Three senators don’t outnumber 33 after all.
After burying a piece of legislation since February, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth and two colleagues abruptly reversed course.
All it took was 700 words that started on the front page.
Wirth, D-Santa Fe, was the subject of my column Monday. It detailed how he made a backroom deal to rescind a proposal the Senate approved 36-0.
The measure, Senate Memorial 30, asked the staff of the Legislative Finance Committee to investigate the growth of administrative spending in public schools. It also requested the staff to draft a proposed law by Nov. 1 that would cap spending on school administrations and increase funding for classrooms.
Wirth voted for the memorial, but soon after he maneuvered to derail it. He was influenced by Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, chairman of the Education Committee.
A retired school principal, Soules also voted for the memorial publicly, only to complain about it in private.
The memorial’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Bobby Gonzales of Ranchos de Taos, said he and Wirth agreed to rescind the legislation in deference to Soules.
Wirth was at his worst in making that decision. He reacted to one member’s belated bellyaching instead of the overwhelming will of the Senate.
Wirth redeemed himself Monday by resurrecting Senate Memorial 30. An enrolled and engrossed copy, signed by the lieutenant governor and chief clerk of the Senate, at last is bound for a place in the state record.
“This is something we can learn from. We’re moving forward,” Wirth said of his new position.
The controversy Wirth ignited was an odd one. He knew Soules declined to publicly argue against the memorial during Senate debate. Instead Soules voted for it, only to lodge his closed-door protest.
Plenty of doubt existed as to whether Wirth and Gonzales had authority to block legislation that had passed the Senate in overwhelming fashion.
Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, a Democrat who presides over the Senate, said the two senators could not by themselves overturn the memorial’s passage. Morales said the full Senate would have to be consulted to undo a binding decision.
All of this put Wirth in a bad spot. He and most Democrats didn’t appreciate former Republican President Donald Trump trying to upend democracy by fabricating claims Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election. In turn, Wirth faced criticism he sidestepped democracy by deciding three senators could huddle after a vote and overrule 33 others.
The memorial was approved on the last full day of the monthlong legislative session. Soules was irked because the proposal was not heard first in his Education Committee, a circumstance that might mean something to insiders but carried no weight with the public.
What’s important is every senator who showed up to vote supported a staff examination of whether school administration costs are out of line.
Gonzales now suggests expanding the scope of the memorial. He sent a letter to Soules stating the staff of another agency, the Legislative Education Study Committee, should also examine classroom and administrative spending.
Gonzales stated his case for reform in the first sentence of his memorial: “The Legislative Finance Committee informed the Legislature that, between 2007 and 2019, central and general administration spending by school districts and charter schools grew by 55 percent while spending on instruction and student support grew by 20 percent.”
In a recent interview, Gonzales said he’d grown wary of the very statistics he cited. For instance, aggregated record-keeping on different expenses might create a deceptive view of growth in administration, he said.
Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico School Superintendents Association, opposes a cap on administrative spending. He says many administrative costs cannot be reined in.
“A large contributor of higher administrative expenses is from regulatory impositions by the federal and state governments,” Rounds said.
Formerly the school superintendent in Las Cruces, Rounds said he once cut administrative spending by 12 percent in a year but had to add back 8 percent to comply with a new round of mandates.
Think New Mexico, a public policy organization, is pressing hardest for controls on administrative spending. Its executive director, Fred Nathan, points to one study showing high-performing school districts in New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana spent a greater percentage on classrooms than on administration.
Nathan covets the cap. He might get nothing more than another study.
It’s a start. Democracy at last is served.