House speaker looks out for fat cats, irresponsible workers
THE WEEKEND COLUMN
One New Mexico state legislator, more than all 111 others combined, stands out as the most disappointing.
For all his talent, grace and intelligence, House Speaker Ken Martinez has lost his way.
He did it in a hurry too. Barely a month has gone by since Martinez, D-Grants, won election to the top job in the House of Representatives.
In that span, he has let down the people, not served as a man of the people.
Martinez is either the biggest underachiever at the Capitol or New Mexico’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He vacillates between coddling fat cats and protecting the most irresponsible people ever to lace up a pair of work boots.
This winter, Martinez used his political might to shoot down a bill that would have stopped giant payouts to state executives who fail at their jobs.
The proposal to return sanity and confidence to state agencies, especially universities, was brought forth by a Republican and a Democrat, Rep. Bill Rehm and Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto.
They crafted a bill to limit severance pay to state executives who are forced to resign. The legislators’ plan would have capped state buyouts at $110,000 — the amount of the governor’s annual salary.
Rehm and Ivey-Soto were motivated by many outrageous cases. One of them occurred last fall at New Mexico State University, where the regents paid school president Barbara Couture $453,000 in return for her resignation.
She lasted less than three years at NMSU before parachuting away with a full backpack. Couture already had another job when the regents bought her off.
Martinez shared none of the public’s outrage at bestowing more riches on well-to-do executives who do not cut the mustard.
Of the bill to take the air out of golden parachutes, Martinez said: “It’s not real world.”
Perhaps the speaker has moved from New Mexico to a La-La Land of his own.
Rehm and Ivey-Soto had a good bill, the type that Martinez would have made even better if he were on top of his game as a legislator.
But Martinez was not interested in reform. In helping to crush the bill, he took an elitist position.
Big buyouts are a fact of life for select people in high-profile jobs, Martinez said. New Mexico, he reasoned, will not be able to recruit outstanding talent to coach its university teams and run its campuses if it turns miserly in paying off those few employees who wash out.
It was the kind of tone-deaf explanation we would have expected from the regents who hired and then fired Couture, not from the speaker of the House.
Martinez led the way in killing another bill to repair broken state laws that enable drunken or drug-impaired workers to make out like bandits on injury benefits.
The bill to reform workers’ compensation laws was sponsored by Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Texico. Roch carried the measure at the suggestion of the state Court of Appeals, which found that contradictory laws had ended up rewarding a drunken worker.
The textbook case involved Edward Villa, who was a city sanitation worker in Las Cruces. He arrived at work drunk one day in 2006, skipped the typical check-in procedure, then jumped into his garbage truck to start his shift.
Later, Villa fell of that same truck while trying to dislodge a garbage bin, injuring his head, wrists and a hip. At the hospital, Villa’s blood-alcohol level measured .12, well above the mark for drunken driving.
The city fired Villa, but he sued and was awarded more than $100,000 in workers’ compensation benefits. Conflicting state laws worked in his favor.
One statute bars drunken or drugged workers from receiving any benefits if they caused an accident that led to injury. But a second law trumps the first by essentially limiting drunken workers to a 10 percent deduction in benefits.
As it stands, the messy laws mean judges cannot do justice in cases such as Villa’s.
Roch’s bill would have rewritten the statutes to give judges the power to decide what injury benefits — if any — a worker should receive based on the facts of a particular case, not on formulas.
Martinez helped bury that common sense bill too.
Why he wants to keep rewarding people who do their jobs badly is anybody’s guess.
As a politician, Martinez is many things, including bright, funny and confounding. But mostly, he is disappointing.