SANTA FE – Legislative elections and ideological divisions among Democrats are looming over major initiatives backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham – from new gun restrictions to recreational marijuana legalization and pension reform – during a second consecutive year of unified Democratic control over the Statehouse and governor’s office.
Democrats reclaimed the governor’s office from a Republican and picked up eight seats in the state House as a blue wave swept through New Mexico politics in 2018 elections.
This year, the entire House and state Senate are up for election for the first time since President Donald Trump took office. Democrats including the House speaker and Senate president are confronting primary challenges within a restive party.
Near the start of a 30-day legislative session, Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming urged colleagues to look past election risks and support pension reforms that rein in fixed annual benefit increase for retirees and require greater contributions from public employees. The Public Employees Retirement Association has unfunded liabilities of $6.6 billion that could balloon if a recession hits, fund managers said.
“Quite frankly, when you are going into an election year, I think that the attitude out there is: This is a tough decision,” said Smith, chairman of the lead Senate budget writing committee. “We have to put election behind us as far as what we’re posturing for and do what is responsible, but it’s extremely difficult to do that. I’m not sure what is going to get through this year.”
Smith, a longstanding opponent of recreational cannabis, is confronting a primary election challenge by former state Democratic Party executive Neomi Martinez-Parra.
A political candidate’s weeklong fast on the steps of the state Capitol offered another visceral reminder of tensions among Democrats.
Lyla June Johnston, a 30-year-old graduate student and performance artist who is running against Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf, says she is tapping into frustrations about climate change issues and corporate spending on Statehouse politics that here campaign refuses. Her fast allows for two daily doses of buffalo broth with barley.
“I don’t consider him a progressive,” Johnston said of the top House Democrat, highlighting donations from the oil industry to the Brian Egolf Speakers Fund political committee. “I don’t think we can represent the people well when we owe so much to corporations.”
On Friday, the governor said she’ll take cues from last year’s successful negotiations to increase the statewide minimum wage as she pushes for a “red flag” law that allows would allow police or relatives to ask a court to temporarily take away household guns and seek $35 million in new general fund spending to underwrite tuition-free college for 55,000 students.
“It’s not my first rodeo with legislators,” said Lujan Grisham, describing efforts to instill cooperation. “I’m trying to set the example. When you don’t work together and you’ve got an idea that’s going to require a ton of work from everybody else, I’m not going to be able to deliver.”
Lujan Grisham encountered political setbacks last year on abortion-rights legislation, when eight Democratic senators joined with Republicans to vote down a bill she supported to overturn the state’s dormant ban on most abortion procedures. The ban could go into effect if the Supreme Court overturns its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
In legislative committee hearings, the governor’s free-tuition proposal for in-state students has run into early criticism from prominent Democrats. On the red flag gun proposal, 29 out of 33 county sheriffs oppose the initiative as currently written.
Former Democratic state Sen. Dede Feldman, a consultant to nonpartisan government watchdog groups including Common Cause, described “cross currents” within the Democratic legislative majority on both gun safety and marijuana legalization.
“Timing is everything,” said Feldman, noting that a major annual state budget surplus – estimated at $800 million – saps urgency from efforts to legalize and tax marijuana. “We have the revenues now, so marijuana as a revenue source fades in importance.”
Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino is sponsoring the Senate bill to legalize recreational marijuana and said he believes a defeat would roil the electorate in many Senate districts.
“It’s going to have to be an awkward thing to say ‘I voted against it,’” he said.