Lawmakers describe session as unusual

By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico

Different, unusual, fatalistic

Those are some of the words used by area legislators to describe the tone of this year’s 30-day legislative session.

Pending elections, the strain of having no money to work with, little guidance from the executive branch and a growing moderate platform are some of the reasons local leaders have come up with to explain what even the most seasoned lawmakers view as bizarre.

“This was one of the most unusual sessions in the 16 years that I have attended,” Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, said Thursday following adjournment.

“Not having the revenues that we’ve had in the past, it just boggled your mind. … We did a lot of walking up and down the halls. (And) it was not as contentious as previous sessions; we knew there was no money.”

The New Mexico Legislature adjourned without a plan on how to finance public schools and state government in the coming year, marking the first time in 26 years lawmakers finished a regular session without reaching a budget deal.

Gov. Bill Richardson said a special session to deal with the state budget would open Wednesday. A special session will cost about $50,000 a day.

Much of the controversies, squabbles and deal-making of the past seemed to melt away during this session.

“The tone was very interesting; there seems to be kind of a unified tone where there wasn’t much bickering,” Rep. Jose Campos, D-Santa Rosa, said while traveling back to his home.

“Everybody was pretty calm and collected and not irritated about the issues. We were all trying to find a way to work through this.”

In general, lawmakers agreed the sense of cooperation and lack of heated debate was a contrast to other sessions.

“It was probably as positive as it’s ever been,” Rep. Keith Gardner, R-Roswell said.

However, he said, “There was an underlying tone — almost a fatalistic tone of ‘There’s no money.’… It was just an odd session. There’s a mounting frustration because with the budget deficit the way it is, it seems like people are becoming more polarized.”

The biggest divide seemed to surround how to fund the budget — raise taxes or cut spending.

“I’m one of those people that believes there’s too many (government employees); we need to cut back the size of government and save the people’s money,” Gardner said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by most of the area’s lawmakers and lawmakers throughout the state.

“It was election year and people didn’t want it on their backs that they raised taxes,” Crook said.

For legislative newcomer Dennis Roch, R-Tucumcari, the tone of the session, his second, was a liberated one.

“Republicans and Democrats alike seemed more free to vote their conscience. Last year, there was a lot more direction from party leaders on how individual leaders ought to vote and tow the party line,” he said. He termed it, “A sign of the democratic process working and that we’re not necessarily beholden to a party platform.”

Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis, said after experiencing 15 sessions, he saw more moderate positions emerging this session than ever before. It’s a change he attributes in part to the financial climate but mostly to a shift in political culture.

And he said he’s glad to see more mid-way thinking.

“The difference between other sessions was this time, the leadership was having a difficult time keeping all the people herded together. You’re seeing a shift to things more closer to the middle and just an independent attitude, especially from new legislators,” he said.

“For me as an old-timer, it’s a little long in the tooth.”

Tired and ready to be done, leaders have vowed they will return to Santa Fe this week and finish the job they were tasked with.

Gardner said he thinks the unplanned break is a good time for leaders to have a reality check from their constituents back home before they return Wednesday.

“We’ll come back and do what we’re supposed to do, (but) unfortunately in that building it’s kind of like a bubble,” he said.

“I think we need to have more interaction with the public and a lot of these guys lose their sense of reality up here and start to believe their own rhetoric.”

Senate Republican Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales, a 25-year legislative veteran, predicts lawmakers will compromise and approve a budget during the special session. Ingle demonstrated his willingness to compromise during the 30-day session when he backed a food tax proposal and a budget that relied on $180 million in new revenues.

But Ingle’s outlook is shaped by his occupation.

He’s a dryland farmer and is fond of saying that he’s optimistic because each day is “one day closer to a big rain.”

Come Wednesday, think rain.