Missing NM Democrats could swing House power to GOP

MISSING IN ACTION: Rep. Phillip Archuleta, D-Las Cruces, and Rep. Ernest Chavez, D-Albuquerque, may miss sizeable portions of the New Mexico legislative session due to illnesses.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. – Normally, when the legislative session is about to kick off in Santa Fe, the talk centers on what legislation will take center stage.

But two Democrats in the New Mexico House of Representatives were n0-shows on opening day of the 30-day legislative session that convened Tuesday due to illnesses and House leadership isn’t sure when the two may report to Santa Fe.

An extended absence by either representative could mean a fundamental shift in power from House Democrats to Republicans.

Rep. Phillip Archuleta, D-Las Cruces, a 64-year-old retired Department of Workforce Solutions administrator, is recovering from hip surgery and Rep. Ernest Chavez, D-Albuquerque, who turns 77 next month and has served for 10 years in the House, is out with an undisclosed illness.

Democrats hold a slim 37-33 edge on Republicans. If two Democrats are out, the lead shrinks to 35-33, which would mean it would take one Democrat to break ranks and vote with the GOP to create a tie in a floor vote.

If two Democrats side with the GOP, Republicans — should they vote as a bloc — would have a de facto majority.

Such a scenario could place two Democrats into crucial positions as swing votes. Rep. Sandra Jeff, D-Crownpoint, is a maverick Democrat, and Rep. Dona Irwin, D-Deming, is a conservative Democrat. Both have a history of voting with Republicans.

Legislative rules require that members must be physically present to cast votes in committee meetings and on the chamber’s floor.

Speaker of the House W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, downplayed what the potential loss of two Democrats in the House could mean throughout the session.

“Ninety percent of what we do is not a political calculus but a policy calculus,” Martinez said.

But Martinez conceded that without Chavez or Archuleta sitting in committee hearings, “There will be more even (numbered) committees and some committees with a functional Republican majority.”

That would be something rare in the Roundhouse. Republicans have not had a majority of the House since 1953.

According to the Legislature’s official website, Chavez sits on the influential House Taxation and Revenue Committee — which is composed of seven Democrats and seven Republicans — and House Transportation and Public Works Committee which has five Democrats and five Republicans. So, if Chavez is missing and all the Republicans show up, the GOP will have a majority in those two committees.

Archuleta sits on the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee — five Democrats, five Republicans — House Labor and Human Resources five Democrats, four Republicans — and the House Enabling and Engrossing — four Democrats, three Republicans. So if Archuleta is missing and all the Republicans show up, the GOP will have a majority in the agriculture committee and a tie in the influential labor committee.

Rep. Nate Gentry, D-Albuquerque and Republican House Whip, wouldn’t speculate on what impact an extended absence by Chavez or Archuleta may have on the upcoming session.

“My biggest concern is their health,” Gentry told New Mexico Watchdog on Monday. “I hope both representatives recover quickly and participate in the session … We’re planning on having them here.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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