By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE – The 30-day legislative session has just started but already, battle lines are getting drawn between Democrats and Republicans.
The issue? A slew of joint resolutions that would amend the state constitution in order to pass laws near and dear to the hearts of the more liberal wing of the Democratic constituency, which GOP leadership argues have been proposed to avoid almost certain vetoes by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
“I think it’s definitely an end run,” House Minority Leader Don Bratton, R-Hobbs, told New Mexico Watchdog. “It’s funny how when the administration on the fourth floor (where the governor’s office is located) changes, the majority party that controls the House and the Senate wants to run to the people with a constitutional amendment.”
“I can remember when, in other administrations, Democratic administrations, where certain constitutional amendments were put up by our loyal opposition party and I don’t think any of us (Democrats) called it end runs,” said Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen.
Unlike other bills that must pass the House and Senate and then need to be signed by the governor in order to become enshrined into law, joint resolutions calling for changes to the constitution bypass the governor’s office.
Instead, if the resolutions pass both chambers they then go straight to the ballot in November and if voters across the state approve them, they become law, regardless of whether the executive branch approves or not.
So far, 19 joint resolutions have been introduced and the vast majority of them are sponsored by Democrats.
Among them: Calls for changing the constitution to raise the state’s minimum wage, legalize small amounts of marijuana and dipping into the Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood education programs.
Also, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, is sponsoring a resolution that would bring back the state’s board of education. If passed, the amendment would eliminate the position of Secretary of the Public Education Department.
Right now, the PED is run by secretary-designate Hanna Skandera, the target of criticism from many Democrats for leading the governor’s public education reform agenda.
“It’s not any way, shape or form an end run,” Padilla told New Mexico Watchdog on Thursday. “I have all the respect in the world for the governor …This is a constitutional matter. This is how this particular issue has been dealt with since New Mexico has been a state .”
“I don’t like what I’m seeing,” said Sen. Lee Cotter, R-Las Cruces. “I don’t think you should change the constitution because you’re upset with the policies of the executive … We have a legislative process here and I don’t think we should legislate by referendums .”
The fight over the resolution dealing with early childhood funding and the Land Grant Permanent Fund figures to be a major one.
Supporters say the fund can afford it.
“We’ve got $12 billion, $13 billion in that permanent fund that’s sitting there,” said Sanchez. “It just seems to me to be the right thing to do … It will make a difference in a lot of different areas — education, social issues, behavioral health issues, corrections issues, public safety issues.”
“For our kids, the best time for them to learn, truly, is between (ages) zero to five,” said Stephanie Ly, President of AFT-New Mexico, a teachers’ union in strong support of the Sanchez resolution.
Calling such proposals a “raid” on the permanent fund, Bratton said, ”If we change the distribution, no matter well intended, then ultimately it raises (New Mexicans’) taxes down the road … we need to be careful.”
Last year, a bill — not a resolution — calling for tapping the permanent fund ran into a roadblock. Fiscal conservative Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, didn’t have it heard in the Senate Finance Committee, which he chairs.
Progressives across the state blasted Smith’s maneuver and over the summer, a liberal group interrupted a Legislative Finance Committee meeting, approached Smith and gave him a sarcastic thank-you card in reference to a recent survey that had New Mexico replacing Mississippi for last-place in a national list of child welfare.
Smith told New Mexico Watchdog he’s not a fan of packing the legislative calendar with proposals aimed at amending the constitution.
“I think there’s more this year; it’s close to overload,” Smith said. “I’m against using our constitution as a referendum … If you go down that road you dilute the core value of governance in the state.”
The chances of passing the various constitutional resolutions appear to be better in the Senate than in the House.
Democrats have an eight-vote majority in the Senate but their lead in the House is more tenuous. There are 37 Democrats and 33 Republicans in the House but two Democrats in the House have missed the early days of the session due to illnesses.
“We shouldn’t take so flippantly the seriousness of amending our constitution,” Bratton said.
“It’s not a matter of bypassing the governor,” Ly said. “It’s a matter of believing that the voters need to vote on this.”
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