It’s hardly the first characteristic named when listing the qualities of a successful governor. But we would argue that the ability to count matters.
No matter what a governor proposes, unless she has the votes to secure her legislative vision, all that remains is a smattering of talking points. Ideas that cannot be passed into law, no matter how inspiring, won’t move New Mexico forward or help the governor deliver results for the people who put her in office.
That’s why Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s second legislative session shows promise. For one thing, the state remains awash in cash — the governor’s proposed budget sets spending at $7.68 billion, while the Legislative Finance Committee is calling for spending of $7.54 billion.
That’s hardly a bridge too far.
Both increase spending and both set aside hefty sums for the future, each calling for reserves of 25 percent. Lawmakers understand the boom and bust cycle of a state budget dependent on oil revenues and prudently are preparing now for potential shortages. That’s the sort of long view New Mexico needs.
But governing is not just about setting up a savings account for lean times. What Lujan Grisham understands is that now — when cash is plentiful — is the moment to make investments in education, the economy, infrastructure and other areas that will fuel new eras of growth for New Mexico. Growth, we might add, that will not be tied so closely to the price of a barrel of oil.
And it’s here that Lujan Grisham’s ability to count comes in to play. She is not backing down from controversial topics in her second legislative session as governor, even in a 30-day short session designed primarily for passing a budget and dealing with financial matters.
No, she is returning to lawmakers with a bill to legalize the recreational use of cannabis in New Mexico. She wants another attempt to pass an extreme-risk protection bill, the so-called red-flag law that would allow guns to be temporarily removed from people deemed a risk to themselves or others.
Both are controversial, but she believes there is a path forward to approval. She does not see hope for another piece of important legislation — a bill to strike a 1969 statute that makes it a felony for abortion providers to end a pregnancy. The law is unenforceable because of the Roe V. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion; should that be struck down by the Supreme Court, as is likely, doctors could face arrest unless the Legislature acts.
The votes to repeal the statute are not there, however. Rather than waste time, the governor is concentrating on what is possible. That’s smart time management. If voters want the law repealed, they can elect senators — because the Senate is where the repeal died in 2019 — who support a woman’s reproductive rights.
All of this goes to show that the process of making laws is not simply about a governor decreeing, with the Legislature nodding in agreement. Even with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, along with a Democratic governor, there are points of disagreement. The eight conservative senators who voted against removing the 1969 statute followed their conscience, making it essential that voters follow their own as well. Until the voters speak, more debate on abortion in the Legislature will accomplish less than nothing.
Wisely, the governor is focusing on immediate concerns — increasing the budget for public education by $200.3 million, including a second pay increase for teachers in as many years; investing $200 million for infrastructure projects improving roads, bridges and rail across the state; directing $28.7 million to rebuild New Mexico’s shattered behavioral health network; allocating $163.9 million for public safety, including money to hire 60 new state police officers; and giving all state employees a 2 percent increase, with money set aside to shore up the state pension fund shortfall. There are investments in early childhood education, college scholarships, the Children, Youth and Families Department and assistance for seniors who are struggling to get by. Yes, budget proposals from the LFC and the governor differ on how much money to allocate in certain areas — the gap on early childhood education spending must be narrowed — but the differences are hardly insurmountable.
The governor’s budget demonstrates an understanding of the many needs of New Mexicans, focusing on investments that offer dividends for the future while taking care of pressing concerns now. And with a governor who can count, citizens do not have to watch endless arguments on issues destined to fail, eating up precious minutes and further dividing lawmakers who need to work together.
Because even with Democratic majorities, the GOP minority will have plenty to say about the budget, infrastructure spending, public safety and all the myriad issues of note in New Mexico. Democrats themselves are split among progressives and conservatives. Healthy debate should improve the final laws, at least that’s the best-case scenario.
Concentrating on what is possible — and what matters most — will make the upcoming session productive for everyone involved, most of all the citizens of New Mexico. That’s because the governor not only can count, she can set priorities, using her budget to demonstrate her values and underscore opportunities. It’s called governing.