The Alibi gives you the ups and downs of buzzword bills hashed out by the state’s Congress this session.
By Christie Chisholm and Marisa Demarco
Politics are supposed to be about the people. We’re the intended deciders of the direction of our country and states, our counties and school districts. Our U.S. representatives are hired by us, and since we can’t all make the trek to Washington, they do it instead, taking with them our ideals and desires. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Isn’t that right?
At a state level, the same is supposed to hold true. Our state representatives congregate in the Roundhouse every year to press action on the issues we’ve told them are important to our livelihood, our moral compass and our culture. And at the end of each year’s Legislative Session, we reflect on what we gained and what we lost.
Sadly, this system of democracy seems to be failing. Most of us don’t even know who our state representatives are, never mind contact them to profess our political desires. We scan the top headlines in the paper to gauge the progress of the Session, and when it’s all over we’re usually aware of a handful of bills that passed and may at some point affect our lives.
In an attempt to bring a little bit of the power back to the people, we’re dedicating this week’s news section to the cessation of the Legislative Session, which deliberated on its final bill of 2007 on Saturday, March 17. Thanks to Amy Dalness for helping us undertake this task.
This year’s Session passed a number of bills that can nearly universally be seen as good deeds. Legislation on renewable energy glided through, establishing tax credits for sustainable building, creating a reporting system for greenhouse gases and requiring utilities to use higher percentages of renewables by 2020. Our Legislature also approved bills designed to protect animals. From the well-publicized cockfighting ban to bills increasing penalties for animal cruelty and mandating the good treatment of animals in shelters, New Mexico made a statement this year about respecting non-human lives. In turn, the state took action to protect human life as well, requiring that HIV testing be offered and suggested when people visit their doctors. The Legislature also acted to abolish antiquated terminology for persons with disabilities.
But along with those bills that present little opposition, there are others, with no sense of moral ubiquity. Shrouded in political and ethical controversy, here are some of the more contentiously significant bills from this year’s session, both winners and losers. For context, we’ve inlcuded arguments both for and against each bill.
As of press time, Gov. Bill Richardson had called a Special Session, which was slated to begin Tuesday, March 20. At the session, he planned to revive bills that would create an ethics commission, limit campaign contributions and give benefits to domestic partners, among others things. By the time this paper goes to print, the session may have already ended. The governor has until April to sign legislation. Anything he doesn’t sign is “pocket vetoed,” meaning it dies.
*In order for a bill to become law, it has to pass both the House and Senate and be signed by the governor.
Description: Punishes cockfighting participants (including those watching a fight) with a fourth-degree felony after they’re caught three times. The first and second time are considered a petty misdemeanor and then a misdemeanor, respectively. The bill also prohibits dog fights.
Pro: This bill aims to finally eradicate the inhumane act of cockfighting. Louisiana is now the only state left in the country where the practice is legal. Many New Mexicans have been calling for this bill for years, and it’s been introduced in the Legislature multiple times before, only now it finally passed.
Con: The argument against this bill has always been one of heritage. Do we suppress the culture of others because mainstream U.S. culture doesn’t believe in it? Do we tell Afghani women to shirk their burqas? Do we order the tribes of Africa to stop performing female genital mutilation?
Description: This one’s pretty straightforward. It called to get rid of the death penalty in New Mexico.
Pro: One recalls the old idiom to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Killing people for their crimes is by many considered a barbaric practice, one that some believe we have no right to perform. And when you consider the number of inmates on death row who’ve later been proven innocent, it makes the possibility of killing unjustly much more frightening than the possibility of that person continuing to exist in this world.
Con: The other side of this debate argues that if an inmate on death row was to escape, the public would be in grave danger, and keeping them alive isn’t worth the risk. Furthermore, the idea goes that if someone takes a life, theirs should be taken in turn.
Description: Rep. Peter Wirth's measure requires commercial insurance carriers to have a package that includes benefits for domestic partners. Put simply, if a small business wanted to offer benefits to an employee's domestic partner, the insurance company would have to have such an option available. Domestic partners would be defined as adults who have lived together for at least a year and share financial obligations. Proponents were quick to point out that businesses still have the opportunity to choose whether to offer these benefits.
Pro: Only one carrier has an option for domestic partner benefits for a company that had fewer than 50 employees, says Peggy Patterson, assistant director of the Santa Fe Rape Crisis and Trauma Treatment Center. Without a statewide statute, she says, insurance companies won't offer this coverage [“Insurance for Domestic Partners," Feb. 1-7, 2007]. Everyone deserves the ability to provide health care to their partners, regardless of their sexuality or whether they're married.
Con: The goal is to "close the uninsured gap," says Betina Gonzales McCracken, spokesperson for the Human Services Department. If that's the case, why doesn't the measure take it a step further and demand that businesses, and not just insurance companies, offer domestic partners benefits? "That's a good question," says Wirth. The Insure New Mexico Council, which put this measure together, was "focused on figuring out legislation where there's general consensus."
Description: Rep. Mary Garcia sought to create an Ethics Commission, which would have 10 members: four appointed by the governor, two by the Senate president, two by the speaker of the House and two by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. These people would not be allowed to hold public office or make campaign contributions, among other things. The commission would be in charge of investigating ethics complaints, providing ethics training and making recommendations for disciplinary actions.
Pro: With the debacle in the State Treasurer's Office, surely it's time for some governmental body to put the smack down on ethics violations.
Description: There were plenty of measures surrounding the Human Papillomavirus vaccine in the state Legislature, but these two are the most immediately applicable. Sen. Dede Feldman's asking that all insurance companies provide coverage for the vaccine for girls aged 9 to 14. Sen. Steve Komadina's bill says before admission into a private or public school students between 9 and 14 must be presented with information about the vaccine. Before being allowed to enter school, a female student must have either gotten the vaccine or present written evidence that her parent or guardian elected for her not to get the vaccine.
Pro: The Human Papillomavirus is responsible for 99.7 percent of cervical cancer cases. The vaccine prevents against two strains of the virus, thought to be responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. HPV, which usually has mild symptoms or no symptoms, is really common in sexually active people, and the vaccine works best when administered before someone becomes sexually active. The vaccine could be the beginning of the end of cervical cancer if it reaches enough young women.
Con: Some parents are concerned about the newness of the vaccine and about its connection to sexuality. Though everyone has the option of refusing the vaccine, some may see it as a hassle or as an affront to their convictions.
Description: The basis of Sen. Michael Sanchez' measure was fuel for a decent debate even before it entered the Legislature. In the fall, Think New Mexico recommended the lottery begin diverting 30 percent of its profits to the scholarship fund automatically, instead of paying out what was left over after prizes and administrative costs are covered. That's exactly what this bill does.
Pro: According to 2005 estimates from the Higher Education Department, the scholarship could have dug itself an $18 million hole by 2011. The think tank worried that such a debt would require the scholarship to slash funds for students or raise requirements. Asking for extra moneys to funnel into the scholarship fund could be the solution the state's looking for.
Con: New Mexico Lottery CEO Tom Romero told the Alibi the plan could backfire ["Roundhouse Wind-Up," Dec. 7-13, 2006]. He was concerned that requiring the lottery to return 30 percent of its revenues "would require us to cut our prize percentage payout (money that is returned to players in the form of prizes) and our advertising, both of which would negatively impact sales." Fewer sales means less money coming in and less money for the scholarship regardless of what percentage is taken off the top.
Description: The Medical Marijuana Act only needs to be signed by the governor to become law. If it does, it will create a Medical Marijuana Board that will decide whether patients are eligible. If they are, they’ll be issued an ID card five days after they’re approved by the board, which will expire after three months. With the ID card, patients will be allowed to grow and use a “reasonable” amount of the drug. The law doesn’t allow patients to use marijuana in public places or at work. The bill requires the Department of Health to adopt rules for the use of medical marijuana by Oct. 1, 2007.
The Hemp bill requires the Department of Agriculture to do an in-depth study on whether to allow a legal hemp industry in New Mexico. Because it’s a House Memorial, it doesn’t need to be signed by the governor.
Pro: It’s about time this bill was passed--it only took 12 years. Marijuana has been shown to not only ease the pain of patients but to at times revive them completely due to its ability to stimulate the appetite. Additionally, the hemp study will hopefully lead to approval of the industry. Hemp is one of the sturdiest materials on Earth, with a diverse number of purposes. Plus, its industrial form has absolutely nothing to do with getting high.
Con: Opponents to this bill worry that legalizing medical marijuana is one step closer to legalizing all uses of marijuana.
Description: It was coming down the pipe last session but got lost in the time crunch. This time around, raising the state's base pay sounds easy but is actually a touch complicated since various cities and counties passed their own wage hikes. Sen. Ben Altamirano's bill increases the state minimum in two phases. New Mexico's minimum will be $6.50 as of Jan. 1, 2008, and $7.50 an hour on the first of the year in 2009, except for Santa Fe, which will be allowed to keep its $9.50 minimum.
Pro: Wage hikes are a long time coming around the country. Inflation means $5.15 an hour isn't what it used to be. Minimum wage workers find it more than a little difficult to make ends meet on such a pittance. With the wage floor mostly leveled out, cities and towns won't have to worry that businesses will want to set up in nearby areas with cheaper workers.
Con: Businesspeople have said all along a new wage standard would be difficult to meet and could mean fewer jobs overall.
Description: Enacts a long list of guidelines and restrictions on the payday loan industry, including provisions that loaners can’t charge customers more than $10 in late fees and documents must be available in both Spanish and English and possibly other languages. If signed, it will go into effect Nov. 1, 2007.
Pro: It’s time we protect our citizens from payday lending sharks. Such companies often take advantage of people in dire financial situations by charging them outrageous interest rates and other fees that lead to an even worse situation. Now there are at least some measures of protection in place.
Con: This is just another example of government sticking its nose into the lives of private citizens and businesses. Payday lenders advertise their fees. If people are stupid enough to get caught in a payday lending trap, it’s their own fault, and lenders shouldn’t be held responsible. This bill just punishes businesses because of the mistakes of others.
Description: The unending traffic camera debate from Albuquerque wound up in the Legislature, with three big-name bills: One would require signs and beacons alerting drivers of an upcoming camera; another wants the fines from the cameras to be the same as those from tickets issued by officers; the last measure asks Albuquerque to send some of the funds to the state.
Pro: Camera pushers have heard nothing but flak from drivers annoyed at the high-priced penalty and sneaky lenses. Warning signs could help citizens feel less set up. Consistent fines might add some needed legitimacy, because no one likes to think their hard-earned dough is unfairly lining city coffers.
Con: City officials say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Intersections outfitted with lenses saw a significant decrease in accidents, according to APD spokesperson John Walsh. Mayor Martin Chavez says sending up portions of the collected fines would spell an end to the cameras, since that money is used to pay for the program.
Description: Creates a board to oversee and regulate deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf and blind interpreters in the state.
Pro: The bill better enables the state to keep track of interpreters and assure their capability. It does this by giving the board powers to establish education and general licensing requirements as well as consequences for those incapable or abusing of their positions.
Con: Though the bill is designed to better the situation of the deaf and hard of hearing community, it may create more obstacles during a time when there is already a shortage of interpreters.
Description: Bans smoking in all public businesses (including bars) and indoor public places except for casinos, private clubs, cigar lounges, special smoking-designated areas where smoke can’t reach the rest of the building and a number of other small exceptions. The bill also outlaws smoking near workplace entrances or any area where smoke can drift inside, and it requires business owners to post “No Smoking” signs in conspicuous locations. Violators are penalized with a $100 fine the first time they’re caught, $200 the next time and $500 every time after that.
Pro: Secondhand smoke has proven to be extremely dangerous to one’s health, and no one should be forced to tolerate it at work. The law discourages people from smoking because they can no longer light up while drinking at a bar unless it’s a private club. Because of this, the law may also encourage more people to quit smoking or to not smoke as much, which would improve the health of the general public.
Con: The law infringes upon the rights of bar owners, who should be able to choose whether or not to permit smoking in their businesses. If people don’t want to be exposed to secondhand smoke, they shouldn’t go to the bars that permit it. And if there aren’t very many options for people who want to frequent a smoke-free bar, that’s a reflection on the market, and bar owners shouldn’t be punished for it. This bill represents just one more loss of freedom.