Legislature: Keep an eye on session’s likely movers and shakers

Note: This story is part of a package of stories on the New Mexico Legislature that the Quay County Sun has obtained from the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper.

By Steve Terrell

The New Mexican

There are 112 members of the state Legislature. Virtually every one of them has the potential of becoming the center of attention on any given day of the session — for introducing important legislation, for giving a brilliant speech (though these are rare for legislators), for becoming a pivotal vote on a bill, for making an embarrassing gaffe or for getting caught doing something questionable.

Here is a look at some lawmakers almost certain to be making news during the 2014 Legislature.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen

Since the early days of her administration, Gov. Susana Martinez has knocked heads with and publicly criticized Sanchez more than any other legislator. Martinez and her political team spent a lot of money trying to defeat Sanchez in the 2012 election.

Sanchez is a lawyer from Belen, who has served in the Senate since 1993. After chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee for several years, he was elected to the majority leader post in late 2004. Sanchez is the brother of another powerful legislative leader, former House Speaker Raymond Sanchez, who now is a lobbyist.

As majority leader, Michael Sanchez arguably is the most powerful person in the Senate. He decides which bills get heard on the Senate floor — the importance of which becomes more and more apparent as the minutes tick away at the close of a session.

Martinez and other backers of the governor’s “social promotion” bill (which would require third-graders who can’t read to be held back a year) say Sanchez used this power to sink the legislation in 2011. The bill had passed the House by a wide margin and had unanimous support in two Senate committees. But it died without a hearing on the Senate floor. Since that session, the bill has lost many supporters among Democrats.

Even without the animosity between Sanchez and Martinez, the Senate often proves to be more of an obstacle to the governor’s agenda than the House. It’s considered to be more independent-minded than the other chamber. And Democrats, who outnumber Republicans 25-17, have a firmer grip on the Senate than the House (where there are 37 Democrats and 33 Republicans.)

House Speaker Kenny Martinez, D-Grants

Unlike Sanchez, Kenny Martinez has yet to publicly clash with Gov. Martinez (no relation). In fact, the speaker was instrumental in the governor’s last-minute tax deal last year, expediting the hearing on the bill, stifling opposition and — some opponents said — actually taking the vote a minute after the session had legally ended. The speaker’s actions on that last day of the session angered some in the Democrats’ progressive wing. Whether any animosity will carry over to this session should soon be known.

Speaker Martinez, a lawyer from Grants, took over the speaker’s job last year, following the late Speaker Ben Luján of Nambé. The son of a former speaker, Walter K. Martinez, who served in the ’70s, Kenny Martinez is known as a leader who tries to reach consensus. Though he’s a Democrat, he’s always enjoyed generally good relationships with Republicans. (He’s godfather of one of the children of former GOP House Whip Dan Foley. Kenny Martinez and Foley served together on the House Judiciary Committee.)

Kenny Martinez won the position of majority leader in 2004 by challenging an incumbent. Two years later, he tried to oust Luján as speaker but fell short. He and Luján quickly mended fences, however, and by all reports, the two worked smoothly together for the remainder of Luján’s years.

The position of House speaker frequently is referred to as the most powerful post at the state Legislature. The House speaker has control of who sits on what committees, how many committee assignments each bill gets, as well as what gets heard on the House floor.

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces

When Papen won the pro tem job with the help of Senate Republicans last year, many saw that as a victory for conservatives. (There was no vote taken. Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, who had been nominated by the Senate Democratic Caucus, withdrew his name after it became apparent he didn’t have the votes to win.)

Indeed, Papen is more conservative than Campos and many others in her party. However, she’s no fire-breathing right-winger. Papen, in those days before same-sex marriage, voted for a bill to establish legal domestic partnerships. She also voted to abolish the death penalty.

And while she’s enjoyed a generally cordial relationship with the governor, in the past year, Papen has become one of the leading critics of the way the Martinez administration handled the shake-up of the state’s mental health system — specifically the move to halt Medicaid funding of more than a dozen of the state’s largest behavioral health providers suspected of fraud, and then bringing in five Arizona companies to take over the caseloads of the New Mexico companies.

It will be interesting to see whether this disagreement with Gov. Martinez spills into other areas with Papen.

The most important duty of the Senate president pro tem is naming and presiding over the committee that selects committee members and chairmen.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming

The congenial Smith doesn’t seem crazy about the nickname he’s picked up in the Roundhouse in recent years: “Dr. No.” He got the name because as finance chairman, he’s in better position than anyone in the Senate to block spending proposals, and he’s not afraid to do so.

Smith, who is without doubt the most conservative Democrat in the Senate (perhaps the entire Legislature), enjoys good relations with the Republican governor as well as his GOP colleagues. In fact, he probably has more problems with his fellow Democrats.

One big bone of contention between Smith and the Democrats is legislation that would allow the state to tap the Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood education. Last year, Smith didn’t allow the proposal to be heard in his committee. Smith argued the legislation would threaten the permanent fund’s long-term viability.

On Thursday at a news conference, state Democratic Party Chairman Sam Bregman, answering a reporter’s question, said that if Smith didn’t allow the measure to be heard this year, Smith should “join with the governor and become a Republican.” Bregman also said if Smith blocks the bill again, “he will be primaryed.”

Smith, first elected to the Senate in 1988, faced a primary challenger in 2012, but he won. As do all senators, he faces re-election again in 2016.

House Minority Whip Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque

Gentry is a young, ambitious lawyer who was elected to the whip position last year, two years after he first was elected to the House. Although veteran Hobbs lawmaker Don Bratton is minority leader in the House, Gentry frequently is in the spotlight during a session.

Last year, Gentry worked with Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque — a political odd couple if ever there was one — to amend Garcia’s bill to require background checks of people buying firearms at gun shows. This amended version of the bill passed the House with a handful of Republicans voting for it and Republican Gov. Martinez saying she’d sign it. However, the bill died in the Senate. Gentry faced some criticism from gun advocates for his role in the compromise.

In addition to his duties as whip, Gentry has been active in recruiting Republican candidates for House races this year. Many believe the GOP will make a major push to win control of the House in December.

Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, Legislative Finance Committee chairman

Former Gov. Bill Richardson once remarked that Varela has forgotten more than most will ever know about state finances. That may be true.

Varela’s lengthy legislative career — he first was elected in 1986 after a career in state government — is approaching the end. He’s running for re-election this year, but he says that will be the last time.

Along with Sen. Smith, Varela is the chief architect of the Legislative Finance Committee’s proposed budget and the House’s major advocate of the across-the-board pay raises for state employees called for in the budget proposal. He should be at the forefront of the battle with Gov. Martinez and GOP legislators who oppose the across-the-board raises.

Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington

Sharer doesn’t hold a leadership position, but in his 13 years in the Senate, he’s earned an unofficial position as leader of the social conservatives in the Senate.

Last summer, Sharer — in the face of some judges and country clerks across the state issuing same-sex marriage licenses — got a handful of like-minded legislators to file an action to try to stop marriage equality. The case eventually ended up before the state Supreme Court, which in December ruled it unconstitutional to deny marriage to gay and lesbian couples.

Undaunted, Sharer prefiled a proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union of one man and one woman. Although even some Republicans privately admit that Senate Joint Resolution 6 probably won’t pass — and Gov. Martinez has said she won’t push for it — Sharer is expected to put up a good fight.

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque and Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City

Both of these senators are running in the Democratic primary for governor, and both are expected to be quite active in the session.

Lopez, as chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, has promised to hold a hearing on the controversial nomination of Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera. That nomination, which is opposed by most Senate Democrats, has been held up since 2011.

She also has said the Rules Committee plans to hold a hearing about about the controversial multimillion-dollar lease awarded to The Downs Racetrack & Casino in Albuquerque in 2011. Some former members of Gov. Martinez’s political team have said they have been questioned by the FBI about the lease, which was awarded to a partnership headed by large contributors to the governor. (Martinez’s people have denied there is any such investigation, and the FBI, as per its policy, will not confirm or deny any investigation.) Next only to the Skandera nomination, this promises to be the most politically heated hearing of the session.)

Meanwhile, Morales is a member of the Senate Education Committee. With education being one of the hot topics of this session, expect Morales to take a big role in fighting for the Democrats’ positions.



Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen

Senate Majority Whip Tim Keller, D-Albuquerque

Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales

Senate Minority Whip Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque

House Speaker Kenny Martinez, D-Grants

House Majority Leader Rick Miera, D-Albuquerque

House Majority Whip Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque

House Minority Leader Don Bratton, R-Hobbs

House Minority Whip Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque

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