How two missing NM Democrats changed the 2014 legislative session


DEMOCRATS NEEDED THEM: The absence of state Reps. Phillip Archuleta (left) and Ernest Chavez affected the 30-day legislative session.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. – Reps. Ernest Chavez, D-Albuquerque, and Phillip Archuleta, D-Las Cruces, missed the entire 30-day legislative session that wrapped up Thursday and that appeared, in the words of Robert Frost, to make all the difference.

Chavez and Archuleta are two reliable Democratic Party votes in the state House of Representatives. But without each of them, it took the steam out of a slew of constitutional resolutions Democrats introduced to bypass Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, led to a budget deadlock in the House and indicated just how differently the Roundhouse would function if Republicans manage to win control of the House after this November’s elections.

“They are not only ‘Democrat’ Democrats, (Chavez and Archuleta) are top-of-the-line guys for Democrats’ core values,” Speaker of the House W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, said after the session ended. “They’re so frustrated that they could not be here.”

Without the 77-year-old Chavez — who missed the session reportedly recovering from a bite from a recluse spider — and the 64-year-old Archuleta — recovering from a fall that broke one of his hips and a femur — the Democrats’ advantage on Republicans in the House dropped from 37-33 to 35-33 and influenced a series of votes on the floor.

“Oh, it was huge,” House Minority Leader Don Bratton, R-Hobbs, told New Mexico Watchdog. “The closer the numbers, the fewer votes you have to convince to change the outcome on a piece of legislation.”

Before the session, Democrats were optimistic they could get resolutions raising the state’s minimum wage and bringing back a state board of education — which would have delighted teachers unions because it would eliminate Public Education Department secretary-designate and Martinez appointee Hanna Skandera — through both chambers.

There was even hope a constitutional amendment dipping into the $13.1 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund could get through the pesky Senate Finance Committee and head to the House floor.

Such a legislative trifecta would have had liberals in the state dancing in the streets.

Republicans were fuming, calling the constitutional resolutions an end run around Martinez. Democrats countered by saying they were merely following an approved avenue in the legislative process.

Since Democrats held a comfortable 25-17 edge in the Senate, getting the resolutions through that chamber posed no real problem. But once it became clear Chavez and Archuleta weren’t going to appear, the numbers weren’t adding up for Democrats.

And that’s because of a supreme irony:

The very constitution Democrats wanted to amend with these resolutions stipulated that resolutions needed to be approved by a clear majority of those elected to each chamber — not just a majority who were seated on a given day.

In the House, it meant 36 votes would be needed to move the resolutions past the governor and onto the ballot in November for New Mexico voters to have the final say.

It proved to be a hurdle too large to overcome for Democrats.

They would need all 35 of their remaining members to vote “yes” — Reps. Sandra Jeff and Dona Irwin were iffy at best — and somehow lure at least one House Republicans to defect.

It never happened and the Democrats’ Big Three resolutions foundered.

“Am I disappointed? Absolutely,” said Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, who sponsored the early childhood/Land Grant Permanent Fund resolution. “But when you don’t have the numbers in one chamber,” it’s difficult.

The loss of Archuleta and Chavez also led to a 34-34 deadlock on a budget deal. Almost always, the budget bill originates in the House but because of the tie vote, we saw the unusual development of the Senate taking over the chore.

“I’ve never seen this before,” said 19-year Roundhouse veteran Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque. “There was one or two times when Manny Aragon was running the Senate where they came up with their own budget bill that ran alongside the House bill, but I don’t ever recall the Senate coming up with a budget bill because the House couldn’t get one.”

In the end, the budget crisis was averted but it showed how a closely divided House composition altered things.

With all 70 House seats up for grabs in November — at least theoretically, since some members will run unopposed — Republicans are dreaming of taking over the majority for the first time since 1953 — when Dwight Eisenhower won his first term.

On Monday night, Martinez campaign adviser Jay McCleskey posted on his Facebook page a story in the Washington Post that pointed to a chart showing that, since 1902, the party in the White House lost seats in legislatures in 26 of the 28 mid-term elections. “That’s worrisome for Democrats,” The Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote.

Here’s the chart from the National Conference of State Legislators:

But taking the House majority figures to be a steep climb. While House Republicans can point to a number of races they barely lost in 2012, they also squeaked out a couple of victories that could have gone the Democrats’ way.

In Rio Rancho, Rep. Paul Pacheco won his race by just 78 votes; in Doña Ana County, Rep. Terry McMillan won in a recount by a mere eight votes.

And in Silver City, Rep. Dianne Hamilton, R-Silver City, announced before the 30-day session she would run for re-election. But the 80-year-old ended up missing most of the last two weeks of the session with respiratory problems.

“I think we will increase our numbers in the House because we will put up better candidates,” House Majority Whip Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, told the Santa Fe New Mexican.

As of Monday night, two Republicans and four Democrats in the House announced they will not run for re-election, including Chavez. Archuleta has not returned phone calls from reporters for more than a month.

Whatever the individual races, this last legislative session showed just how high stakes — and impact — can be.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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