Sunday, February 08, 2004

The Year of the Legislature?

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican

During his state of the state address last month, Gov. Bill Richardson told lawmakers, "Last year, many people thought it was the year of the governor. This year, let's make it the year of the Legislature."

With the Legislature passing its halfway point this week, it looks as if some legislators took the governor seriously -- though perhaps not the way Richardson wanted.

In contrast with the lovefest that was Richardson's first legislative session last year, this year there have been several instances of public tension between the governor and the Legislature.

Among those:
* The House voted 66-0 to override Richardson's line-item veto of the Legislative Finance Committee budget. (The governor was able to avoid an override by convincing Senate Democrats last week to go along with a compromise.)

* House Speaker Ben Luján, D-Nambé, last week accused Richardson of taking "cheap shots" at the House with the governor's criticisms of the House-approved budget.

*Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, last week accused Richardson of being abusive at meetings with lobbyists and others working on Medicaid-related bills. Several members of the House on Friday -- mainly Republicans but a handful of Democrats also -- wore orange ribbons to show solidarity with Jennings and protest Richardson's alleged behavior.

* Looming in the shadows is the specter of redistricting. Although Richardson frequently speaks about achieving bipartisan cooperation with the Legislature, this week he opened the possibility of losing any remaining goodwill with Republicans by considering redrawing the congressional district map. Richardson said his gut instinct is to not allow redistricting on the agenda, though he did meet Friday with redistricting expert Brian Sanderoff.

Some say that not too much should be made over the eruptions between the governor and the legislators.

And nobody's saying the tensions have boiled over into overt hostilities. Just two days after Luján's comments about Richardson's "cheap shots," the House Speaker appeared at the governor's side to announce a bill Luján is sponsoring to eliminate the tax on most grocery items.

Last week, Richardson's chief of staff, Dave Contarino, downplayed the criticisms.

"A lot of this is lost on the people of New Mexico," Contarino said. "They're focused on the governor and the Legislature working arm in arm."

Talking about the Jennings incident, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said, "I think it just shows what can happen when so much is packed into a 30-day session. Tempers are real challenged. I'm not overly alarmed. We'll work through it."

House Democratic Whip James Taylor of Albuquerque agrees that the pressures of a 30-day session leads to frustration and skirmishes.

But he also says the Legislature is showing more independence. However he said he thinks this trend started almost two years ago, during the final months of Gov. Gary Johnson's administration.

"When Gov. Johnson vetoed the budget and we called ourselves into extraordinary session to override, that act in itself showed the Legislature does indeed have constitutional rights as a branch of government and the tools to do what we have to do."

When Richardson took office in 2003, Taylor said, the Legislature "gave him quite a bit of leeway" to push his agenda.

Taylor said poor communications with the governor and his staff, plus a "my-way-or-the-highway" attitude coming from the fourth floor has made legislators reassert themselves.

"This type of communication could lead to the same type of gridlock we had with Gov. Johnson," Taylor said.

Of Richardson, Taylor said, "He's tough, he's my kind of politician."

But he added, "My job is listening to the wishes of my constituents, not the wishes of the governor."

Taylor said he's optimistic relations between the two branches of government will improve. "It's a learning process," he said.


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