What you should watch for at the Roundhouse circus

Rob Nikolewski
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Jan 26, 2014 1:04 PM
What you should watch for at the Roundhouse circus

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

The 30-day circus known as the legislative session has come to town and now that we’ve had a few days under our belts, I’ll make a couple predictions about what to expect to come out of the clown car.

First, I think the anticipated confirmation hearing of Hanna Skandera will create plenty of sound and fury but in the end, it may signify nothing.

Rob Nikolewski. Photo courtesy of Santa Fe New Mexican/Clyde Mueller.

Rob Nikolewski. Photo courtesy of Santa Fe New Mexican/Clyde Mueller.

Skandera came to New Mexico three years ago after working for former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and former Gov. Jeb Bush, as deputy commissioner for Florida’s Department of Education. In that time, Skandera has been the acting secretary of the Public Education Department.

Last year, she received a first-class lesson on getting the third-degree in New Mexico politics. Skandera was put through the wringer — three days of hearings over the course of 12 days. For the first two days, Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Sen. Linda Lopez allowed critics to line up and lambaste the 40-year-old, without allowing Skandera to respond.

On the third day, Skandera was given her chance to talk but ultimately, the committee passed on making a recommendation to the full Senate, where confirmation votes end up.

So now, in this year’s session, the Skandera hearings are supposed to resume in a week or so.

Now some political appointees are lightning rods for critics. In Skandera’s case, she’s a virtual solar array.

Her detractors, who include large numbers of rank and file teachers and practically every leader in the state’s teachers’ unions, denounce her as a clueless bureaucrat and automaton for the educational reform measures of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

Skandera’s defenders say she’s trying to turn around the state’s dismal record in public education (chronic finishes near the bottom of national ratings and dreadful dropout rates, both which long preceded the Martinez administration) that justify shaking up a status quo they say reflexively opposes change.

So the battle lines are drawn.

But even if the Senate, controlled 25-17 by Democrats, votes “no” on a Skandera nomination, that does not mean that Skandera won’t keep running the PED.

Yes, she cannot be secretary but you can bet that Gov. Martinez won’t just say, “Okay, I guess I’ll find somebody else.”

No, I bet Martinez — the daughter of a Golden Gloves boxer — will counterpunch by keeping the job vacant and simply give Skandera another title, such as deputy PED secretary, and let her keep calling the shots.

Yes, her critics may take some satisfaction in denying Skandera the title of “secretary” but voters will be justified in wondering, was all that drama worth it?

On the other hand, one topic that isn’t nearly as intriguing may figure to have much more importance in the 30-day session.

Two House Democrats – Phillip Archuleta and Ernest Chavez – are out with illnesses and they may miss sizeable chunks, if not all, of the session.

Since Democrats hold a slim 37-33 lead in the House, the loss of two state reps is crucial. Unless they return, Republicans will have a majority in three committees, something the GOP is hardly accustomed to since Democrats have held the majority in the House since 1953.

What may prove more significant is that the more liberal wing of Roundhouse Democrats is introducing constitutional amendments to raise the minimum wage, bring back the educational commission (to weaken Skandera) and to dip into the Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early learning programs for preschoolers.

Those amendment proposals don’t have to be signed by the governor; if they pass the House and the Senate, they go straight to voters in November, cutting Martinez out.

Republicans are aligned against those amendments, which should have a fighting chance of getting through the Senate.

But those amendments figured to have a much tougher fight in the House — even before the news of the two ailing members broke. If one or two Democrats are missing if or when the floor votes come, those amendments could end up going up in smoke.

Which reminds me: There’s an amendment to legalize marijuana, too.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski