Q&A: Majority Leader Wirth discusses ethics and transparency, the budget, and Michael Sanchez

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A statue outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net

A statue outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

New Mexico’s new Senate majority leader says he will work toward bipartisan cooperation, a more predictable schedule that enhances public access to the Senate’s work, and ethics reform.

And, with New Mexico’s budget still in the red, Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, says policymakers must raise new revenues through repealing or narrowing some tax exemptions or raising taxes.

Peter Wirth

Courtesy photo

Peter Wirth

“We are in a budget crisis of historic proportions,” Wirth said.

The majority leader made his comments in an interview NMPolitics.net conducted by email — the latest in our Q&A series with people involved in New Mexico politics and government. The interview comes just before the Legislature convenes for a 60-day session on Jan. 17.

When the Legislature convenes, Wirth will replace Michael Sanchez, a Belen Democrat, as majority leader. Sanchez lost his re-election battle in November. Wirth called Sanchez “a courageous and thoughtful leader who always spoke his mind” and “understood the importance of compromise but also the need to hold firm.”

He said Sanchez will be remembered for the state’s lottery scholarship program, which he called Sanchez’s “legacy legislation.”

“It makes college education possible for tens of thousands of New Mexican kids from all backgrounds,” Wirth said.

As Wirth takes the reins from Sanchez, he also shared his ideas for improving the state’s economy and schools with NMPolitics.net. Here’s our full interview, with questions in bold and Wirth’s answers immediately following:

As the Senate’s new majority leader, you’re taking the place of Michael Sanchez, who lost his re-election contest in November. What words do you have for and about Sanchez as he leaves office?

Senator Michael Sanchez was a courageous and thoughtful leader who always spoke his mind. He loved the work of the Senate and led us in a genuinely bipartisan way. He respected the minority party and the institution as a whole.

Senator Sanchez understood the importance of compromise but also the need to hold firm. As an example, under his leadership, we fought for a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license that protects our security without discriminating against some of our residents.

Michael Sanchez’s legacy legislation is the state lottery scholarship. It makes college education possible for tens of thousands of New Mexican kids from all backgrounds.

Time after time, Senator Sanchez stood up to powerful interests. He fought to protect groundwater and clean air. He insisted that corporations pay their fair share of taxes. Michael Sanchez was a champion for our public schools, advocating for teachers, students and their parents. He stood strong to protect our civil rights even when it was difficult and unpopular at the moment.

We are going to miss him.

The Senate has a reputation for civility and bipartisan cooperation on budgetary and other difficult issues. In these polarized times, do you hope that will continue? If so, how will you help lead the Senate down that path?

The magnitude of our challenges on the state budget, jobs and schools cannot be understated. In a crisis like this, we absolutely must continue to function in a bipartisan way. I am confident the Senate can continue to lead on these fronts. I am also excited to work with the members of the House and its newly elected leaders.

New Mexico’s cultural diversity and its diversity of opinion is a strength, not a weakness. We have wide and varied perspectives in the Legislature on the important issues of the day. This helps when weighing solutions to complex problems affecting our state and society. Narrow, one-sided thinking does not generally create good laws. Being civil and respectful is the key to making the legislative process and our state government work for the people.

Sanchez exercised a great deal of control over the Senate’s agenda, committee structure, and operations. Some criticized him for using last-minute agenda changes in a way that kept other senators and the public in the dark. He was also accused of using committee assignments to kill some ethics bills and other legislation. Talk about your leadership style and how you will use your authority to set the Senate’s agenda.

I will work to find consensus positions on the big issues and challenges we face in the Legislature, whenever possible. This approach has been effective for me as a legislator. It’s the philosophy I bring from my work as a lawyer and mediator.

The committee structure and process is critical to a successful legislative body, and quite frankly, ultimately, to successful laws. Like Michael Sanchez, I will refer bills to the committees with the required expertise for the subject area. Committee chairs set agendas and analyze individual bills. It is important to remember that there are times when a bill in concept seems like a good idea but the drafting of that idea is not completely thought out in a workable way. Sometimes bills die in committee that I would prefer made it to the floor. However, there are times when it is appropriate for bills to die in committee. The legislative process is structured to let only the best consensus ideas pass.

I will do my best to start the floor session at a set time and give the Senate members and the public a roadmap for the day’s work. This means publishing a floor calendar the day before and, to the extent possible, hearing the items in the order listed. There will be times when this type of advance notice may not be possible. There also may be times when debate on bills takes more time than expected, requiring some items to be postponed. I ask that everyone be patient as we explore different approaches.

The Senate has, in the past, rejected requests to archive webcasts of its meetings so people can watch at their convenience. Do you support archived webcasting, and will you push for the Senate to implement it?

I look forward to continued debate and discussion about archiving webcasts. Since the governor has been filming and selectively archiving webcasts and the House is now archiving, having the Senate archive webcasts seems to make sense.

You’ve been working for years to try to update the state’s Campaign Reporting Act to regulate at least some nonprofit political activity and to be fully constitutional – because some provisions in the act have been ruled unconstitutional. Tell us why updating the act is important and if you think such legislation can pass the Senate in the upcoming session.

The United States Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United opened the door for unlimited third-party campaign contributions. While we cannot reign in the spending, the one thing the Court allowed states to do was require donor disclosure.

It is imperative that the Legislature pass this legislation, not only to update the unconstitutional provisions in our campaign code, but also to give voters the information they need in the voting booth to combat the onslaught of campaign money.

The bill to make this happen has passed the Senate four times, three times unanimously. The challenge will be getting it through the House and to the governor. I am optimistic that this is the year.

Do you support the creation of an independent ethics commission to set standards for conduct in government and police violations? Why or why not? What chance does such legislation have in the Senate in the upcoming session?

Yes. I have always supported an independent ethics commission and have sponsored or co-sponsored bills and joint resolutions over the years. A commission provides a necessary forum to resolve complaints. It also is a place where ethical questions and dilemmas can be addressed before mistakes are made.

What do you believe policymakers need to do in the upcoming session to address the state’s budget problems? Should the state implement policies that raise new revenue or, as Gov. Susana Martinez desires, should the state rely solely on budget cuts? If you support policies that would raise additional revenue, which, and why?

We are in a budget crisis of historic proportions. We need both immediate non-recurring dollars to fund the 2017 budget, and recurring revenue solutions for 2018.

Senate Democrats remain committed to taking the steps required to balance the budget as our state Constitution requires, but we will fight to protect key priorities like public schools, Medicaid and a functioning judicial system. Like we did in the recent special session, we will present a responsible “all of the above” plan to address both the short- and long-term budget issues.

An “all of the above” plan means new revenues are critical, actually essential, to getting the state functioning again and must be part of the discussion. Where will the new money come from? Two sources.

First, we need to repeal or narrow some of the billion dollars in tax exemptions, deductions and credits. Money saved can be used to both lower rates and build the 2018 budget.

Second, commonsense new revenue sources should not be off the table. Three examples I would support: increasing the motor vehicle excise tax, taxing internet sales, and building some progressivity back into the personal income tax code.

Long-term, it’s clear the state must diversify its economy and reduce reliance on the oil and gas industry. How do we do that?

Improving New Mexico’s economy and creating jobs are the top priorities for Senate and House Democrats. A big part of that is diversifying our economy, and protecting and strengthening the middle class.

We will continue to support legislation that provides small businesses more access to the tools they need to thrive. Small businesses and their entrepreneurs play a significant role in thriving economies.

Corporate welfare policies are not the answer. In a state like ours, we should increase renewable energy and conservation, expand creative tourism, new farming and ranching, film and digital entertainment industries, and maximize our geographical position as an international border state. These are promising areas that need to be the focus of the Legislature and the executive.

Do you support a proposal to take money from the state’s Permanent Fund for early childhood programs such as home visiting and child-care assistance? Why or why not? What chance does such legislation have in the Senate in the upcoming session?

Yes. I have supported and continue to support bold legislation to create a substantial and on-going distribution from the Permanent Fund to improve early childhood education in New Mexico. Study after study shows that investing early in our children is our best investment. It will lead to the social well-being of our residents and thereby strengthen our economy in the long-term. Currently, New Mexico ranks low nationally in all the measures of child well-being. How can we not make this critical investment in our future?

Last session, the Senate passed a joint resolution to ask the voters to increase the permanent fund distribution to 5.8 percent for K-12 education. The resolution died in the House. I am hopeful we can find a compromise that provides both additional revenue for K-12, and funding for early childhood.

The state spends a great deal of money on public education, but we arguably haven’t seen significant improvement in our system for educating our children. What do you believe the state can do to improve its public education system? 

The annual Quality Counts report, issued last week, has again ranked New Mexico 49th in educational achievement in the nation, so it is imperative on us to improve. Broadly speaking, I think we need much more emphasis on support for students, teachers and classrooms directly, and less emphasis on testing. Many other states are now moving away from the same policies that have been promoted and instituted here during the last six years because they are proving to be ineffective. To start with, there needs to be more acknowledgement of that fact.

We need to get back to basics. We can improve public education in New Mexico by focusing on proactive initiatives for smaller classes, more one-on-one tutoring for reading and math, and more time for learning for students. We also need to respect and support our teachers.

For Senate Democrats, public education is fundamental. We are committed to getting a quality education for all our children regardless of where they live or their families’ income. These are our big challenges.