Legislature will have a different look in 2013

By Matthew Reichbach

The state legislature has the potential to look completely different in 2013 following the 2012 elections because of multiple retirements, challenges to incumbents in the primaries and redistricting — and the deadline for candidates to jump into a race has not hit yet.

The retirements began with that of powerful Speaker of the House Ben Lujan (D-Nambe) who announced on the first day of the legislative session that he would be retiring and not run for reelection in November because he is battling cancer and has been since 2009. Lujan finished up the legislative session on an oxygen tank, showing up every day to the session despite many thinking he would need to take days off because of his health problems.

That retirement was the first of many, mostly in the state Senate.

Incumbent Senators Dede Feldman (D-Albuquerque), Mark Boitano (R-Albuquerque), Clinton Harden (R-Clovis) and Vernon Asbill (R-Carlsbad) and Eric Griego (D-Albuquerque) are all not running for reelection. Boitano said he left because he believes in term limits. He has served for four terms. Griego is leaving to run for Congress in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District.

Several Republicans reportedly are leaving because they are getting primary challengers as a direct result of not toeing the line for Republican Governor Susana Martinez on her key issues.

In the House, retirements are coming mostly to allow lawmakers to run for other political positions.

Thus Rep. Danice Picraux (D-Albuquerque), who is calling it quits after eleven terms is retiring, is an exception.

Rep. Al Park (D-Albuquerque) is giving up his SE Heights seat and chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee to run for a seat on the Public Regulations Commission.

Rep. Bill O’Neill (D-Albuquerque) is taking a shot at the Senate in the seat left open by the retirement of Feldman.

One-term Rep. David Doyle (R-Albuquerque) hopes to take the senate seat currently held by Sen. John Sapien (D-Corrales).

And Rep. Joni Gutierrez (D-Mesilla) is running for a position on the Democratic National Committee.

This doesn’t even count primary challenges in the legislature. Just today, former Rep. Ben Rodefer (D-Corrales) announced he would challenge Sapien in the Democratic primary. Rodefer lost to Doyle in the 2010 general election for the House seat — setting up a potential rematch between the two, this time for a Senate seat.

And redistricting may cause more changes. The latest map by Judge James Hall pairs Reps. Nick Salazar (D-Ohkay Owingeh) and Thomas Garcia (D-Ocate) in the same district, perhaps prompting a race between two incumbents. Either way, at least one of the long-serving representatives will not be returning to the legislature in 2009.

With all the changes set to happen, political observers will have to consult their seating charts a little more frequently in the 2013 session — but they will have a 60-day session to learn the names of the new Senators and Representatives.

ABQ City Council Redistricting Plan Passes on 5-4 Vote

By Matthew Reichbach

The Albuquerque City Council approved a redistricting map that will eliminate Commissioner Ike Benton’s district, which includes Albuquerque’s downtown area, and move it to the fast-growing westside part of the city. The map, which passed on a 5-4 party-line vote, uses the Rio Grande as a border.

Benton would be paired with Debbie O’Malley in a district that includes downtown and the North Valley areas of Albuquerque.

The map goes to Mayor Richard Berry who is likely to sign the redistricting map — but the battle likely won’t end there, as opponents say the map “packs” minorities in one district, diluting the minority voting strength, which would violate the Voters Rights Act.

The newly created Westside district, while expected to still be friendly to Democrats, would have a super majority of Hispanics — 82 percent. This is why opponents of the map say that the city council “packed” the district with minority voters at the expense of other districts. According to the U.S. Census, Albuquerque is 46.7 percent Hispanic.

Opponents also pointed out that with consolidation of most of the old District 3 into O’Malley’s North Valley District 2 will mean that almost all of the city’s federally designated “pockets of poverty” will be contained in a single district.

If opponents so choose, the redistricting map could join the New Mexico House of Representatives map in the courts, drawing out the process further. Insofar as the next Albuquerque municipal election is not until 2013, however, there may not be a great sense of urgency on the part of the courts in finalizing a new council map. This would be in sharp contrast to the legal battle involving the N.M. state House of Representatives map as the clock is ticking away with an impending primary election scheduled for the first Tuesday in June.

The big winner of the new map is Albuquerque’s Westside, which would have three full districts, an increase of the current two districts and a part of another.

O’Malley introduced a competing map, which was tabled, which would have extended borders across the Rio Grande and kept all five current city councilors in their districts. Opponents of that map say they preferred that the Rio Grande be used, when possible, as a natural border for districts, something that O’Malley says is divisive for the city.

The City Council said that Benton would be allowed to continue serving until his term ends in 2013, but court action could force Benton from his seat. In that case, the mayor would be allowed to appoint a replacement, likely increasing the Republican advantage on the city council from its current 5-4 advantage to 6-3.

Odds and Ends

  • Republican City Councilor Dan Lewis, the map’s sponsor, said before the hearing that the map was neutral because it was based almost entirely on a map created by Research & Polling. Ironically, Republicans involved in the state House redistricting case have made an major issue in their court filings of what they allege is the Democratic bias of the very same Research & Polling and its owner, Brian Sanderoff, which also performed the technical mapping work for the  state legislature.

Closing the Big Box Loophole: House passes Combined Reporting, sending it to the Governor and an uncertain future

By Matthew Reichbach

After years of not being able to even clear committee, the combined reporting bill of Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) cleared the legislature and headed to Governor Susana Martinez’s desk. There, the bill faces the looming guillotine of a promised veto.

The bill passed the House on a 36-33 vote with just minutes before the clock struck midnight on Wednesday night.

If it is signed into law, the bill will require “big box” companies like Wal-Mart and Best Buy to use combined reporting of their income for tax purposes. This would mean these out-of-state corporations would have to pay income tax on the profits earned in New Mexico.  In addition, the bill lowers the top corporate tax rate to 7.5 percent from the current 7.6 percent to maket he measure revenue-neutral.

Rep. Paul Bandy (R-Aztec) was the lone Republican to vote for the legislation. Rep. Dianne Hamilton (R-Silver City) missed the vote. Rep. Andy Nunez (I-Hatch) voted against the legislation. Rep. Kiki Saavedra (D-Abq) was the only Democrat to vote against the the measure.

Rep. Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe) carried the bill through the House for Wirth and faced a grilling by opponents of the measure on the House floor.

In it, he said it would put local businesses like Baillio’s on equal footing with the out-of-state corporations like Wal-Mart and Best Buy.

Rep. Conrad James (R-Albuquerque) said he did not believe that this would close a loophole because there was no loophole — just businesses filing their taxes in the legal way.

“To me, that’s not a loophole,” James told Egolf. “That’s just how the tax system is configured.”

Egolf disagreed, saying, “it allows one class of corporation to take advantage of a feature of the rules that is not available to New Mexico’s homegrown businesses.”

All other western states require combined reporting for out of state corporations.

Martinez has promised to veto the legislation, but many speculate that the veto will be a feature of Democratic campaign advertising in the fall.

Wirth has introduced this bill for each of the eight years he has been in the legislature.

Jennings says comprehensive immigration reform is needed as Senate passes compromise drivers license bill

By Matthew Reichbach

The state Senate voted late Monday evening to pass a bill that would address fraud and tighten residency requirements for undocumented immigrants to receive drivers licenses. The bill still allows undocumented immigrants to earn drivers licenses, a sticking point that likely dooms the bill in both the House and from Governor Susana Martinez.

The bill passed on a 27-15 vote.

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings (D-Roswell) said that this bill would be effective in stopping the instances of fraud that associated with the program that provides upwards of 80,000 licenses to drivers in New Mexico. New Mexico is one of three states that allows undocumented immigrants to legally drive.

He also said that it is not the place of New Mexico to create immigration policy.

“Our problem is a failed policy of the United States government,” Jennings said in a floor speech. He said the Congress needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Sen. Steve Fischmann (D-Las Cruces) agreed and said, “We keep falling into the trap in our current immigration policy of making criminals out of everybody.”

Sen. Rod Adair (R-Roswell) disagreed, saying, “Drivers licenses are not a right, they are privileges.”

Martinez has indicated that she will not sign a bill if it allows an undocumented immigrant to legally drive in New Mexico. Even a Republican floor substitute brought by Sen. Bill Sharer (R-Farmington) would have failed to meet Martinez’s standard.

Sharer said that his proposed substitute is similar to the Utah system, which allows undocumented immigrants to receive drivers cards that do not function as identification for anything other than driving. In Utah, the drivers cards are clearly different than drivers licenses and state that they cannot be used for identification.

A similar proposal to Sharer’s amendment failed in the House failed on a 33-37 vote.

The Senate bill now heads to the House, where prospects are dim as time runs out in the session which ends on Thursday at noon.

In many ways, the drivers license debate is echoing the debate of last year, as Clearly New Mexico (and many others) previously predicted.

Senate passes budget in late night session

By Matthew Reichbach

Late Monday night the Senate voted 34-6 to send the slightly amended budget back to the House. The Senate debated less than 45 minutes on the budget, showing that the differences in the budget were worked out in the interim and in committees before the budget reached the floor.

Unlike in recent years, the budget passed with bipartisan support and very little controversy. With a budget surplus for the first time in years, the legislators were left to decide how much to be apportioned to tax cuts and new spending, rather than whether to make drastic cuts or raise revenue in the form of taxes.

The Senate added around $5.2 million in funding to the budget. The Senate Majority Caucus wrote about where the extra funding went in a press release sent after the vote:

The appropriations gave funding to projects like drug courts, food banks, adult literacy programs, library services and established a Ben Lujan Cancer Program at the University of New Mexico. Also included are budget funds to eliminate unfair mortgage practices, and job training incentive programs.

The budget leaves about $36 million for tax cuts.

Sen. Rod Adair (R-Roswell) attempted to amend the budget to include priorities that Gov. Susana Martinez outlined in her State of the State address that were not included in the budget, including $400,000 to buy a reading book for all kindergartners.

Adair also introduced an amendment to stop any school district worker from receiving pay while serving in the state legislature as an elected official. This came after an investigative report by KRQE about Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton receiving pay during her time as legislator in apparent violation of an Albuquerque Public Schools policy that disallowed administrators from drawing pay while on legislative leave. APS subsequently changed the policy after the story came out.

However, some school districts allow teachers or other school district workers to continue to be paid while on leave serving in the legislature. Sen. John Arthur Smith (D-Deming) said that Adair’s amendment would be an attack on the autonomy of school districts to decide their own rules on the subject.

Adair had four proposed amendments in all. None received a majority of votes.

The bill will now head back to the House where one of three outcomes await it: (1) The bill will be changed some more and then sent back to the Senate. (2) The House will vote to concur with the Senate’s changes. (3) The two chambers will iron out their differences in a conference committee.

But, as has typified the entire budget debate throughout the session, little in the way of drama is expected during the remainder of the budget process.

“Baby Step” for Big Boxes Only: Senate passes limited combined reporting bill

By Matthew Reichbach

The state Senate passed a narrow combined reporting bill (SB9) that would require so-called “big box” stores to pay taxes on income earned in New Mexico. The bill, which tracked the Senate Finance Committee substitute, exempts other businesses like multi-state banks and national fast-food and restaurant chains from combined reporting.

The measure cleared the Senate on a party line vote, with all Democrats voting for the legislation, all Republicans except for one, who was absent, voting for the legislation.

In addition to requiring the big box stores to file taxes using combined reporting, the bill drops taxes on the top corporate income tax rate from 7.6 percent to 7.5 percent. One reason, according to the bill’s sponsor Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe), is that the Senate Finance Committee was wary of dropping the corporate tax rate too far in the current turbulent economic times.

There was a long debate on an amendment by Sen. Eric Griego (D-Albuquerque) that would have returned the bill to the original language before it was changed in the Senate Finance Committee. This would have required all out of state corporations to pay their taxes using combined reporting. This, Griego said, would have made sure that entities such as banks would pay their fair share in taxes in the state.

That amendment failed with only five Senators voting for it.

This was the first time that the legislation, which Wirth has carried since he joined the legislature in 2005, has passed the Senate. Wirth made a number of concessions to allow the bill to pass, including lowering the top corporate tax rate and restricting the combined reporting requirement to “big box” stores.

The legislation defines a “big box” store as those ” a unitary corporation that provides retail sales in a facility of more than thirty thousand square feet under one roof.”

Wirth referred to the legislation as a “baby step” a number of times and is a revenue-neutral piece of legislation. He noted that if his bill in 2009, which did not drop the top income corporate tax rate and related to all out of state corporations, it would have increased state revenues by $80 million to $90 million per year according to the fiscal impact report.

Sen. Steven Neville (R-Aztec) disputed the notion that this was a tax loophole that gave out of state corporations an edge. He said that it “is the law of the land of the state of New Mexico.”

Griego said that it was all semantics and they could debate what a loophole really is.

Allan Oliver, CEO of the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce, applauded the Senate vote. Oliver said, “This is a big win for New Mexico’s small businesses. This bill lowers corporate taxes for small business, requires ‘big-box’ corporations to pay their fair share and helps our small retail businesses compete on a level playing field.”

Wirth also referred to the bill being one that would help level the playing field for locally owned businesses and used it as an example of why he believed that broader tax reform is needed.

“We’ve got a tax code right now filled with winners and losers,” Wirth said.

Supreme Court reverses, remands House redistricting

By Matthew Reichbach

The New Mexico Supreme Court reversed the New Mexico House redistricting decision of retired District Court Judge James Hall and remanded it back to district court.

The Court noted that “time is of the essence” and set a deadline for the district court to create a new map by February 27.

The Supreme Court ruled that the map was too tilted towards one party — the Republican Party. Judge Hall had ruled for Executive Alternative Plan 3 — a plan put forward by Gov. Susana Martinez.

A key ruling of the Court found that Hall’s decision to opt for “precise population equivalence” for districts had come “at the cost of other, legitimate state redistricting policies.” These include protecting minority-majority districts and leaving communities of interests intact among others.

The Supreme Court also found that, while Hall had looked at partisan bias in various plans presented before the court, the executive plan that Hall adopted  “did not undergo the same scrutiny for partisan bias” that most of the other plans had received. The Supreme Court said that the plan Hall adopted “increased Republican swing seats from five to eight over prior executive plans” and that “the number of majority Republican districts increased from 31 in the original executive plan to 34 in Executive Alternative Plan 3.”

Another partisan issue that the Supreme Court said “raises questions” concerned the consolidated district in Central Albuquerque.

“Despite combining a Republican and a Democrat seat, it resulted in a strongly partisan district favoring one party, in effect tilting the balance for that party without any valid justification.” The Supreme Court also found that the “resulting district is oddly shaped in an area were compactness is apparently relatively easy to achieve, suggesting, at least in part, that the district was created to give political advantage to one party.”

The order was not the formal opinion and the Supreme Court said the order “is intended to outline the holding of this Court.”

One of the legal principles cited by the Supreme Court was that “plans that the Legislature has passed but have failed to be enacted into law, such as House Bill 39, are due “thoughtful consideration.” The Supreme Court also noted that “Deviations from population equality are appropriate to address significant state policies or unique features.”

Other orders to the district court

The ruling directed the district court to consider whether the cities of Deming, Silver City and Las Vegas could be maintained whole within single districts. The plan produced by Hall original decision had split these communities into more than one district.

The Court ordered the district court to look more closely at House District 67 which Hall said is a Hispanic Majority district but the Supreme Court found does not have a majority of Hispanics who are of voting age.

Dissenting Opinion

Judge Jonathan B. Sutin, who took over for Judge Charlie Daniels after Daniels recused himself, dissented from the opinion.

“The stopping point of Judge Hall’s plan is eminently more wise and fair than the stopping point of the next, reconstituted plan, with no fair opportunity to follow allowing the party opposing the plan to obtain relief in this Court,” Sutin wrote in a dissenting opinion.

Here is today’s ruling of the Supreme Court:

New Mexico Supreme Court NM House Redistricting Order

 

House passes bill to repeal drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants

By Matthew Reichbach

The State House of Representatives passed a House Bill 103 today, a measure sponsored by Rep. Andy Nuñez (I-Hatch) and supported by Governor Susana Martinez, which would repeal the 2003 law that allows undocumented immigrants to receive drivers licenses in the state of New Mexico. The 45 – 25 approval vote bettered last session’s 42 – 28 margin.

The three hour debate focused largely on floor substitute bills for, or amendments to, the legislation.

Much of that debate time was devoted to a floor substitute, sponsored by Majority Leader Ken Martinez (D-Grants), which tracked with the Senate “compromise” substitute that emerged during the 2011 regular session. It would have continued to allow undocumented immigrants to receive drivers licenses, but would have stiffened penalties for fraud.

Martinez’s substitute would have strengthened the residency requirements for getting a license, required those without a social security number to provide a finger print, and limited the license to two years. It would set higher fee on s drivers license without a social security number.

The substitute would also verify the residence of the 90,000 foreign nationals who currently have New Mexico drivers licenses.

Rep. Bill Rehm (R-Albuquerque) said in his experience the reason undocumented immigrants got drivers licenses was the same reason undocumented immigrants got forged Social Security Numbers — to appear as if they are legally in the United States.

Rep. Dennis Roch (R-Tucumcari) said the idea of the Senate compromise that passed the Senate last year was nothing but smoke and mirrors.

“The Senate compromise that I heard last year is really a Senate illusion,” Roch said, saying that it would not solve the problem of fraud that prompted this legislation.

The substitute failed on a 40-29 vote.

A floor substitute sponsored by Rep. Bill O’Neill (D-Albuquerque) also failed. That amendment would have created a drivers card for undocumented immigrants that would not be an actual license. While allowing them to drive and getting their information into the state database, the card could not be used as proof of identification outside of New Mexico or for travel purposes.

That substitute failed on a 37-33 vote.

Other amendments by Rep. Tomas Garcia (D-Ocate) that cleaned up and clarified ambiguous language in the bill successfully passed.

The bill will now head to the Senate where it is expected once again to run the gauntlet of changes along the lines of the failed Martinez House floor substitute.

  • Rep. Moe Maestas (D-Albuquerque) stirred controversy with comments during the debate in which he likened the effect of lies he said were being told and retold about immigrant people to the impact of propaganda employed in Nazi Germany.
  • Referring to the flood of hate mail he has been receiving for opposing the repeal bill, Rep. Miguel Garcia (D-Albuquerque) read one letter he recently received which said, among other things, “May God strike you down.”
  • Gov. Susana Martinez’s chief of staff said there is no plans to do Arizona-style immigration law, according to Steve Terrell of the Santa Fe New Mexican:

    “There’s no desire to do immigration law. The governor has said in public that we’re not in the business of doing immigration law.”

The Budget of “Equal Discontent” flies through House with Minimal Debate

By Matthew Reichbach

The House worked out all the kinks in the budget in committees and came to the floor ready to pass it — and wasted little time in doing so. Thus, at approximately 1:30 pm today, the House of Representatives passed the $5 billion budget on a unanimous 70-0 vote after less than 45 minutes of debate.

The $5.6 billion budget moves to the Senate now. The lack of debate came in large part because the state has a projected budget surplus whereas in recent years the state has suffered from budget deficits.

Calling it a debate would be an overstatement on what happened — most of the members who spoke stood to praise the work of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee and its subcommittees that worked over the last month (and throughout the interim) on the budget.

An example was Albuquerque Republican Larry Larrañaga who said, “We as Republicans felt like we almost broke our backs trying to accommodate our counterparts on the other side.” Instead of moving on to an attack on the Democrats in the usual manner of recent years, Larrañaga said that the Democrats felt the same way.

“Everybody is equally discontent,” which Larrañaga said was a hallmark of a good compromise.

Rep. Patty Lundstrom (D-Gallup) praised the committee as well and all the subcommittees.

Voter ID Bills Fail in Committee

By Matthew Reichbach

Three voter ID bills failed in the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday on party-line votes.

The Democrats on the committee voted to table the three bills that would have required voters show photo identification, siding with the majority of the crowd at the hearing who said the bill would disenfranchise young, elderly, minority and disabled voters as well as costing significantly more than the Fiscal Impact Report predicted.

The three pieces of legislation, all sponsored by Republicans, were tabled after a lengthy hearing process that included over half an hour of public comment.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Dianne Hamilton (R-Silver City) would have allowed voters to use the last four numbers of their Social Security Number to prove their identity at the polls. The version of ID legislation sponsored by Rep. Cathrynn Brown (R-Carlsbad) would require a government-issued photo ID to vote in person and, to cast an absentee ballot, a copy of the photo ID would be required.

The bill sponsored by Rep. James Smith (R-Sandia Park) was the result of work during the interim by county clerks and Smith. A complex bill, it was one that the county clerks would prefer to the other voter ID approaches, according to the county clerks association lobbyist Daniel Ivey-Soto.

Opponents rallied against the bills

An array of organizations, ranging from the League of Women Voters to Disability Rights New Mexico to the Native American Voters Alliance, opposed the legislation on the grounds that it would disenfranchise voters and would do little to solve purported voter fraud.

The majority of the crowd present in the committee room were in opposition.

Rep. Moe Maestas (D-Albuquerque) said he didn’t believe that voter fraud was a problem in the state, comparing it to the “bogeyman.”

“If my constituents want me to introduce legislation to outlaw the bogeyman, I can introduce legislation to outlaw the bogeyman, or I can gently explain to them that the bogeyman does not exist,” Maestas said to laughter from the crowd.

Committee chair Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque) opposed the bills and singled out Smith’s bill as overly complicating the absentee ballot, saying, “I find the absentee ballot daunting as it is.”

And Rep. Bill O’Neill (D-Albuquerque) said he the claims of voter fraud all seemed to be based on anecdotes rather than any real evidence.

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