By Jerry Ortiz y Pino
— When the press discussed the state Senate president pro tem election that just took place, it was usually from a “sports page” perspective: who won (Sen. Mary Kay Papen—and therefore the governor); who lost (Sen. Pete Campos—and therefore the Democrats in the Senate); what was the final score (who knows? Campos threw in the towel without a vote being taken). Ultimately, Papen’s victory was described as a “coalition” stratagem through which a small number of conservative Democrats were able to convince every single Republican to join them in backing her.
Even the political bloggers and editorial writers who attempted a more in-depth analysis tended to look at the story from similar angles: What does Sen. Papen’s election reveal about who will wield the real power in the Senate? What does it say about the governor’s agenda and its chances for passage? What does it mean for Majority Leader Sen. Michael Sanchez’ influence over the rambunctious Democratic caucus in the future? All are variations on the “winners and losers” theme.
I’d like to explore a different way of looking at the pro tem selection, viewing it as a symptom of another sort of division within the Legislature. This division is far more basic and more critical than those of party affiliation, the liberal-conservative spectrum or the relative levels of political intimacy with the governor and her staff enjoyed by members. I’d suggest that what drives most action in the New Mexico Legislature is this state’s most primitive dichotomy: rural interests vs. urban interests.
I can identify four major areas in which Papen’s election solidifies the hegemony of the sparsely populated rural parts of the state over the metropolitan mid-Rio cluster that stretches from Rio Rancho to Belen. (That 50-mile-long corridor is where half of New Mexico’s total population can be found.) The four are: budget, infrastructure spending, water and education. Those issues represent almost all the major decisions about the next year and the next decade in New Mexico that lawmakers will be making during this session.
And now the deck is stacked against an equitable allocation of resources between the city half of the state and the country half.
The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee is arguably the most powerful legislator of the 112, given his position of influence over the ultimate content of the general fund budget. Sen. John Arthur Smith holds this position. It is widely reported that Sen. Smith was facing the remote possibility of losing his chairmanship if the choice of the Democratic caucus, Campos, took over as pro tem—which led Smith to organize the coalition effort.
Now Smith is securely in charge of the Finance Committee. Who loses when the budget choices between city needs and rural needs are made by a committee stacked for our country cousins? Deming sets the agenda, and the Duke City routinely gets the short end of the stick.
On infrastructure, it is a similar picture: Decisions about spending severance tax and general obligation bonds regularly ignore the needs of half the state’s population in favor of spending vastly larger amounts on the far-flung hamlets, chapter houses and colonias sprinkled across the hills, valleys and plains of this enormous state. Those decisions, like the budget, are shaped largely by the Senate Finance Committee, whose members are keenly aware of rural New Mexico’s needs—and envious of Albuquerque and Rio Rancho’s apparent prosperity.
Water will be the battleground on which New Mexico’s rural-urban divide gets fought most ferociously. The dwindling supply of this most essential resource in our desert and drought-afflicted state is already pitting agricultural demands against those of industry and the fast-growing populations in the mid-Rio plex. We just redistricted the Legislature, so it will be another 10 years before the urban region gets another shot at equalizing the balance of power.
Until then, the rural coalition that continued its control of the Senate this year will probably manage to retain its imbalanced influence. And until then, we can expect to see a continued misallocation of educational resources away from the urban core (and CNM, UNM and APS) and out to the higher education institutions in the hinterlands and school districts in rural New Mexico. Many of those districts each serve fewer total students than a single elementary school in Albuquerque. And among the higher ed institutions, UNM and CNM together have vastly more students enrolled than any other institution in the state. But neither APS nor our local community college and university are getting equitable budgetary treatment.
Who controls New Mexico? Small towns and rural interests. Who are the losers? Anyone living in the metro Albuquerque area. Papen’s election insures that rural control of the Legislature will continue for another four years.
Jerry Ortiz y Pino is serving as state senator for District 12 in the New Mexico Legislature—essentially downtown Albuquerque, the historic neighborhoods that surround it, the UNM campus area and a portion of the South Valley. A retired social worker, he spent his entire 42-year professional career in New Mexico, working in private and public agencies in seven different cities in the state.