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Election season could complicate special session

September 18, 2016

With a gaping hole in the state budget, depleted reserves and no chance of salvation from the sort of federal economic stimulus funding that saved New Mexico during another financial predicament in 2010, any solution legislators craft for the current budget crisis will likely require compromise from both parties.

The backdrop of an election season, however, has cast doubt on the prospects of a quick and clean deal.

An agreement will be difficult without revisiting taxes Gov. Susana Martinez refuses to raise and more spending cuts, which many Democrats will likely oppose.

Senate leaders continued budget discussions last week with members of the Martinez administration.

But legislators familiar with the meetings said they are still trying to set parameters for an agreement.

“No one seems to be committing to anything,” Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, said Friday.

Meanwhile, election-year politics have flared in the background.

Democrats have accused Martinez of playing politics with the session and failing to show leadership amid a budget crisis. The party is eyeing vulnerable Republicans in the state House of Representatives in a bid to retake control of the chamber. Republicans control the House 37-33.

And earlier this month, a spokesman for the governor said she would consider adding items to the agenda for a special session, potentially dragging out the proceedings and forcing Democrats into votes on hot-button issues just a few weeks before the election. Martinez has only one 60-day session left to advance her legislative agenda, with the election offering a last chance for Republicans to take control of the Senate and yank power from a Democratic majority that will stand in her way.

Legislators said Friday they anticipate the governor will call a special session toward the end of the month but are still unsure if she will add other items to the agenda besides the budget.

Regardless, legislators will be in the position of voting on taxes and spending cuts before heading back to the campaign trail. The budget deficit for fiscal year 2016, which ended June 30, stands at about $220 million, and the current fiscal year is expected to end with a larger shortfall, estimated at $430 million. The governor has said she wants legislators to address the budgets for both years during a special session.

“Everybody’s politically taking cover right now,” Cisneros said.

Some legislators fear the outcome of their race could hinge on a tax increase or cuts to popular local programs, he added.

“The million-dollar question will be whether a tax increase will be part of a budget-balancing solution,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of the Albuquerque-based political consulting firm Research & Polling Inc. “There will have to be compromise, but the question is how much compromise will they be able to achieve.”

Cisneros said, “There may be folks who say they don’t want to cut education, corrections or public safety.”

“They start protecting their sacred cows. I don’t blame them,” he added.

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, said, “Everybody’s going to hurt some.”

“I don’t think any of us are going to like the solution, but we’re going to have to get together,” she said.

That legislators and aides to the governor met at all suggests they are at least working toward an agreement.

“Never call a special session unless you know the answer,” said former Gov. Garrey Carruthers. “The only way to know the answer is to get together.”

Carruthers recounted years when governors called special sessions only for legislators to adjourn moments after convening with agreement on the agenda still elusive.

Still, Carruthers said this year is exceptional.

A special session so close to an election is uncommon, he said. “It’s a different complexity.”

Martinez has called relatively few special sessions. She called legislators back to the Capitol for an afternoon last summer to pass a package of tax breaks and infrastructure funding that died during the regularly scheduled 60-day session that winter. The session’s outcome was clear from the start after weeks of negotiations, including claims by the governor she would not call the session at all.

The governor also called a special session in 2011, as required every decade to use the latest U.S. Census data for redistricting. But the newly elected Martinez expanded the scope of that session to include a controversial proposal to ban undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses.

The political wrangling dragged on through the month of September.

The governor’s predecessor, Democrat Bill Richardson, called a special session nearly every year he was in office.

Richardson called a special session in 2005 to address rising gas prices, but lawmakers took up a range of issues, introducing a total of 46 bills. Richardson called legislators back to Santa Fe in 2007 when they did not pass some of his favored bills during their regularly scheduled 60-day session, including a proposal concerning domestic partnerships, a $200 million financing package for local road construction and maintenance, as well as a measure putting limits on campaign contributions.

Richardson summoned legislators back into session the following year just weeks before an election to address a very peculiar dilemma: a budget surplus. Lawmakers voted to issue New Mexicans a tax rebate. Budget hawk Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, objected, and his warnings would be proven prescient when the financial markets collapsed later that year.

In 2010, Richardson called a special session shortly after lawmakers adjourned a regular session without reaching agreement on a budget. But the session spanned three days and included nearly 30 bills.

Martinez signaled earlier this summer she was only interested in a quick session lasting a single day or perhaps just an afternoon, as in 2015.

But her call in September for lawmakers to reinstate the death penalty also spurred speculation about the special session, with some Democrats suspecting Martinez was not so focused on pushing the legislation during a regular session in January as in using it as a wedge before the election.

“I was thinking she was doing this as a political ploy,” said Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored the successful 2009 bill repealing the death penalty. “Maybe they could protect some of the Republican seats and make some Democrats vulnerable. That’s pretty cynical, but it definitely crossed my mind.”

Both Republicans and Democrats seem to have a limited appetite for a multiday session filled with controversial and emotional issues when each hour in the Capitol is another hour off the campaign trail. State law prohibits lawmakers from campaigning or fundraising during a session.

“I know we are looking at getting re-elected, but this budget is the highest priority,” said Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque.

The governor can ask legislators to address whatever she wants, he added, but he emphasized that lawmakers are obligated to find a solution to the state’s financial problems first.

Never before, Cisneros said, have state leaders been so close to violating their legal duty to keep the state out of a deficit.

As Carruthers argued, if officials can put aside the election-year politics and forge a deal, “I think most voters would appreciate the leadership of both the Legislature and the governor.”

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.