Inside the Capitol

Sunday, February 12, 2006

2-15 Down to the Wire

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Right on cue, Gov. Bill Richardson threatened a special session the weekend before the Legislature's scheduled adjournment.
Many governors have used the maneuver as a final whip down the backstretch to accelerate the process to full speed and to serve notice that more attention needs to be paid to their package of bills.
As usual, it was the Senate that came in for the governor's most severe criticism. House Speaker Ben Lujan keeps a tighter rein on his House members than the Senate leadership is able to exert.
That is by design, whether intelligent or not. The speaker of the House is given close to absolute power over his chamber. The Senate has a divided leadership, split among the majority floor leader, the president pro tem and the Committees' Committee, composed of leaders from both sides of the aisle.
The House speaker can negotiate with the governor and fairly well guarantee that he can deliver. No one in the Senate can do that.
The Senate's system is designed for the majority leader to have the most power, but depending on personality, it sometimes is the president pro tem. And neither can guarantee what the Committees' Committee will do.
Most states have similar systems, although in Texas the lieutenant governor has powers in the Senate similar to the House speaker. In fact, it is claimed that in Texas, the lieutenant governor has more power than the governor.
As usual, the New Mexico Senate took great offense at Gov. Richardson's remarks and, instead of speeding deliberations, took time to take exception to the remarks and blame him for piling on too much extraneous work for a short session.
Santa Fe Sen. John Grubesic, the Legislature's self-appointed, tell-it-like-it-is man, informed the Senate it has "all the guns in this fight." Needless to say, he's a rookie lawmaker.
Richardson said the $5.1 billion budget passed by the Senate woefully underfunds his "year of the child" proposals, along with health care and safety proposals he included in his budget request.
The governor also told lawmakers they had better get busy on a minimum wage bill and his ethics reform package to address government corruption issues that have risen in the past year.
Budget negotiations among the governor, Senate and House usually continue down to the last minute, with a compromise saving a special session.
This year, a special session is even more distasteful because the governor and House members face re-election campaigns as soon as the session ends.
A minimum wage bill of some kind is likely to make it through the session. Ethics reform, however, seems to be losing traction. Lawmakers say it is just too complicated to take up in a short session. Besides, some of the proposals affect them.
During a budget session of the Legislature, many lawmakers come to town with only one major issue on their minds -- to pick off as many projects as possible for their districts.
With much more money available this year, problems in dividing it seem to be worse, rather than better because the larger amount of money has magnified the inequities between the powerful and the rest.
The governor, being the most powerful, wants the lion's share of the fat state surplus. Democrat leaders in both houses have taken generous cuts, leaving the scraps for everyone else.
If Sen. Grubesic thinks the Senate has all the guns, he'll be amazed at the bullets flying around when Gov. Richardson takes his line-item veto pen out of its holster.
Regional tensions also are running high. As usual, it's the Rio Grande corridor against the rest of the state. A $300 million package to finance new schools in rapidly-growing Albuquerque and Las Cruces is causing many grumbles. And this time, the middle Rio Grande appears as though it is in for a $225 million spaceport.

WED, 2-15-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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