SANTA FE — State legislators begin a 60-day session on Tuesday only 10 weeks after a bitter and bruising election in which Gov. Susana Martinez fought hard to defeat many of them.
How well the Republican governor can work with the Democrat-controlled Legislature is more of a question mark than ever as Martinez begins her third year in office.
State Sen. Timothy Keller, D-Albuquerque, said compromise was possible, but Martinez would have to invite it.
"This is the last opportunity in her first term for her to form relationships with the Legislature," he said. "In the past she's taken the approach that it's my agenda, my way or the highway."
Keller said the 60-day session, the longest that New Mexico allows, presents an opportunity for Martinez to consider the Legislature's ideas and for it to reciprocate.
At a recent news conference, Martinez downplayed the idea that lingering hard feelings might exist between her and Democrats in the Legislature.
She said elections are always competitive and the last one was no different. Moreover, no governor can expect to get everything she wants from a legislature, especially a governor whose party is not in power, Martinez said.
In terms of a bottom line, Martinez's proposed state budget of $5.88 billion is nearly identical to the recommendation of the Legislative Finance Committee. But the committee vice chairman, Rep. Lucky Varela, D-Santa Fe, said there nonetheless is a gulf between what the governor wants and what his panel thinks is fair.
Martinez, for instance, disagrees with the legislative committee that state employees should receive an across-the-board pay raise. Varela's committee is recommending a 1 percent increase.
The governor said that, with families struggling and uncertainty on federal funding for programs crucial to New Mexico's economy, the time is not right for state employees to receive a pay raise.
"When is the right time?" Varela said in response. "They haven't had a raise in four years."
He also said he was concerned about Martinez's proposal to reduce the corporate income tax rate from 7.6 percent to 4.9 percent over three years. She said the change was necessary to make New Mexico more competitive in recruiting and retaining businesses.
Varela estimated the cuts would reduce state revenues by $45 million annually. He said he spoke Friday to Martinez's chief of staff about closing various tax loopholes and exemptions to offset the money lost from such a tax cut, but did not know if the governor would be receptive.
She opposes any tax increase, and ending exemptions could be seen as just that. Varela said the Legislature could take the lead on tightening tax loopholes as a project of its own, thereby giving Martinez political cover if she wanted it.
Martinez also could be at odds with legislators on her education platform, such as instituting merit pay for teachers and state-ordered retention of third-graders who are in the bottom tier on reading proficiency.
A harbinger of how combative the session could be may involve Hanna Skandera, Martinez's designate for secretary of public education.
Skandera has been running the education department for two years, never having received a confirmation hearing from the Senate Rules Committee. If the Democrat majority in the Senate moves against her this time, gridlock may occur on other education initiatives and even other proposals.
Skandera, 39, has never been a teacher or principal. Martinez imported her as a reformer who could take an underachieving school system and make it better.
In an interview, Skandera said she had no idea whether she would get a confirmation hearing this year. She said she came to New Mexico to improve schools and that was her only concern.
Predicting what the 112-member Legislature might do on any issue is especially difficult this year because of heavy turnover.
Twenty newcomers were elected to the 70-member state House of Representatives. Fifteen freshmen will take seats in the 42-member Senate.
Democrats control the House 38-32. Their advantage in the Senate is 25-17.
Before the election, Martinez predicted that Republicans would win a majority in the House for the first time since 1953, but they actually lost ground. Many of the Democrat newcomers were the target of negative ads run by Martinez's political organizations.
Martinez's camp also tried but failed to defeat the Senate majority leader, Democrat Michael Sanchez of Belen. Sanchez is the single most powerful legislator because he controls what bills reach the Senate floor for votes.
He said his door was open to Martinez for discussions on legislation.
"Compromise isn't a bad word. Working with Democrats isn't a bad thing," Sanchez said.
In even-numbered years, the Legislature meets for only 30 days and its concentration is on the state budget. With the longer session this year, legislators have a better chance on bills with singular topics.
Lawmakers had pre-filed about 110 bills as of Friday, everything from spending $300,000 for an international robot competition to treating battle-weary veterans with virtual reality therapy.
Freshman Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said he had bills on election nominations and other issues ready but could not file them early because of his status as a newcomer.
Candelaria, 26, is the youngest New Mexico legislator. Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell, another freshman, is 27.
Pirtle in the fall election defeated Democrat Tim Jennings, who was a senator for 33 years and was president pro tem of the chamber. Martinez targeted Jennings for defeat, and his ouster was one of her few successes in the 2012 election.
Martinez said she was ready to work with either of the Democrats, Sens. Pete Campos of Las Vegas or Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, likely to succeed Jennings as president pro tem.
Varela said he would have a better idea of how cooperative the session would be after hearing the governor's state of the state address. She will deliver it Tuesday afternoon before both houses of the Legislature.