A decison (finally) looms on Hanna Skandera confirmation

By Rob Nikolewski on January 22, 2014
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By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE  – The debate over the confirmation of as turned into a soap opera last year and it may become even more dramatic in this year’s legislative session.

That’s because a decision figures to finally be made.

Painted as an effective agent for change by her supporters and demonized as a dangerous bureaucrat by her critics, Skandera is expected to receive a verdict from the in the current 30-day session, which will be followed by a Senate floor vote that will determine if she is sworn in as secretary.

CONFIRMATION CONTROVERSY CONTINUES THIS SESSION: Hanna Skandera (left) confers with Sen. Stuart Ingle at her confirmation hearing last March.

But the process promises to be politically explosive and has learned there’s still debate between Roundhouse Democrats and Republicans over what would happen if the full Senate vote on Skandera ended in a tie.

Here’s a look at the key questions surrounding the upcoming debate:

What’s the background?

Skandera has been on the job for three full years and since she has not been confirmed, she has carried the title of “Secretary-Designate” while carrying out public educational reform measures championed by .

When will the confirmation hearing be held?

, chairs the Senate Rules Committee, where cabinet-level appointees appear for confirmation hearings. Sen. Lopez told New Mexico Watchdog on Wednesday morning that she anticipates that Skandera’s hearing “will not be this week, probably the next week — possibly.”

Lopez has been a harsh critic of Gov. Martinez and happens to be running for governor, part of a field of five candidates who will face off in June in the Democratic Party primary, with the winner taking on Martinez in November.

Can the Skandera nomination be killed in the Rules Committee?

No.

Lopez says the committee has three options: A “do pass” on the Skandera nomination to the full Senate, a “do not pass” or a “no recommendation.”

Even if the committee, which is , votes in favor of a “do not pass” on Skandera, the motion is purely a recommendation and the nominee’s name is then sent to the full Senate for a vote.

What will happen in the Senate?

Since the Senate is made up of , Skandera figures to face an uphill climb. If all 17 Republicans voted for her, it would take five Democrats to vote in her favor to get the Skandera nomination to pass on a 22-20 vote.

If Skandera gets 22 votes or more, the process is over and she will be confirmed. But expect various teachers’ unions across the state to put pressure on Democrats to vote against the 40-year-old nominee who, along with the governor, is very unpopular with them.

What happens if the Senate vote is tied?

Aye, that’s the rub.

Normally, a tie in the Senate is broken by the Lieutenant Governor, who is , a Republican, who is sure to vote in favor of Skandera. But Lopez and , told New Mexico Watchdog that they contend the Lieutenant Governor is only entitled to cast a tie-breaking vote on legislative issues, not confirmations.

“Does he have that right?” Lopez said. “We would say no.”

“He cannot,” Majority Leader Sanchez said. “It’s not a legislative issue and he’s not a member of the Senate.”

But , says that’s a matter for debate.

“There’s nothing that says he cannot,” Ingle said. ”It would lead to a challenge (on the floor).”

And that could mean a divisive – and extended – debate.

Longtime Roundhouse veterans cannot recall the last time a confirmation vote ended in a tie.

What happens if Skandera loses the Senate floor vote?

Then she cannot be sworn in as secretary of PED.

But that doesn’t mean the governor would have to get rid of her. Theoretically, Martinez could give Skandera another title – such as assistant secretary or deputy secretary or special advisor of education to the governor — and Skandera can continue running the PED as de facto secretary.

So why even have all this drama?

“It’s a matter of principle,” said Majority Leader Sanchez, who has clashed with Martinez virtually from the moment she was sworn in as governor.

Sanchez points to the New Mexico Constitution that says the PED must be a “qualified, experienced educator.”

Skandera was never a classroom teacher. Before coming to New Mexico,  to U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and was a deputy commissioner for Florida’s Department of Education under then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

“She does not meet the qualifications by even the farthest reach of how you stretch the constitution,” Sanchez said. “We should follow our constitution. So I don’t think it’s a matter of futility. I think it’s principle that we should stand on.”

“The constitution does not say ‘qualified K-12 teacher,’ ” Skandera supporter Terri Cole of the said at last year’s confirmation hearing. “Hanna Skandera is a qualified educator.”

Skandera supporters also point out that U.S. Secretary of Education  has no classroom experience either.

recently suggested not having a hearing on Skandera at all this session. Instead, Smith says the Senate should postpone it until next year and see if Martinez is re-elected as governor.

Will Skandera get confirmed?

Ingle, who sponsored Skandera and sat next to her during three days of scorching criticism from opponents at last year’s Rules Committee hearing, thinks Skandera will make it.

“If (Democrats opposed to Skandera) were confident they could defeat her, they would have had the vote long before now,” Ingle said.

Sanchez was cagey. “You think it will be close?” he asked a reporter. “I think you’re right.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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