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Don't let courts redistrict

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Will governor overload September’s special session?

By Hal Rhodes

State legislators assume they’ll be back at the  Roundhouse in a couple of months for a special session devoted to redistricting New Mexico’s three U.S. House seats, along with the five seats that comprise the Public Regulation Commission and, of course, the legislature itself.
Their target date for this late-summer conclave is Sept. 12, after Labor Day when the tourist season has waned, and hotels, motels and other accommodations will be available during their Santa Fe sojourn.
This will be Gov. Susana Martinez’s first special session, and it is she who will set the date for the legislature to convene.
Nor has she indicated whether that mid-September date suits her fancy.
Martinez remains a neophyte governor where the Legislature and legislative process are concerned.   
She stumbled a number of times during last winter’s regular 60-day session, and in the immediate aftermath she was pointedly reprimanded by the state’s highest court for the cavalier manner with which she handled certain of her vetoes.
Nonetheless, an undaunted Martinez has intimated from time to time that she has a laundry list of additional items, over and above redistricting, that she might ask the legislature to consider at the upcoming special session.
She recently suggested, for example, that state lawmakers should act to give local governments the power to ban fireworks.
She’s also raised the possibility of seeking authority to extend the lease for the
Downs at Albuquerque. When her efforts to deny illegal immigrants state drivers’ licenses failed at the regular legislative session, she vowed to renew her efforts to that end at the redistricting session.
Similarly, she has mentioned the property “tax lightening” brouhaha as something the special session might be asked to tackle.
It will be Martinez who decides when to call this session, but it is the state Constitution that mandates that any such session must end no later than on its 30th day.   
In short, New Mexico lawmakers have essentially 30 days to complete the politically explosive task of redistricting three of the state’s most important constitutionally-mandated institutions – congressional, regulatory and legislative.   
And when it comes to redrawing and approving new districts that could well determine which parties — indeed which individuals — control three such powerful governmental entities, 30 days is but a heartbeat, albeit a tumultuous heartbeat.
Small wonder precious few lawmakers on either side of New Mexico’s legislative aisle are keen on the idea of including a bundle of controversial, add-on agenda items at their late-summer special session.
Deming’s Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, minces no words.
“None of this stuff she’s talking about needs to be done now … All of those things can wait until January” when the legislature meets for its regular 30-day session, he says.
“But the one thing that has to be done at the special session,” the senator goes on to add, “is redistricting the congressional seats, redistricting the legislature and redistricting the (Public Regulation) Commission.
And that’s a 30-day job.
But if she wants to throw redistricting into the courts (by overloading those 30 days) with all this other stuff she talks about, then that’s the way to do it.”
Martinez would do well to heed the senator’s counsel.
This is not simply her first special session, it will also be her first foray into the volatile politics of redistricting.
Smith, on the other hand, remembers reapportionment 2001 when another Republican governor, Gary Johnson, and another Democratic-controlled legislature got crosswise and ended up sidelined while the courts redistricted for them.

Hal Rhodes
© New Mexico News Services 2011