Democrats continue to battle gov

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By Barry Massey
The Associated Press

SANTA FE — Nearly a third of New Mexico’s lawmakers were new to their jobs when the Legislature convened on Tuesday, but the hurdles confronting Republican Gov. Susana Martinez remain largely unchanged as she tries to overcome Democratic opposition to high-profile administration proposals such as stopping the state from issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

Martinez, the nation’s first female Hispanic governor, found common ground with the Democratic-controlled Legislature in hammering out state budgets and resolving the state’s financial problems during the past two years but that bipartisan cooperation has proven elusive on broader policy questions.

Democrats have blocked key pieces of the governor’s legislative agenda that Martinez plans to renew this session, including the politically charged immigrant driver’s license proposal and a school improvement initiative for holding back third graders who can’t read proficiently rather than giving them a “social promotion” to the next grade.

Even before the start of this year’s session, Martinez came under fire from some Democrats for proposing large tax cuts for corporations this year while opposing a legislative budget recommendation for a 1 percent pay increase for state workers, who haven’t seen a raise in four years.

Martinez had hoped the general election would realign the political landscape in the Legislature, potentially giving the GOP control of at least the state House of Representatives. But that didn’t happen. Democrats slightly padded their House majority — giving them a 38-32 advantage — and Democrats still control the Senate 27-15 despite the GOP picking up three seats.

Martinez and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, a Belen Democrat, maintain that last year’s bruising elections haven’t poisoned the relationship between the governor and Democrats.

But Sanchez observed, “There wasn’t much of a relationship to sour, to be perfectly honestly with you.”

He won re-election despite a Martinez-backed political committee flooding his district with hard-hitting mailers and advertising.

A similar campaign blitz by the Martinez forces defeated Democrat Tim Jennings of
Roswell, who had been the Senate’s top leader and led opposition to the governor’s driver’s license measure.

“We’re willing to work with everyone and anyone,” said Sanchez. “We understand that compromise is not a dirty word, and that has to be part of what the administration has to remember. Compromise doesn’t mean, ‘This is what you do or else.’ It’s how can we work things out, how can we make a bill better, how can we work together to get to where we want to get together even if we have some differences.”

Martinez said she’s willing and able to work with Democrats.

“No governor ever expects to get everything they ask for, not even when you have a Democrat governor and a Democrat majority in the Legislature do you get everything you want,” said Martinez. “So as a Republican governor and a Democrat Legislature, I don’t expect to. But I do expect to continue to have meetings, to continue to have negotiations with them and advocate for my positions as they will theirs.”

The governor is making a big push this session for economic development and a centerpiece of her agenda is lowering the corporate tax rate over three years as well as revamping how companies determine their liability if they operate in multiple states.

New Mexico has lost 4,800 jobs since last year, many of those in government. Martinez contends New Mexico must attract more private business to diversify an economy that relies heavily on the federal and state governments.

Of the 112 legislators who took office on the opening day of the session, 35 are new to their posts — the largest turnover since 1985, according to the Legislative Council Service.

Two former legislators returned to the House, and two Democrats moved from one chamber to the other — from the House to the Senate.

Grants Democrat Ken Martinez was expected to be elected House speaker. He succeeds the late Ben Lujan, who didn’t seek re-election and died last month after a battle with lung cancer.

Two Senate Democrats — Pete Campos of Las Vegas and Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces — were vying to become president pro tem, although the results of that vote were unavailable as of Optic press time. That’s the top Senate leader, who plays a role in handing out committee assignments. However, Sanchez — who’s returning as majority leader — exerts more influence by controlling the flow of legislation considered by the Senate.