SANTA FE – The rocky relationship between New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and state lawmakers is coming to a close as the Republican governor prepares to leave office and both sides ponder what might have been.
Democratic leaders said they wished there had been better communication with Martinez and wondered if more could have been done years ago to resolve grinding difficulties related to unemployment and crime.
Martinez told reporters last week that she regrets lawmakers didn’t pass more of her major proposals during her tenure, describing unfulfilled initiatives to simplify the tax code, hold back students in third grade who cannot read at grade level and enhance criminal penalties.
Martinez, a former district attorney, blamed lawmakers’ inaction and noted a slow deterioration in public safety.
“This just didn’t start overnight. You could see it growing, and that’s why it was important for us to look at those bills a long time ago,” she said. “I’m not the one that regrets it, I’m disappointed that the Legislature didn’t see that these are tools that the police need.”
Lawmakers wrapped up work Thursday after passing a bipartisan package of spending bills and public safety reforms. Anti-crime legislation was designed to bolster police ranks, deter repeat drunken driving, toughen gun-possession penalties for violent felons, and better address addiction and health issues among prison inmates as they are released.
“I regret the fact that we couldn’t come together earlier, but only waiting toward the end to pass some of these bills,” Martinez said.
She lambasted lawmakers for repeatedly shunning a proposal to expand life sentences for the intentional and fatal abuse of teenagers.
Violent crime and property crime both spiked during Martinez’s first six years in office, according FBI data.
The state had an annual violent crime rate of 589 per 100,000 residents in 2010. It rose by 19 percent, to 703, in 2016 – the last available data.
In the same period, New Mexico’s annual property-crime rate rose 13 percent, from 3,435 per 100,000 residents to 3,937.
The unemployment rate was down to 6 percent in December from 7.6 percent when Martinez took office in January 2011. Only Alaska’s rate is still higher.
Martinez said she was proud of defending business incentive programs and providing a consistent message of fiscal discipline.
Many lawmakers said their sights are set on next year’s session and a fresh start with a new governor, whether Republican or Democrat. The Legislature spent much of the past session commissioning studies for future legislation.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth said he believed Martinez lacked the leadership to work with lawmakers to pass bipartisan solutions over the years. This year was different because lawmakers from both parties worked out an approach to criminal justice reform and hoped to avoid vetoes.
“There has been a tremendous amount of frustration and just not a lot of engagement” from the governor, Wirth said.
Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf said the latest legislative session was Martinez’s best because she communicated more with lawmakers.