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Our state capitol is moving at a snail’s pace so far this year. It took over a week for House standing committees to be named. Almost three months after her election, Gov. Susana Martinez has not filled her cabinet and some other top appointments.
But not to worry. There are good reasons for both. After losing eight seats to Republicans, Democratic House Speaker Ben Lujan was faced with adjusting the make-up of every committee to reflect the nearly equal balance between the parties.
Some of those decisions were tough. Loyal Democrats had to be removed from prestigious committees, such as Appropriations, Taxation and Judiciary.
Several committees are equally balanced and with the departure from the Democratic Party by Rep. Andy Nunez, Democrats will be outnumbered on the House Transportation and Public Works Committee.
Gov. Martinez also started with a disadvantage. She won her office never having set foot in the Capitol Building. She had to start from scratch in statewide politics. She likely had very few people in mind for any office.
To complicate matters further, the Legislature was deep into a study of restructuring state government. With many departments, agencies and boards being considered for extinction, there isn’t much sense in filling such positions. Besides, who would want to quit a job to fill a government post with a dubious life expectancy?
So Martinez has temporarily continued a number of top officials from the previous administration until she sees what comes of the current legislative session. That means much of state government will be treading water for a few months.
Further complicating the situation is the necessity of getting all cabinet officials, plus some others, confirmed by the Senate. Not all of those confirmations will be easy. It is likely that by the session’s end on March 19, all confirmations will not be completed.
That doesn’t mean that parts of state government will come to a halt. Martinez’s cabinet secretaries can continue on an acting basis. During the administration of former Gov. Gary Johnson, some confirmations were delayed more than a year.
State government is likely to continue to move slowly for another week or two until lawmakers realize the session is half over and they better get moving.
But don’t think of our citizen legislators as slackers. New Mexico has one of the shortest legislative sessions in the nation and the work gets done.
It is human nature to have to pick up the pace at the end whether a session lasts a month or a year.
If you come to visit the Legislature, a parking garage across the street west of the Capitol makes the walking much easier. For the first time in many years, gasoline prices did not drop the week the session started.
Years ago, lawmakers became upset about Santa Fe’s eternally high-priced gasoline.
So they asked the attorney general to investigate. Little came of the probe except that gas prices dropped every year when legislators were in town.
The fact that gas prices haven’t dropped this year may be a sign that retail dealers expect the price of oil to continue increasing.
It makes a trip to Santa Fe more expensive but it is good news for the state’s general fund and permanent funds, which depend heavily on the oil and gas industry.
In between debating extraneous issues, the Legislature does have an out-of-balance budget to create. How big a deficit do we have? Estimates vary between $200 million and $450 million.
Indications are that the Legislature is figuring on about $200 million to cut and Gov. Martinez is using the high figure, claiming that the previous administration blind-sided her.
But the governor’s proposed cuts so far are said to total less than $200 million plus some further tax breaks for the oil industry.
Stay tuned to see what shakes out.