Gadfly targets others, becomes a target himself

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Rep. Dennis Kintigh enjoys his role as conservative gadfly, and he’s not above a little grandstanding when he thinks his cause is righteous. But sometimes the Roswell Republican can really annoy his fellow lawmakers.

Kintigh’s bill (HB 18) to increase legislators’ contributions to their retirement plan earned praise from the Albuquerque Journal. After all, the Legislature is requiring public employees to raise their contributions. Lawmakers enjoy a good pension, so it’s only fair.
Except that it’s more complicated. The state’s biggest newspaper allowed that our lawmakers are unsalaried but receive $150 per diem. That handsome-sounding per diem doesn’t go far in Santa Fe. Not only are they unsalaried for their legislative work, many forgo their regular income during the session or put their businesses on hold. So there’s a personal cost, as well.
Rep. Dennis Roch, a Texico Republican, joked that he wanted an amendment, “to contribute an amount equal to our salaries.”
The bill passed two committees unanimously because lawmakers were probably afraid not to.  
Last week on the House floor, however, Rep. Eliseo Alcon rose to protest: “Other than patting ourselves on the back to say we’re good boys and girls, what are we doing this for?”
Kintigh responded, “This is the one area where we can contribute out of our own pockets to make this a healthier economy.”
He explained that taxpayers put $2.4 million into the legislative pension plan every year. By increasing each legislator’s contribution from $500 to $600 a year, “we are reducing the burden on our constituents.”
Alcon argued that even if they each threw in an additional $500, it still wouldn’t matter. Actually, they’re both correct. It reduces the taxpayer bite by an insignificant amount. The bill passed 56 to 13.
Opposition may also reflect their hours. The session has shifted into high gear. Days are long, and the state’s business now occupies weekends. A bug is working its way through the Legislature’s tired ranks, resulting in some lawmakers barely able to stand and speak and others too hoarse to defend their bills.
Just the day before, Kintigh had rankled the body with comments on a bill to add a judge in New Mexico’s Eighth Judicial District (Taos, Colfax, and Union counties).
Addressing the Legislature a month earlier, Chief Justice Charles Daniels pleaded for another position in the Eighth District, where two judges struggle to keep up with their case loads. When one is disqualified, it adds the other’s burdens. Daniels himself has traveled to the district to help out. The judiciary has already slashed budgets and laid off employees, and judges accepted a pay cut.
The New Mexico Sentencing Commission has said the Eighth District needs another two or three judges. The state needs another 35 judges, but this year Daniels is asking only for this one.
Kintigh made a curious argument about how there must be something wrong with that district, and without knowing more, they shouldn’t pay for another judge. He jousted with several lawyer-legislators who supported the bill. Then Alcon, a retired magistrate judge, stood up and blasted Kintigh for his unseemly attack on a judicial district.
The bill passed, 66 to one, Kintigh.
Alcon, an unpretentious, liberal Democrat from Milan, is Kintigh’s polar opposite. He has no political postures; Alcon is himself all the time.
“We have a lot of law enforcement people who tear down the judiciary,” Alcon told me later, “but you never hear a judge say anything bad about law enforcement. Life is hard enough as it is for those officers. We don’t want the public tearing down the judiciary or law enforcement. Kintigh used this bill to make the courts look bad. That’s where he got me upset.”
Being a gadfly has its ups and downs.

© New Mexico News Services 2011