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Eight years of guv’s speeches: Rosy glasses and black eyes

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By Sherry Robinson

Gov. Susana Martinez just gave her eighth and final state-of-the-state speech. I’ve covered them all. She’s given pretty much the same speech year after year, and in her consistencies are strengths and weaknesses.

The first year her priorities were education reform, corruption, and repeal of the law allowing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. In succeeding years she added increased penalties for child abuse, economic development, “job-creating infrastructure projects” like water and road projects, pre-K expansion, higher salaries for starting teachers, and tougher penalties for repeat DWI and violent crime.

Her education reform platform has had different planks, but in her first seven years it included ending social promotion (passing third graders who can’t read at grade level), curbing school administration spending, and raising pay for new teachers and “exemplary” teachers.

In her first year, she proposed and got letter grades for schools, calling it a “system that is uniquely our own” and a way to identify struggling schools. Educators call it demoralizing and ineffective.

After delivering campaign speeches for her first two State-of-the-State speeches, Martinez in 2013 turned her attention to the economy. After that, no matter how dreadful the news, she took the rosy view, leading Democrats to joke about her alternate reality. That year she began talking about diversifying the state’s economy. This would morph into claims in every speech that she had fought for diversification from Day One.

In 2013, Martinez bravely committed to Medicaid expansion, saying, “I didn’t support Obamacare, but it’s the law of the land… My job is not to play party politics but to implement this law in a way that best serves New Mexico.”

In Year 4, 2014, she said the focus must be on jobs and education. She wanted to make the Job Training Incentive Program permanent. That proposal is decades old. It’s still not a budget item because lawmakers like passing the popular JTIP bill every year to say they support economic development.

In education, she demanded reform over the status quo. By “reform” she meant her administration’s ideas; the “status quo” was anybody else’s ideas. Teachers’ unions are the villain in her play.

In 2014, Martinez said nothing about the Human Services Department, which had shut down 15 behavioral health providers based on questionable audits and accusations, later refuted, and replaced them with Arizona providers who mostly departed.

In Year 5, 2015, Republicans took the House for the first time in decades. Voters, she said, “chose progress over politics.” That year, her theme was children, although she didn’t mention our usual dismal ratings from the Kids Count report.

The following year, her priorities were violent crime, education, and jobs. “Our laws are too lax, our justice system too weak – particularly when it comes to violent, dangerous offenders,” she said.

Martinez claimed in 2016 that behavioral health services had increased “to the highest level in state history,” even though a legislative interim subcommittee concluded a month before that behavioral health was still in crisis.

In Year 7, 2017, oil and gas revenues tanked, the state faced a $600 million shortfall, and Democrats took back the House. The governor chose to push get-tough crime bills and picked a fight with Dems for their budget proposals.

Last week, the governor offered her usual rosy appraisal of the state’s economy, even though recovery is still out of sight. She again pushed crime, education reform and jobs.

Eight years of speeches have common elements – consistency coupled with her habitual combativeness and the former prosecutor’s need for an adversary. Martinez has spoken often of “cooperation” and “bipartisanship,” but in seven years the governor has never summoned legislative leaders to discuss common ground, to ask, what can we get done for the state?

That’s what pundits will find when they look for her legacy.