Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Roundhouse Roundup: A Very Special History Lesson

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
September 1, 2011

 As Gov. Susana Martinez heads into her first special session, which seems to be drawing more complaints from legislative Democrats each day, it’s starting to remind me of another governor’s first special session, a bitter time in which it became apparent that the honeymoon between the new governor and the Legislature was way past over.

In fact, if Martinez and her predecessor Bill Richardson were on friendlier terms, the former governor might provide Martinez with some cautionary tales from the not-so-distant past.

Former Gov. Bill Richardson
Back in 2003, Richardson was still an extremely popular governor, both with the public and the Legislature. Even Republicans praised him for getting a tax-cut bill through his first legislative session.

But when he called a special session in the autumn of that year, Richardson backed into a political buzz saw. He received fire from Ds and Rs alike. His massive tax-reform plan, which had been the reason for calling the session in the first place, never even got heard by a single committee.

Though the ill-fated special session didn't hurt Richardson's popularity with the public (he won a landslide re-election in 2006), the rancor the special session created in the Legislature continued to grow and fester. Relations between the governor and the Senate became outright toxic by his final years in office.

Santa Fe Appreciation Day: The grumbling and sniping began the first day of the session, which began in late October. Both chambers recessed in the early afternoon after learning that Richardson's tax bill wouldn’t be ready for introduction until the next day.

“Is this just an 'Appreciate Santa Fe' day?” Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, asked, noting that without a tax bill to consider there was nothing for legislators to do but visit the capital city's sites.

Then House Republican Leader Ted Hobbs also blasted the governor's office for not having the tax bill ready. “We didn't even get the proclamation until 10 minutes before we convened,” he said. “That's because they keep changing what they want.” Even House Democratic Whip, Rep. James Taylor complained, “The governor's staff has been difficult to deal with for some of my members.”

Former Rep. Max Coll
The introduction of Richardson’s 188-page tax bill didn’t help. As Rep. Max Coll, D-Santa Fe, said of the tax bill after the session. “Neither house would touch it with a 100-foot pole.” Said Coll, “When you've got a special session, you need to build a consensus, especially on tax issues, before you go in. You can't just walk in without it (being) settled.”

Several current observers have said the same thing recently about Martinez and her bill to repeal the law allowing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

Sine Die! By the end of the first week of the 2003 special session, the Senate had had enough.

Eight Democrats, including Senate President Pro-tem Richard Romero of Albuquerque, joined 15 Republicans to call for an end to the session. Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, said after that vote, “The lack of consensus was clearly evident from the very beginning. ... There was confusion, a lot of frustration and a concern about whether this was absolutely necessary at this point in time.”

House Speaker Ben Lujan kept the House in session, and after some arm-twisting by Richardson, Romero agreed to bring the Senate back into session. The Legislature ended up passing Richardson’s ambitious program for highway improvements. (That’s the GRIP program, which would come back to haunt Richardson in later years, though that’s another story.)

The Legislature still didn’t attempt any major tax-code overhaul and haven’t touched it since. The 2003 special session even had some Democrats looking back with nostalgia at Republican Gov. Gary Johnson. “We hardly ever supported Gov. Johnson, but we appreciated his open-door policy,” Sen. Phil Griego, D-Ribera, said at the end of that session.

After the session, Richardson said, “I learned a lot during this session, We will work harder to get legislators involved earlier in the process.”

But some of those wounds in that session never seemed to heal.