Harder feelings linger in Senate

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By Sherry Robinson


Hardly a day passes without Tim Jennings’ name cropping up in Senate committees or floor discussions: “Sen. Jennings was working on… I was working with Sen. Jennings to…”

The Roswell Democrat was liked and respected, yes, but his absence is a constant reminder to Senate Democrats of the bruising election cycle that took their president. Most certainly, Majority Floor Leader Michael Sanchez, another target of the governor’s blitz, is not willing to forgive and forget.

The spirit of compromise lubricating gears in the House and (maybe) in the Governor’s Office is harder to detect in the Senate, where floor debate on some bills has been pointed and even sarcastic.

In February, Senate Democrats shot down a Republican measure to increase use of state aircraft.

Sen. Carroll Leavell, R-Jal, argued valiantly that his SB 250 would save money and time for “highly paid elected officials.” (I once used the same argument to defend PNM’s Lear Jet.) The bill would have expanded authorized passengers to include employees and students from the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the New Mexico School for the Deaf, along with children traveling for medical purposes.

Despite these good intentions, the bill presented too big a target. Dems recalled the governor’s harsh words for state airplanes and the billboards (Sell the Jet!) during her campaign and first year in office. There was even a proposed amendment “to buy the governor a couple of sets of Michelins.”

Last week, the Senate passed SB 334, by Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, but first Democrats rubbed a few noses in the dirt. Supported by the governor, the bill changes the formula used to determine premiums businesses pay into the unemployment insurance fund.

More than one Dem noted the governor’s shift in wording from “tax increases” to “premium increases.” Unemployment is insurance. A premium is not a tax. But in 2011, the governor persisted in saying “unemployment taxes” in arguing against a rise in premiums, even though business groups supported an increase to stave off a bigger increase later to stabilize the fund.

That year, lawmakers increased premiums and cut benefits. Martinez vetoed the higher premiums, which sparked a lawsuit by Dems, and they won. Last year the governor convened an Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council, and one product was SB 334. Sen. Michael Sanchez voted against the bill.

Sanchez nearly derailed pension reform last week. 

Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, has carefully nursed SB 27, a painstaking compromise among retirement associations, unions, state agencies, legislators and the governor. Everyone has given some ground. The last of many compromises was with the governor, and it reduced the state’s contribution from 1.5 percent to 0.4 percent for members of the Public Employee Retirement Association. At 1.5 percent, New Mexico would have had the second-highest employer contribution in the country. 

Sanchez, who surely knew the source of that change, introduced an amendment to restore the 1.5 percent contribution, inviting a veto. A year’s delay would mean another billion or two in fund deficits, so a veto would have sparked a special session. 

On a mostly party-line vote, the amendment failed. Munoz’s Democratic friends and allies crossed over and joined Republicans to save the day. And no, contrary to the rumor mill, this was not the act of a conservative coalition. If the rumor mongers looked at voting records, they would find Munoz and friends voting with Democrats almost all the time.

The Senate Dems having made their statement, the bill itself passed by a healthy margin, despite Sanchez voting against it. Sanchez voted against an unrelated Munoz bill the next day, still signaling his displeasure.

As I write this, lawmakers head into a final, marathon week. They will move mountains between now and then, but expect some fighting over molehills.