Five down, more than 60 still to go.
That is how many of Gov. Susana Martinez’s university regents and appointees to various government boards are still awaiting a confirmation hearing before the state Senate Rules Committee after a Tuesday meeting at the Capitol.
As in years past, the long list and slow pace of the confirmation process is likely to be a source of friction between the outgoing governor and top Democratic legislators during the 30-day session that begins next month.
The confirmation process is a key part of the state government’s system of checks and balances, giving lawmakers an opportunity to question and even remove officials in the governor’s administration.
And some of the picks awaiting confirmation, such as university regents, could draw particular scrutiny.
But the governor’s staff have accused the Senate of stalling her appointees, slowing the process and accumulating a pile of nominations awaiting a vote.
The Rules Committee, which is responsible for vetting appointees and giving each a hearing, met Tuesday to consider five nominations — approving each without dissent and sending them to a vote in the Senate as soon as the Legislature convenes.
Sixty-nine appointees to various boards are awaiting confirmation, according to the governor’s office.
How far the Senate will get through its list of dozens of pending appointees remains unclear.
“This is a deliberative process,” said state Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, which is responsible for vetting appointees and giving each a hearing. “These are decisions we make on behalf of the people of New Mexico and it has to be a thoughtful process.”
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The process is often noncontroversial. The Senate regularly approves the governor’s appointees without opposition. Most are picks for low-key positions, such as spots on the boards of state museums and arcane bodies such as the Hospital Equipment Loan Council or the Bioscience Authority.
And in the meantime, appointees can usually serve without having been confirmed. But the Senate has also used the confirmation process as an opportunity to raise objections to the governor’s agenda.
The governor’s spokespeople were mum Tuesday on whether she will push for the Senate to confirm Public Education Department Secretary Chris Ruszkowski. The confirmation of his predecessor, Hanna Skandera, turned into a showdown over the governor’s education policy.
Ruszkowski, who Martinez appointed over the summer, may not touch off such an intense partisan fight. But if the Senate takes up his confirmation, it could still be an opportunity for Democrats — and perhaps some Republicans — to challenge Martinez on her administration’s management of the state’s schools.
Some boards whose members require Senate confirmation also can land at the center of controversy. The New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board, for example, sets training standards for police — a hot topic in an age when abuse and brutality by some officers is under particular scrutiny. And because a certain number of its board members must be miners, appointments to the state Miners’ Hospital can be contentious.
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Still, the Democrat-controlled Senate has only rejected one of the Republican governor’s appointees — political confidant Matt Chandler, who Martinez had tapped for a seat on The University of New Mexico Board of Regents.
But some Republicans have argued Democrats are stalling on other confirmations as the governor’s term enters its final year in order to allow her successor to more easily fill those seats after taking office.
The pace of the confirmation process touched off a fight between the governor and the Senate earlier this year.
By March, as the 60-day legislative session neared its end, 76 appointees were still awaiting confirmation.
In frustration, the governor yanked 53 appointees from the confirmation process, leaving the Senate to act on what she described as priorities — heads of government departments, university regents and members of boards with control over state investments.
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Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, wrote to the governor’s office asking for clarification about whether the appointees would continue to serve even after she pulled them from the confirmation process.
But Lopez said Tuesday that the governor never responded.
So as far as the Senate is concerned, the appointees are still awaiting confirmation, Lopez said.
The governor’s office has accused Senate Democrats of dodging their constitutional responsibility.
“At this point, it’s pretty clear why they are never able to get anything done — they’re more interested in playing petty political games than fulfilling their constitutional role,” Emilee Cantrell, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an email.
Other Republicans have suggested overhauling the confirmation process by holding more Rules Committee hearings in between sessions (Tuesday’s was the first and last of what is known as the interim).
Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, has also suggested spreading out confirmation hearings between various committees that might have expertise on appointee’s particular fields.
Regardless, Moores said Tuesday: “It behooves us to take care of our constitutional responsibility.”
Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.
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