New Mexico election leaves few checks on Democratic power

November 13, 2018
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U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who was elected Tuesday as the state's next governor, answers questions at a joint press conference with New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez at the State Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M., on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. Martinez, a Republican and the state's first female governor, has served two consecutive terms. Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, will take office Jan. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Craig Fritz)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Democrats who won nearly unbridled power over state government in midterm elections are confronting competing interests within their own ideologically diverse party, as the governor-elect pursues major reforms in areas from public education to marijuana access.

A key budget-drafting panel met Tuesday as Democratic Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham began the process of building legislative relationships and coalitions to carry out campaign pledges.

Those pledges include efforts to raise teacher salaries and funnel money toward early childhood education from the state permanent fund — a multibillion dollar savings account sustained by petroleum and other natural-resource revenues. Fiscally conservative lawmakers including Democrats have been loath to tamper with the account.

“If they want responsible fiscal policy, the door is closed” to the permanent fund, said Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Democrat from Deming who leads the Senate Finance Committee and has repeatedly rebuffed attempted increase withdrawals from the permanent fund for education. “If they want to be reckless with the dollar, then it’s open.”

Lujan Grisham said this week she already is working to overcome reticence to greater spending on public education and infrastructure projects that she believes will improve the state’s future economy and competitiveness — a central tenant of her campaign. She is urging legislators to comply with a recent court order to provide more resources to educate students from low-income and minority families.

“I hope to have a really successful 2019, and it starts by developing relationships with legislators right now,” Lujan Grisham said.

State government economists anticipate a $1.2 billion budget surplus beyond the state’s $6.3 billion in annual spending obligations, for the fiscal year starting in July 2019.

The oil and natural gas sector is largely responsible for the anticipated windfall, which dissipates as oil prices decline. Smith said lawmakers are working to identify sustainable sources of tax income before setting new spending levels.

In the midterm election, Lujan Grisham defeated U.S. Rep Steve Pearce by a 14 percent point margin to succeed termed-out Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

Democrats swept statewide, Congressional and major judicial races. They are likely to hold 46 state House seats out of 70 next year, with recounts pending in two races. Democrats also hold a majority in the state Senate, which comes up for election in 2020.

Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said the ouster of Republicans from high office is reminiscent of long stretches in state history in which Democrats dominated the political scene, amid rivalries between progressive and conservative wings of the party.

“Michelle’s opportunity as governor to do a lot of those ambitious projects is largely about whether she can form a coalition among those two separate camps,” he said.

Major initiatives to raise minimum wage, enact gun control, address climate change and allow recreational marijuana no longer are seen as progressive pipe dreams.

“For the last eight years we’ve been playing small ball,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, describing Democratic tactics under the Martinez administration.

Come January, Democrats also will control major state watchdog agencies for elections, campaigning, open records and public accounting.

Voters re-elected Democrats as attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer — while gaining control of the office of the state auditor and state land office.

At the same time, three-quarters of voters endorsed the creation of an independent ethics commission to oversee the conduct of elected officials, public employees and others. Detailed guidelines for the commission were left for the Legislature to hammer out — something Wirth listed as a high priority for the legislative session that starts in January.

Some Democrats remain wary of overreaching.

State Rep. Harry Garcia, a Democrat from Grants who joined the Legislature amid a budget crisis in 2016, emphasized caution on new spending and calls to legalize recreational marijuana. That year, lawmakers used cash balances from school districts to balance the budget.

“My deal is I hope we never get to the same situation,” he said. “It’s really hard.”

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