Legislature adjourns after House OKs capital bill

Staff and wire reports

SANTA FE — Deeply divided Democrats and Republicans headed home Saturday from a special legislative session dominated by partisan conflict over plans to draw new boundaries of districts for elected offices.

The session ended after the House approved an $86 million package of capital improvements that supporters say will help create jobs and boost the economy. The Senate had left hours earlier — finishing up at about 1 a.m. — after passing the measure.

The capital outlay bill goes to Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who had asked lawmakers to finance nearly $213 million worth of projects, including $42 million for highway maintenance.

The Legislature adjourned without approving a plan to realign the boundaries of New Mexico’s three congressional districts. But that issue, like other redistricting plans approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, will end up in court and a judge likely will make the final decisions over district boundaries.

Martinez has vowed to veto House and Senate redistricting plans that she and other Republicans contend will hurt GOP chances of gaining more seats in the Legislature in future elections.

State Rep. Dennis Roch, a Texico Republican, called the three-week special session “a complete waste of taxpayer money.”

Speaking by cell phone while driving home from Santa Fe Saturday, Roch said the Democrat majority in the House ignored numerous attempts at compromise offered by Republican lawmakers.

“It was a strict party-line vote,” Roch said. “So not only have we wasted taxpayer money on the session…but we’re now going to have to waste more of the taxpayers’ money in court. It’s just not fair.”

Roch estimated the anticipated court fight over redistricting could win up costing at least $5 million. Roch said the House-approved plan for redistricting splits up much of his district in Quay County.

“The population of Tucumcari has been exploited to pad the districts of (Democrat) legislators who in some cases live hundreds of miles away,” said Roch. “It’s just not fair.”

The governor has not decided whether to sign or reject the Legislature’s plans for drawing new district boundaries for the state’s utility regulator, the Public Regulation Commission, and the Public Education Commission, which has a voice in approving charter schools.

The Legislature refused to consider most of the governor’s agenda during the 19-day special session and instead focused on redistricting, which will help determine the political balance of power in New Mexico for the next decade.

The governor had wanted the Legislature to end the state’s practice of issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. The governor also sought a measure to require schools to hold back third-graders if they can’t read proficiently. No votes were taken on the proposals.

However, Martinez didn’t end up empty handed. Lawmakers approved proposals to supplement food stamps for needy New Mexicans and tighten a preference given to New Mexico businesses that bid on state government contracts.

Scott Darnell, a spokesman for Martinez, said the governor had no plans to call the Legislature back into another special session to again consider redistricting and the other items on her agenda.

“The Legislature was called to Santa Fe to serve and represent the interests of New Mexicans, and unfortunately, majority party leaders chose to do little more than stonewall job creation and reform, while protecting themselves from the voters of New Mexico,” Darnell said in a statement.

Democrats contend the redistricting plans don’t unfairly tilt the political landscape in their favor and will meet the legal requirements that courts have established over the years for political district boundaries.

“We did what we were brought here to do constitutionally. I think we worked very hard in getting the redistricting done,” Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said in an interview.

House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, blamed “Republican procedural maneuvering and game playing” for the lack of agreement on issues.

But House GOP Whip Donald Bratton of Hobbs said Democrats were unwilling to compromise.

“I think we wasted a lot of money that we didn’t have to waste, and we’re going to spend more money because now it’s going to go to court and ultimately the courts will decide the outcome,” Bratton said.

The capital improvement measure will finance projects including upgrades to prisons and state museum, new state police cars, vehicles for senior citizen centers, government computer systems and $15 million for Indian water rights settlements.

Shortly after starting work Saturday, the House wrangled over whether to adjourn without acting on the capital measure, a Senate-passed congressional redistricting bill and a Senate proposal for shoring up the state’s unemployment fund.

Rep. Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, scolded his colleagues who wanted to walk away from the scaled-back capital package.

“It may not be everything you wanted. It may not be perfect. But is it better than nothing? Of course it is,” Egolf said.

Some lawmakers wanted to wait until next year to take up the financing measure when the Legislature meets for a 30-day session. With the Senate gone, the House could not change the bill or it would die upon adjournment. Both chambers must approve the same version of legislation before it goes to the governor.

“The Senate has gone home, guys. They shirked their responsibilities to the people of New Mexico but we cannot,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque.

But debate on the final day reflected the partisan tensions that extended throughout the session.

“Every one of these gentlemen, members of the House here, that have been expressing how important this is are the ones that were criticizing the governor for putting it on the agenda to begin with,” said Rep. Andy Nunez, a Hatch independent who until earlier this year had been a Democrat.

Freedom New Mexico Content Editor Robin Fornoff contributed to this report.