In the world of state politics, everyone reached the finish line at the same time Saturday.
But that doesn’t mean every politician and ordinary person was a winner. New Mexico’s legislative session ended with a range of ratings on my scorecard.
Loser — Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. She nominated James Mountain as Cabinet secretary of the Indian Affairs Department, then effectively blocked his confirmation hearing before the Senate Rules Committee.
Mountain was accused of rape, kidnapping and battery on a household member 15 years ago. Prosecutors eventually dismissed the charges, but many Native groups still question his fitness for an executive job in state government.
Lujan Grisham held up his nomination papers, scotching the chance of a hearing before the session ended.
Operating with the title of secretary-designate, Mountain will run the department and collect an annual salary of $169,600. But Lujan Grisham’s decision to stall Mountain’s appearance before the Senate weakened his ability to be effective.
The governor could have appeared before the Rules Committee to defend her nominee. Both Mountain and the public would have been better served by a prompt public hearing. Lujan Grisham’s orchestrated delay is government at its worst.
Winners — Everybody but the bureaucrats. A bill that would have further weakened the state public records law finally fizzled in the House of Representatives.
Senate Bill 63 would have barred the public from access to the full list of applicants for executive jobs such as school superintendent, police chief and city manager. Only the names of five finalists would have been released. (The bill originally called for only three finalists to be announced publicly, but the sponsors amended the measure to five in a late act of desperation).
New Mexico residents need faster and better access to public records. The state Senate took the opposite stand, voting 31-9 to restrict information on applicants for the most influential public positions in every city, county and school district.
The House proved to be the better deliberative body. It deserves a tip of the hat for bottling up a bad bill.
Losers — Twenty-four House Republicans. They couldn’t recognize talent in their own room. GOP members ousted Rep. Jason Harper of Rio Rancho as their whip only two months after electing him to the position.
A plainspoken specialist on tax policy and combating poverty, Harper is the only member of his caucus with potential to win a congressional seat or a statewide office. Showing their regard for an independent thinker, House Republicans demoted Harper. And they wonder why they’ve been the minority party for 66 of the last 70 years.
Losers — Everyone who doesn’t work for the state. Legislators again spent too much money. At more than $9.5 billion, New Mexico’s budget grew by about $1 billion since last year.
Losers — independent voters. Not everyone wants to register as a Democrat or a Republican. Younger people in particular often are wary of signing up for the red or the blue.
Trouble is, primary elections typically decide who will hold local office in counties such as Santa Fe, Lea and San Juan.
A half-dozen lawmakers introduced bills so unaffiliated voters could participate in a major party’s primary election without having to change their registration status. All those measures failed.
“Come on. What are we afraid of?” said Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, sponsor of one of the bills to open up primaries.
It’s a fair question. Maybe an answer is forthcoming in 2024.
Winners — Fans of scrutiny for the state-run gambling operations. Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, tried again to pass legislation to give anonymity to lottery winners. It was another bill that belonged in the legislative cemetery.
Woods’ proposal cleared the Senate by a disheartening vote of 34-0 before being buried in a committee of the House of Representatives.
Many claimed Woods’ bill was innocuous. Not so.
The late gangster James “Whitey” Bulger once claimed he’d won a piece of a $14 million jackpot in the Massachusetts Lottery. Investigators believed Bulger manipulated the system so he could use lottery proceeds to launder cash from his criminal enterprises.
If a South Boston wise guy could scam a lottery, think of the possibilities in a secret system in corruption-filled New Mexico.
Most honest quote of the finale — Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, a Democrat. “This is my 15th year being up here, and by far this 60-day session seemed to be the longest.”
With oil money flowing in, spending bills proliferated. All the grabbing for cash made the session feel interminable.
Most predictable quote of the finale — Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque. “I am so appreciative of what we all did these last 60 days. We worked together like we never have before.”
Bouquets are always tossed around when a legislative session ends. Everyone is exhausted, even dazed. They’ll say just about anything as they head for the exits.
We’ll see if any of the goodwill lasts until 2024. That’s when partisan competition begins for all 42 Senate seats.