By Jennie Lusk
The 2021 regular legislative session was unique, and not only because it was held “virtually,” with testimony from people around the state reaching legislators.
It was unique because it unified Democrats in both houses and the Governor’s mansion in passing progressive measures that actually became law. It was unique because of cooperation and unity on progressive causes. A look into changes in the state Senate through the eyes of Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino affords an opportunity to analyze and appreciate what unity can do for New Mexico now and in the future.
Only 14 Republicans remained in the Senate in the 2021 session. Of the 27 Senate Democrats, seven were new: Bernalillo County senators Katy Duhigg, Harold Pope and Martin Hickey; Bernalillo-Sandoval County member Brenda McKenna; Grant,Catron, and Socorro member Siah Correa Hemphill; Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, and Santa Fe County member Leo Jaramillo; and Dona Ana County member Carrie Hamblen.
“To a person, the new senators are as smart as can be, and progressive,” Sen. Ortiz y Pino, who has served for the past 15 years, observed. “They worked as a unit and were quick learners. They were not afraid to ask questions and not afraid to step up and make a night-and-day difference.” He continued, “Having them in the Senate was like having an infusion of great teammates. There was no ego-tripping, no discord.” Unity on the Democratic side of the aisle meant the legislature passed and the governor signed approximately 140 bills: “A treasure trove of good things.”
The Senator tallied just a few of the significant measures: “We shored up infrastructure, [cast light on] capital outlay [process], and protected women’s right to choose. We legalized cannabis and passed several bills on medical malpractice, eliminating copays for mental health services. We passed the Civil Rights Act, expanded professional licensing in a whole range of professions for DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) recipients. AND, we finally passed the measure to provide for Early Childhood program funding from interest on the Land Grant Permanent Fund”—a resolution proposed but defeated for almost a decade.
Also contributing to the night-and-day difference was having a governor willing to sign the progressive measures, as did having a governor with state administrative experience from serving as secretary of the Department of Health. The Governor’s leadership was especially evident when she called a special session soon after the regular session closed to ensure that cannabis legislation was solidly in place. Some legislators now worry that Democrats have acquiesced too often and become subservient to the governor, betraying their constituents by failing to press their authority as a co-equal branch of government. Democrats were not entirely united against Republican demands for an extraordinary session after the governor vetoed the legislature’s priorities for federal appropriation, and some have been public in expressing concern over leadership appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate—in particular, leadership at Corrections; Children, Youth and Families; Workforce Solutions and the state personnel office.
But Sen. Ortiz y Pino looks forward to seeing New Mexico’s economy grow in the year to come, to seeing the results of all the progressive legislation that passed and the expansion of tax credits and federal supports for working families.
The Senator believes much of the focus will be on the challenges of redistricting, which likely will be resolved during a special session in November after regional meetings of the newly created nonpartisan State Redistricting Commission. Changes made in the regular session to redistricting priorities no longer allow protecting incumbents or considering partisanship in drawing new maps. For the past 20 years, New Mexico courts have been left to craft solutions to New Mexico’s redistricting challenges through litigation. The hope is that legislative changes in the 2021 regular session may prevent another long, drawn-out, expensive challenge to lines drawn after the 2020 census.
“We [Democrats] can’t get outrageous in redistricting, but we can make some changes,” the Senator said. Among the changes that seem “do-able” to him is creating a “more cohesive” East Mountain district, reducing the size of the extensive district that ranges from Las Vegas in the north to Lincoln County hundreds of miles to the south, which was drawn to protect an incumbent. Nonetheless, he expects that both political parties will face challenges posed by loss of population in the far northeast corner of the state, where some counties have as few as 800 residents, and in the northwest corner, where Farmington is losing population.
Even though implementing progressive legislation promises improvement for New Mexicans in the short run, the Senator foresees a need for more hard work and more unity before expiration of his term in 2024. Among the difficult issues Senator Ortiz y Pino hopes to address–and resolve–are weaning the state from its dependence on oil and gas revenues, ending our regressive income tax system, increasing taxes on unhealthy consumer goods that require public funds to redress, making long-term affordable housing more available, and coming to grips with water-intensive agricultural crops the drought may no longer be able to support. Perhaps, after another few years with Democratic majorities in the legislature and governor’s mansion, we will continue to see progress—and have the possibility of seeing progress as ordinary rather than unique.