Governor optimistic about cooperation during session
Many legislative sessions in recent years have been known for the stormy, sometimes rancorous relationship between Gov. Bill Richardson and lawmakers, mainly those in the state Senate.
On the threshold of Richardson’s last regular session — his second term expires on Dec. 31 and he legally can’t seek re-election — the governor seems to be striking a more conciliatory tone.
In an interview last week in his Capitol office, Richardson, leaning back in his chair and resting his cowboy boots on his desk, said, “I believe it won’t be a contentious session. It’ll be spirited. There’ll be lots of points of view expressed, especially on revenue. But in the end, I think we’ll have a good session that will be productive. There’ll be some disagreements. We’ll have some battles.”
Why does he think it will be less heated than usual?
“I think this is recognition that we finally have, unlike other sessions where we were lucky with surpluses, to make some cuts and we have to look at the future,” Richardson said. “And the best way to make those cuts is the Legislature and the executive getting together.”
Starting out on an optimistic note and vowing cooperation isn’t that unusual before a session convenes. And, of course, some think predictions of a relatively rosy session are unrealistic. One powerful legislator laughed out loud when told that Richardson said it would be a less contentious session.
Still, several times during the interview, Richardson seemed to hold out an olive branch.
At one point, talking about a sticking point in past efforts to pass a bill to establish a state ethics commission — namely who would get to appoint the commissioners — Richardson said he’d be willing to “split the difference” with legislators and back a commission in which the executive and legislative branch each got to name half the members.
"I’m not going to fight over stuff like I used to," Richardson said.
In the interview, the governor talked about how he’ll resist efforts to repeal or rollback the tax cuts, which in 2003 got him national attention as a “tax-cutting Democrat.”
“I just think that would be going backward. I will resist those,” he said, referring to what he called the “meat-ax approach to the tax cuts.”
But then he added, “But everything is on the table. I am not drawing any line in the sand.”
When asked about this seeming contradiction, Richardson’s spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said that Richardson has been clear in his opposition to repealing the tax cuts, but “I think the governor doesn’t want to come across at this point as threatening to veto anything. Rather, he has chosen to signal his opposition early on so legislators have a clear understanding of his position on some of those taxes.”
Some have called this session Richardson’s “Legacy Session” because it could be the last time he has to pass the laws he needs to achieve his goals.
When asked what has remained undone that needs to be accomplished, as usual Richardson had a basketful of issues he’ll be pushing.
“I want to have a domestic partners bill,” he said. “I think that’s a major civil rights issue. I want us to solidify ourselves as the clean energy state. And I think that with some legislation we’re proposing, we’ll be able to do that.”
“I want us to continue the progress and forward movement in the areas of DWI and domestic violence. I want us to continue our ability because of our tax structure, our pro-jobs tax structure, to attract companies into the state, especially renewable energy companies, movies, high tech, the ones we’ve concentrated on.
“I want to leave a foundation of ethics reform,” he said, noting he’s been trying, with only limited success, to get the Legislature to pass ethics laws for the past several years.
“I want state employees to remember me as the best governor they’ve ever had,” Richardson said. “I’ve raised their salaries 20 percent since I’ve been governor. I’ve dramatically increased their health care benefits. We negotiated a labor agreement. So that’s my hope. I respect state workers. The furloughs were very painful.” But, he said, New Mexico state workers have fared better that their counterparts in some other states. “We haven’t had layoffs, we haven’t had pay cuts (that were) significant. And I hope to keep things that way because they do important work.”
One local state employee union leader, Arcy Baca, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said, “Gov. Richardson has done some good things for the state, but to preserve that legacy, he and the Legislature are going to have to close corporate loopholes and stop the (large) tax breaks for millionaires.”
Whether the session turns out as bile-free as Richardson hopes, it’s bound to be less painful than last year’s. Richardson had hoped to be heading to Washington, D.C. to join President Obama’s cabinet. But his nomination de-railed due to a grand jury looking into an alleged pay-to-play scheme, and he ended up stuck in Santa Fe with an increasingly independent Legislature and seemingly endless headlines about investment scandals and allegations. Many said Richardson seemed disengaged last year.
Asked about that last week, Richardson said, “No, it was not pleasant. But it didn’t affect my governing. It didn’t affect my productivity. It made me realize that I should concentrate more on my legacy and my achievements here. But at times it was not pleasant.
“But I didn’t adopt a strategy of hunkering down,” he said. “I know there were some stories we were hunkering down. Maybe we weren’t having as many press conferences during the Legislature. But I was active. I was traveling and proposing things. ... I wasn’t having the press conferences, but I was meeting individually (with legislators). We did get a lot done that session. Maybe compared with my old public aggressive self, maybe I did tone down a bit. But it wasn’t because of the controversies.
“There’s a perception the Legislature that I’m contentious, aggressive,” Richardson said. “I do have a strong, aggressive style, but you have to measure the results. We have gotten a lot done.”