Sine Die Pt. 1 – Harper’s GambleFebruary 21st, 2014 at 2:32 am by Alex Goldsmith under N.M. Politics, News
“I probably won’t be able to ever get a bill through the Senate again,” said a beaming Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho.
If the cheery mood and the tough reality of what Rep. Harper’s words entail seem contradictory, you probably weren’t watching the last two hours of the legislative session.
After all, Harper and the House had prevailed in a risky battle with the Senate and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen… one that could have a major effect going forward on both policy and politics.
The full story behind what became a last second game of chicken over a major lottery solvency fix is complicated and dates back 18 years.
In 1996, Sen. Sanchez was wrapping up his first term as a Senator. He introduced SB 31, the bill that established the lottery scholarship program. From the beginning, he was a key architect for a scholarship fund that has benefitted more than 90,000 students. In a sense, this is his baby.
It’s also paying out more money in scholarships than the fund is taking in. With tuition costs rising rapidly, a fix absolutely had to get done this year to prevent the Higher Education Department from having discretion of where to make cuts.
Sanchez’s key role and interest in the program is why out of nearly a dozen different proposals on the table, it’s not surprising that his bill to shore up the lottery scholarship fund is the one the Senate rallied around and passed 31-11. That proposal, as reported, does a whole lot of things. It spends $22.5 million from the general fund this fiscal year and next. It also reduces the number of semesters the scholarship is offered to 7 and ups the credit hours students need to take to qualify to 15.
On those parts of the package there seemed to be a consensus, however another piece drew Republican complaints while another element had bipartisan opposition and sent the student governments of UNM and NMSU into a tizzy.
SB 347 taps the liquor tax fund as a revenue source in FY 16. You can imagine why Republicans might not like that philosophically.
But “front-loading” had significant opposition. Pitched as a way to guarantee students stick with school, “front-loading” would’ve guaranteed full funding for students for the first two years of college and forced any needed reductions on juniors and seniors. Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, and Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho.
There was someone who probably had good reason to like it even less. And that’s where Representative Harper enters the story.
The week before, Harper’s HB 263 had gained broad support in the House, passing 65-1. It took a simple approach to the problem. HB 263 avoided all the fights about making the scholarship more merit-based or needs-based and proposed the ultimate long-term fix. HED would be directed to take the amount of money in the fund and the number of students eligible and divide the two. If full tuition couldn’t be covered, HED would have to cut scholarship awards across the board and evenly.
But HB 263 simply wouldn’t move in the Senate. The message the House was sent was that SB 347 is the deal you need to take, we’re not hearing anything else. So Harper set to work on a comprehensive amendment, one that would replace “front-loading” with his across-the-board fix and sunset the liquor tax distribution after two years.
Even late into Wednesday it was clear negotiations were ongoing, but House Democrats were led to believe that if SB 347 was amended in any way that there would be a fight and that the Senate would not back down. That left the House two options with time running out. One, don’t touch the bill and fight to fix it next session. Two, amend the bill and risk nothing getting done in time, putting funding and the rest of the package in jeopardy.
House Democratic leadership appeared to be satisfied enough to take the former path and not test Sen. Sanchez.
But as has happened many times this session, the majority’s control over their caucus has been far from absolute. House Republicans and Harper spotted a golden opportunity to take advantage of this once again.
With less than 90 minutes before sine die, SB 347 came to the floor and Harper came prepared with his amendment. Democrats lined up to oppose it in an unusual debate. There was universal praise for Harper’s work on the lottery solvency problem. The arguments against the amendment were not that it was bad policy. In fact, Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces acknowledged he believed the opposite.
“I really want to support your amendment,” McCamley said. “I feel it’s the right thing to do.”
But the opposition was based solely on taking the sure thing rather than a dicey proposition.
“It’s leaving me in a pretty good meat grinder over here,” McCamley said.
“I feel my choice isn’t between the bill and your amendment,” said House Majority Whip Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque. “But between your bill and nothing.”
“There’s plenty of time,” said Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan. “We’ve seen things get done in the last minute here.”
Rep. Rick Miera, D-Albuquerque moved to table the Harper amendment with close to an hour left before sine die.
And that’s when Harper made a closing speech that was courageous or unnecessarily antagonistic or both. In any case it was a powerful statement.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the House, I want to just come straight out and be completely honest with all of you. We all agree this is the right course of action… But the reason that we’re hesitant is because there’s a particular member of the Senate who has a lot of control who’s putting a lot of pressure on us not to touch his bill. And I know by standing up here right now that I’m probably never get another bill out of the Senate… Right?
Now Ladies and Gentlemen of the House, you all have a very important vote ahead of you right now, one that will define how we as a House interact with the Senate; one that defines how we as a House treat our university and college students. I’m telling you all right now that if you all vote to add this amendment that it will go to the Senate and say with a loud voice, ‘This is the will of the House of Representatives, not the will of the Republicans or the Democrats.’ …
… This is not the Republican lottery scholarship bill or the Democrat lottery scholarship bill, this is the Legislative lottery scholarship bill and I implore you members to vote what you know is right; that we send a loud message, that all of us vote for this amendment and send it over there and then they will concur. Or we can all worry that we’re not going to get our bills heard on the Senate floor because we’re going to tick off the Senate floor leader.
And so ladies and gentlemen of the House I ask you to do what is right, to put politics aside and do what’s right for the students and what’s right for our children. And with that Mr. Speaker, I close.
That speech came before the decisive moment. If Democrats held together and the amendment was tabled, there was nothing to fight for and the unamended bill would likely be approved soon after. If Republicans picked off just two Democrats, the amendment would go on and the ball would be back in the Senate’s court.
Whether it was the policy question or Harper’s rallying cry, Republicans got more than two. The vote tally was 36-29. Republicans Tom Taylor and Jimmie Hall sat out the vote. Democrats Doreen Gallegos, Dona Irwin, Sandra Jeff, Patricia Roybal Caballero, Jeff Steinborn and Christine Trujillo all broke ranks to keep the amendment alive.
The next vote to adopt the amendment, was an even more decisive 41-25 and just like that the House had effectively called the Senate’s bluff.
Soon after, the bill’s House sponsor Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, seemed to signal Sanchez didn’t want to fight over this any more.
“The sponsor in the Senate would like us to immediately precede to a vote on the amended bill,” Egolf said.
And the House slammed SB 347 through 66-1 with an hour left until sine dine.
After the session ended, Sen. Sanchez told a group of reporters that concurring was a no-brainer, that he wouldn’t let his ego get in the way of a bill so vital to kids across the state.
But whether it was a desire to better understand the amendment, paperwork issues or maybe a slight desire to make the House sweat a little, Sen. Sanchez waited until the last five minutes to take up accepting the House amendments on his bill,
Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, came with a fiery response to Harper’s speech, railing against what he saw as an overly simply fix to a complicated problem and then lashing out at Harper himself.
In the House of Representatives today Mr. President, during debate, the sponsor of the amendment on the floor implored the House to support the amendment because it would send a message to the majority leader of this body… that the vote on that amendment was personal and that it was a rejection of the work of the majority leader of the Senate.
And in this chamber and in the opposite chamber, Mr. President, we should make decisions not based on whether we want to punish somebody or send a message to somebody but because it’s in the best interest of the state of New Mexico, Mr. President. So it is a sad day when in the opposite chamber the sponsor of the amendment asked the legislature to pass law not based on policy but to send a message to the majority leader of this chamber and it is a sad for the New Mexico Senate. Thank you, Mr. President.
Sen. Sapien came to Sen. Sanchez’s defense too, asking people not to make things like this personal.
But after that the question was put and on a voice vote with two minutes left, the amendments were agreed to and SB 347 with both Sen. Sanchez’s and Rep. Harper’s fingerprints on it.
It’s a big policy change, but it also is an early salvo in what could be a very interesting battle between the Senate and House come next session. We’ll see if Rep. Harper will be back to fight it. He had about 53 percent of the vote in 2012.
Regardless of his political future, Rep. Harper made his stamp on the 2014 legislative session and stole the spotlight with a bold but risky move. Remember this in 2015.
Coming up in Sine Die Pt. 2, I look at a last-second constitutional amendment’s strange path onto the November ballot.