Two politicians with nothing in common except their last name helped plunge New Mexico into the deep hole it’s in today.
The state is sputtering with the nation’s highest unemployment rate and a budget that should have been balanced two months ago but still isn’t. New Mexico’s most recent slide can be traced to a wild and ridiculous day in the state Legislature four years ago. That’s when Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and then-House Speaker Kenny Martinez, a Democrat from Grants, formed an odd alliance.
They had never agreed on much of anything. But after a night of deal-making, Kenny Martinez decided to support substantial tax reductions for corporations, something Susana Martinez coveted.
That same bill was larded with other measures. They included larger tax rebates for television producers who film in New Mexico and reductions in state funding to cities and counties.
State senators approved the bill 34-8, barely debating it. Just 17 minutes remained in a 60-day legislative session when the bill reached the House of Representatives. Kenny Martinez, in his first year as speaker of the House, knew he would have to silence several legislators in his own party who opposed the bill and might very well talk it to death, if given the chance.
With the clock ticking, Kenny Martinez joined with Republican leaders to stop any debate by House members. Instead, Susana Martinez’s finance secretary, Tom Clifford, spent a few minutes explaining the bill, which had been slapped together so belatedly it did not have a financial analysis.
By any measure, Clifford did a bad job. He said the bill would have a positive effect on state finances during its first five years. Clifford, since retired, badly missed the mark. For this fiscal year, the corporate tax cuts cost New Mexico $70 million in revenue. And it’s one reason the state budget has been in disarray for the last two years.
After Clifford provided his faulty information, Kenny Martinez had a problem. Then-Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, stood and said the noon deadline ending the session had elapsed, so the bill could not be voted on.
Kenny Martinez ignored Stewart. He quickly called for a vote and House members approved the tax cuts. This was government at its worst, legislators approving a complicated tax measure without really understanding it.
Now it appears that Gov. Martinez didn’t learn from history. She has called for a special legislative session starting May 24, and she has added comprehensive tax reform to the agenda.
Gov. Martinez’s idea means that legislators, working at a cost to the public of about $53,000 a day, could consider another intricate tax measure while fighting the clock.
If the governor was really serious about tax reform, she would have had her sponsor and her bill ready on the first day of the regular 60-day legislative session that started last January. Instead, tax reform is now high on her agenda for the rushed atmosphere of a special session, where legislators ought to be focused only on balancing the budget.
The governor has always enjoyed attack-style politics but been bored by the best practices for government. That’s another reason the corporate tax cuts she wanted weren’t properly evaluated.
But Gov. Martinez bears only part of the blame.
Kenny Martinez is culpable. So are former Democratic Sen. Phil Griego, now under indictment for public corruption, and Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. They helped draft the bill for corporate tax cuts in collaboration with Gov. Martinez.
Most other legislators followed the authors of the bill like sheep. They knew they might be jumping off a fiscal cliff, but joined in because they saw others taking the plunge.
Not every legislator failed the public. Stewart and then-Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, did their best to stop the bill. Steinborn stood to challenge it, but Kenny Martinez refused to recognize him or allow him to speak.
And Gov. Martinez’s archenemy, then-Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, refused to support the rambling, 35-page proposal for corporate tax cuts for a simple reason.
“I don’t vote for bills I haven’t read,” Sanchez said.
Many other legislators also hadn’t read the bill that’s caused so much trouble, but they still supported it.
Kenny Martinez’s mishandling of the House of Representatives on the day of that tax vote ruined him politically. He lost the job of House speaker when Republicans briefly won control of the chamber. Then he decided not to run for re-election to become the Bernalillo County Attorney. Maybe Kenny Martinez is a better lawyer than he was a legislator.
There’s a moral to this column, courtesy of writer Eduardo Galeano: “History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.’ ”
Legislators should think about that before trying to reform the tax code in the haze and hurry of a special session.
Ringside Seat is a column about New Mexico’s people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at 505-986-3080 or email@example.com.