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JOHN ARTHUR SMITH

Smith: Legislature’s collegiality, frugality at risk

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Progressives have sent the state’s legislative power base back to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, State Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming said, as he ponders life outside the political arena.

Smith, who has represented state Senate District 35 (Luna, Hidalgo, Sierra and Doña Ana counties) for 32 years and is chair of the Senate Finance Committee, lost in the June Democratic primary. So did state Senate President Pro-Tem Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, who has held the District 38 (Doña Ana County) Senate seat for 20 years.

The losses mean the leadership positions Smith and Papen hold likely will go to senators from northern New Mexico, said Smith, who is the longest-serving Democrat and second most senior member of the legislature. Funding for projects in southern New Mexico will also decline as a result of the loss of seniority, he said, and the legislature will lose some of its institutional memory on the state budget, the state lottery, workers’ compensation and other issues.

Smith said he and other conservative Democrats who are leaving the legislature are concerned the Senate’s bipartisanship may not continue.

“The New Mexico State Senate has been a pretty pleasant place to serve,” Smith said. “The system is based on trust. We had a lot of trust with each other. We communicated.”

Smith led the Senate Finance Committee through the most difficult financial times “the state has ever seen,” he said.

“I’ve guarded the Permanent Fund,” Smith said, referring to the Land Grant Permanent Fund established when New Mexico became a state in 1912 and has grown into one of the largest funds of its kind in the country. The $20-plus billion fund generated $784.2 million for public schools, universities and other beneficiaries in FY20, according to the State Investment Council.

“We’re sent up there to make the system work,” Smith said, “and you’ve got to pay for it.”

Calling himself “a fiscally responsible Democrat,” Smith said he hasn’t always been popular, even in his own party, because of some of his budget decisions. “Sometimes you have to say ‘no,’” he said.

Thanks to budget cuts made during the June 2020 special session, next year’s legislature will have more than $2 billion in reserves to help deal with state budget shortfalls resulting from the pandemic, Smith said.

Smith said he is concerned because of New Mexico’s continued dependence on oil and gas revenues, which make up about 40 percent of the state’s general fund.

“We’ve got to come up with a more reliable revenue stream,” Smith said.

Oil and gas production has dropped because of COVID-19, he said, and won’t recover “until the airlines start flying.” It could be further reduced if fracking on federal lands is phased out, Smith said, and, likely will decline as the country moves away from fossil fuels.

Smith said the legislature also “has got to protect local businesses” as the pandemic continues. “Retail is dying,” he said, and that will impact local governments reliant on gross receipts tax generated by local business to pay for emergency services, law enforcement and other services.

“The public wants it,” Smith said about recreational marijuana, adding that if the legislature legalizes it in 2021, it might generate $30 million for the state, at most.  

“Let’s see what the feds are going to do,” Smith said, noting that recreational marijuana use remains prohibited by the federal government. Smith said he continues to be concerned about the health implications of medical marijuana use, which is legal in New Mexico.

Smith said the things he’s most proud of during his service in the Senate include sponsoring full-day kindergarten in New Mexico, serving on the state’s workers’ compensation reform committee and helping to create the state’s Early Childhood Trust Fund.

Among the things he will miss most, Smith included his friends in Santa Fe and especially the “young, bright staff at the Legislative Finance Committee.”

Smith said he is proud that he only missed one day of service – he was attending a funeral in Deming – during the more than 30 regular and special sessions he attended throughout his Senate career.

“That record goes unmatched,” he said.

Smith said he never left the Senate floor to avoid a vote on any issue.

“If I wasn’t there, I was excused,” Smith said, often to work on the state budget. Smith said he was, however, careful not to vote on legislation affecting property appraisals, because that is his profession.

“I voted my convictions,” Smith said, “not what polled well vs. what did not poll well.”