Sine Die Pt. 2 – Will and a Way

February 21st, 2014 at 7:04 pm by under Latest Posts, Politics

In a hallway outside the Senate chambers a little after the Senate closed, myself and a pair of reporters were digesting the last-second frenzy before the gavel came down.

Aside from the lottery fight, the session’s final hours were mostly quiet.

But there was one nagging mystery none of us had really solved.

“What’s the deal with HJR 16 ?”

Joint resolutions, most of them constitutional amendments, have gotten an awful lot of press attention this year. Minimum wage, marijuana, gay marriage, early childhood funding and changing who runs education were all fodder for headlines either before or during the session.

All of those big proposals had two things in common. They were being pushed by one party or the other and they all failed at some point in the process.

So that’s what made HJR 16′s trip from first being filed Wednesday night to the ballot in less than 24 hours particularly interesting. Even truly non-controversial constitutional amendments get a very thorough vetting and for good reason. After all it’s not so simple to fix a mistake in the state constitution once voters put it there.

But in the Senate, HJR 16 was introduced, removed from the President’s table and voted in through in a span of approximately two minutes.

That being said, the constitutional amendment’s background and history makes its rapid pace easy to understand.

In fact I covered HJR 16 on this blog when it was known by a different name, SJR 4. The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Tim Keller, D-Albuquerque, was backed by the State Investment Council and significantly changes where the $13 billion land grant permanent fund can be invested. Right now the SIC is handcuffed by a constitutional provision that limits the amount of that critical endowment that can be in international investments to 15 percent.

In HVEC testimony, the SIC said that can limit the growth in an investment fund that pays out hundreds of millions of dollars a year because parts of the international economy are growing at a faster rate than the US economy.

The idea sailed through the Senate 26-1, but ran into trouble in HVEC when Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, successfully added on an amendment that allowed the SIC to increase distributions out of the land grant permanent fund from 5 percent to 5.5 percent starting after July 2016. Although the fund pays out 5.5 percent a year right now, that’s set to drop to 5 percent after FY 2016 ends a little more than two years from now.

Many Democrats who have eyed the fund as a potential source of revenue for education and early child problems citing the need to boost results, while Republicans and some fiscally conservative Democrats say the better way to go is to let the permanent fund grow going forward and not “raid” it.

SJR 4′s House sponsor Rep. Larry Larranaga, R-Albuquerque, was hopping mad. After losing a floor fight aimed at amending his bill back, Larranaga pulled the item from discussion. In the hallways he could be heard asking if Martinez’s amendment was truly legal or not.

It was a moot point because SJR 4 failed 34-32. In all fairness, the increased distribution option in the amendment likely would have killed the proposal in the Senate too.

Sen. Keller was caught in the middle of a House dispute he didn’t create over what had been a mostly non-controversial idea. Time was running out and both the SIC and Keller worried that the land grant permanent fund could miss out on millions in investment growth if the amendment didn’t make it onto the ballot before sine die.

So Keller reversed course and introduced HJR 16 at the last second together with House Majority Whip Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque. The new amendment rolled back almost all of the House changes. The only change was an increased safety valve of sorts that cuts land grant fund distributions if the market crashes and the fund’s value drops too much. Without getting too technical, the cutoff number in the constitution for a five year average is $5.8 billion. The amendment ups that floor to $10 billion.

HJR 16 sailed through the House without opposition, but nearly died due to the drama over the lottery scholarship overhaul. It came up immediately after the Senate concurred on the lottery bill. Keller and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, sped through the needed motions and by necessity, Keller kept his debate very brief.

“This is a bill we’ve put on before, we need to get this out of here,” Keller urgently and quickly insisted.

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, called the question and a quick vote later Keller got through the last of the frenzied formalities. HJR 16 went through to the ballot on another quick vote and the Senate adjourned sine die immediately after.

The whole scene was reminiscent of the massive session-saving tax deal that got slammed through the House at the buzzer (or a minute or so after) last year. HJR 16′s passage shows that if there’s enough political buy-in on an issue, enough political will, a way can be found regardless of how much or how little time is left on the Roundhouse clock.

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Coming up in Sine Die Pt. 3, a more detailed look at what the Legislature got to Governor Martinez’s desk and voters at the 2014 session and some stats.

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