NM education boss, despised by teachers unions, to have confirmation hearing
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE, N.M. — The debate over the confirmation of Hanna Skandera as Public Education Department Secretary turned into a soap opera last year, and it may become even more dramatic.
A decision figures to be forthcoming.
Painted as an effective agent for change by her supporters and demonized as a dangerous bureaucrat by critics, Skandera is expected to receive a verdict from the Senate Rules Committee in the current 30-day session, which will be followed by a Senate floor vote that will determine if she is sworn in as secretary.
CONFIRMATION CONTROVERSY CONTINUES THIS SESSION: Hanna Skandera, left, confers with Sen. Stuart Ingle at her confirmation hearing last March.
But the process promises to be politically explosive, and New Mexico Watchdog has learned Roundhouse Democrats and Republicans are still debating about what would happen if the Senate vote on Skandera ends in a tie.
Here’s a look at the key questions surrounding the upcoming debate:
What’s the background?
Skandera has been on the job for three years and, since she has not been confirmed, carried the title of “secretary-designate” while carrying out public education reform measures championed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
When will the confirmation hearing be held?
State Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, chairs the Senate Rules Committee, where cabinet-level appointees appear for confirmation hearings. Lopez told New Mexico Watchdog on Wednesday morning she anticipates Skandera’s hearing “will not be this week, probably the next week — possibly.”
Lopez has been a harsh critic of Martinez and happens to be running for governor, part of a field of five candidates who will face off in June in the Democratic Party primary, with the winner taking on Martinez in November.
Can the Skandera nomination be killed in the Rules Committee?
Lopez says the committee has three options: A “do pass” on the Skandera nomination to the full Senate, a “do not pass” or a “no recommendation.”
Even if the committee, which is made up of six Democrats and four Republicans, votes in favor of a “do not pass” on Skandera, the motion is purely a recommendation and the nominee’s name is then sent to the full Senate for a vote.
What will happen in the Senate?
Since the Senate is made up of 25 Democrats and 17 Republicans, Skandera figures to face an uphill climb. If all 17 Republicans voted for her, it would take five Democrats to vote in her favor to get the Skandera nomination to pass 22-20.
If Skandera gets 22 votes or more, the process is over and she will be confirmed. But expect various teachers unions across the state to pressure Democrats to vote against the 40-year-old nominee who, along with the governor, is unpopular with them.
What happens if the Senate vote is tied?
Aye, that’s the rub.
Normally, a tie in the Senate is broken by the lieutenant governor, who is John Sanchez, a Republican, who is sure to vote for Skandera. But Lopez and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, told New Mexico Watchdog they contend the lieutenant governor is only entitled to cast a tie-breaking vote on legislative issues, not confirmations.
“Does he have that right?” Lopez said. “We would say no.”
“He cannot,” Michael Sanchez said. “It’s not a legislative issue, and he’s not a member of the Senate.”
But Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, says that’s a matter for debate.
“There’s nothing that says he cannot,” Ingle said. “It would lead to a challenge (on the floor).”
That could mean a divisive — and extended — debate.
Longtime Roundhouse veterans cannot recall the last time a confirmation vote ended in a tie.
What happens if Skandera loses the Senate floor vote?
She cannot be sworn in as secretary of PED.
But that doesn’t mean the governor would have to get rid of her. Theoretically, Martinez could give Skandera another title — such as assistant secretary or deputy secretary or special adviser of education to the governor — and Skandera can continue running the PED as de facto secretary.
So why even have all this drama?
“It’s a matter of principle,” said Majority Leader Sanchez, who has clashed with Martinez virtually from the moment she was sworn in as governor.
Sanchez points to the New Mexico Constitution that says the PED must be a “qualified, experienced educator.”
Skandera was never a classroom teacher. Before coming to New Mexico, Skandera worked as a senior policy adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and was a deputy commissioner for Florida’s Department of Education under then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
“She does not meet the qualifications by even the farthest reach of how you stretch the constitution,” Sanchez said. “We should follow our constitution. So I don’t think it’s a matter of futility. I think it’s principle that we should stand on.”
“The constitution does not say ‘qualified K-12 teacher,’ ” Skandera supporter Terri Cole of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce said at last year’s confirmation hearing. “Hanna Skandera is a qualified educator.”
Skandera supporters also point out that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has no classroom experience, either.
State Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, recently suggested not having a hearing on Skandera at all this session. Instead, Smith says the Senate should postpone it until next year and see if Martinez is re-elected as governor.
Will Skandera get confirmed?
Ingle, who sponsored Skandera and sat next to her during three days of scorching criticism from opponents at last year’s Rules Committee hearing, thinks Skandera will make it.
“If (Democrats opposed to Skandera) were confident they could defeat her, they would have had the vote long before now,” Ingle said.
Sanchez was cagey. “You think it will be close?” he asked a reporter. “I think you’re right.”
Contact Rob Nikolewski at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski
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