that the tables have turned in the House, we need to give everybody a fair shot … at getting their pieces of legislation heard,” Griego said in a recent interview.
If not, there could be repercussions for Senate bills when they reach the GOP-controlled House, he said.
However, Sanchez told the Journal the Senate will continue to consider all bills introduced by senators before moving on to bills approved by the House, as has been the chamber’s practice in recent years. Senate Republican leaders have said they support the practice.
Sanchez also said he’s hopeful the Senate steers clear of “blasting” bills out of committee, a procedural maneuver that has been used in recent years in the House – but not in the Senate – to dislodge stalled legislation and advance it for a floor vote.
“We haven’t gotten to that point, and I’m hoping that’s not a tactic anyone is thinking of using,” Sanchez told the Journal.
Several Senate Republicans also said they hope to avoid attempts to blast bills out of Senate committees, though they didn’t rule out such action.
Senate GOP Whip Bill Payne of Albuquerque said blasting bills is an embarrassment to committee chairmen, though he said there are “probably times when it’s warranted.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said he’s hopeful lawmakers can compromise on some issues, adding that Senate Democrats should heed this year’s election results – specifically, the election of a GOP majority in the House for the first time in 60 years and the re-election of Martinez – as evidence voters want a new direction for the state.
“All bills and ideas should get a fair debate,” Moores said. “I hope the politics of just sending the big-ticket bills to committee to die doesn’t happen.”
Griego, chairman of the Corporations and Transportation Committee, also objects to blasting bills out of committee. But a bill that makes it through Senate committees “definitely needs to be heard,” he said.
During a talk before an Albuquerque Economic Forum breakfast in early December, Sanchez said he intends to work fairly with House Republicans, adding that he believes he has a good relationship with Rep. Don Tripp, R-Socorro, whom Republicans nominated last month to serve as the next House speaker.
Tripp sounded a similar tone, saying he and Sanchez have known each other for many years and worked together on various issues.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and look forward to strengthening our friendship,” Tripp said in a statement. “We don’t see eye to eye on every issue, but it is my hope that he will allow bills that pass the House to be voted on in the Senate.”
Sanchez said some areas of agreement are already clear, such as a proposal to spur business growth in New Mexico by beefing up a state “closing fund” used to help offset the costs of business expansion or relocation.
“I think the House Republicans, along with the minority (Democrats) in the House, understand that we’re in a critical stage here in New Mexico in terms of turning the corner,” Sanchez said during the forum, referring to the state’s struggling economy. “If we sit there in Santa Fe and yell and scream at each other like they do in Washington, D.C., and make ugly remarks about each other, it doesn’t solve one problem.”
Other senators are also voicing optimism – at least for now.
Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said he believes lawmakers should be able to come to bipartisan agreements on at least some economic development measures.
“I hope the Senate can be a place where we craft responsible compromises,” he said. “I don’t think we can afford two years of stalemate in Santa Fe.”
But GOP Senate whip Payne said he expects Sanchez and other Senate Democrats to feel pressure from activist groups to halt legislation they oppose.
“I think if the House can pass its agenda … it’s going to place more pressure on the Senate than normal,” Payne told the Journal.
Other issues facing the Legislature during its 60-day session include a approving a budget – the state is required to approve a balanced budget annually – and proposals to increase the state’s minimum wage and divert more money from the state’s largest permanent fund for early childhood education.
During his Dec. 3 remarks, Sanchez said he supports increasing the minimum wage and opposes right-to-work legislation, which would prohibit labor unions from requiring workers to join a union or pay it dues for representing them.
Journal staff writers James Monteleone and Deborah Baker contributed to this report.