Former state House representative Robert "Bobby" Gonzales was selected by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to take the District 6 Senate seat in the New Mexico Legislature.
Gonzales spoke with Taos News reporter Doug Cantwell about his new Senate experience in the 2020 legislative session:
Robert "Bobby" Gonzales was selected by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to take the District 6 Senate seat in the New Mexico Legislature. Before his December 2019 appointment to the Senate, Gonzales had represented District 42 in the House since 1995. Although having many years of experience as a lawmaker in the House, Gonzales made his debut appearance on the Senate floor for the 2020 legislative session.
Was the Senate a different experience from the House?
There are pros and cons to both sides. In the Senate you're working with fewer members, which is nice, and it's a more mature age group. We do some late nights, but not as many as in the House, which is very hard on the members. They have three-hour debates on every bill, so it's not very productive.
For my part, I knew all the senators, and about half of them had asked me to apply for it [the appointment to fill the late Senator Carlos Cisneros' seat], so it was a warm and smooth transition.
There was one thing I hadn't experienced on the House side. Once House Bill 2 [the overall 2020 appropriations bill] crosses over to the Senate side, you have a lot of agencies and individuals wanting to add amendments. Everyone claims they don't have enough money for their program or agency and wants to tack their request onto the Senate version of the bill.
Another thing I found very interesting was all the confirmations of political appointees. It's a big part of what the Senate does. Listening to all the credentials of these individuals, you really get to know who they are.
You sit on the Finance Committee, which is pretty powerful. Do you feel that this puts you in a good position as far as having influence in the Senate?
Most definitely, and even though it's my first year as a Senator, I come in with a lot of experience. That's something no one can take away from you.
Several of the bills you introduced were aimed at looking after local Taos interests. Did any of those get passed?
Several of them came close, but we did get Senate Bill 216 passed, the one for the 50-year celebration of Blue Lake [when historic possession was returned to Taos Pueblo]. We got both the memorial and the legislation plus the Senate Finance amendment to HB 2.
Another one that came very close [SB 260] would've enabled the gross receipts tax to support the water and sanitation districts. It got stalled out on the House calendar. It's tough getting things through in a 30-day session.
Weren't there a lot of bills that suffered that fate this session?
One thing I'm glad of is that we passed SB 3 [the Early Childhood Education and Care Fund] instead of dipping into the Permanent Fund. Coming from an education background, I know how badly we needed the funding, but taking from the Permanent Fund wasn't the answer. With this special Early Childhood fund, we're starting with $320 million, and there's an additional $300 million that will go into it as well. Next year, we can put in a little bit more. That leaves the Permanent Fund where it should be - and doing what it's supposed to do.
Another one is the state retirement plan, which has been having solvency problems. We were able to put an infusion of $75 million into it, which is definitely going to help. We also passed a health care act, which I co-sponsored from the House side. It helps all state employees and education employees negotiate for better medical insurance.
What about the issue of taxing agricultural land?
I've had a lot of constituents very concerned about losing the agricultural status of their land. So we had a big discussion with the secretary of Taxation and Revenue, and she's open to coming up with different tiers of taxing. Instead of going from agricultural to the high tax level, there would be some in-between steps before you get to that one. We set aside funding for a one-year study to work out the details.
Which key bills did you vote for?
You know, I supported the gun bill [SB 5, the Extreme Risk Firearm Protection Order Act or "red flag law"] and I did last year, too. We have to start somewhere to make it safe for everyone - but especially for the kids in our schools.
I know there are many who feel we're violating the Second Amendment, but a lot has changed in the last 200 years, especially with the modernization of weapons. We didn't used to need a license to hunt or fish, but with time those things changed as well.
There are strong differences of opinion, but I think it's very, very hard on a community when something does happen. Then you always have the question, "Well, we could have done this or we could've done that - and how can we work together?"
So, it's a beginning. It's not the whole answer, but from here we can deal more with the mental health issues and just keep going forward. Hopefully, both sides can see it as a positive instead of a negative.
When I was a school superintendent, I always felt that if something were to happen, the parents of those involved and the community would never forgive me. I've been working on a half-mill or even a quarter-mill levy that would be imposed on a recurring basis strictly to fund security in our schools. That way, you have $40,000 or $60,000 every year, so little by little, you can improve the overall security of every building.
Do you have any visionary closing comments?
You know, we're banking on the revenues that are coming in from gas and oil, and I think it behooves all of our legislators - as well as our governor - to really use our dollars smart, because we don't know how long it's going to last. For example, putting this early childhood education program in place is a big plus. I also feel that we need to do something very strong for our infrastructure - our roads especially. You know, we have a whole state full of potholes, and we really need to get more dollars into that.
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