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 V.19 No.8 | February 25 - March 3, 2010 

Feature

The Real Roundhouse

A firsthand look at the 2010 legislative session

It was Day 30. The mood in both chambers sagged. Legislators spoke testily and lacked the buoyant friendliness that usually accompanied the morning announcements, introductions and notes. Reporters settled in for a long day and night, one that wouldn't end until after 4 a.m. The final hours of the session ticked away, and Wednesday, Feb. 17, looked to be dreary, long—and surreal. A stuffed oryx head sat in a chair on the Senate floor. A Catholic priest had been at the Roundhouse in the morning hours providing ashes for Ash Wednesday. A poor version of "God Bless America" rang through the chamber with senators trailing off after the first verses.

The session would officially end at noon the next day, and a single word stood forefront in everyone's mind: budget. Facing an estimated $600 million shortfall, legislators hadn’t reached a compromise. As senators trudged through business, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, president of the Senate, kept count—“20 hours and 39 minutes," she'd intone, until the close of the session.

A budget fix was the prize 30 days ago. It had been on the lips of every journalist and politico from the outset. Would the state find a way to spend less money by cutting services, programs and salaries? Or find a way to make more by raising income taxes, food taxes and the gross receipts tax? Perhaps a combination of both? In the first days, many spoke of the necessity for bipartisanship.

Sen. Howie Morales (D-Silver City) said buzzwords appear every session. Three years ago, it was "unintended consequences." Two years ago, it was "slippery slope." Then it was "self-licking ice cream cone." What would the catchphrase be this session? Political blogger Heath Haussamen offered "Hail Mary," if a budget compromise was reached. Sen. William Payne (R-Albuquerque) said the budget was moving through the House like a "pig through a python."

Not only did the Legislature's Democrats and Republicans need to come to an agreement on the budget (recall the classic conflict: make more vs. spend less), but the House and the Senate had to find some middle ground, too. Those are the complicating factors in every budget conversation—this time, the shortfall poured gas on the fire.

On Day 29 (Tuesday, Feb. 16), Gov. Bill Richardson held a news conference reproaching legislators: "Throughout the session, I've made myself available to the Legislature, holding extensive meetings with individual members and members of the leadership. I've offered several ideas and suggestions publicly and privately on the budget, and even while the Senate refused to talk to the House, I continued to talk to both chambers. Now we're at a point where some legislators are saying a special session is inevitable and unavoidable. Well I say that a special session is unacceptable and unnecessary. Furthermore, it's a waste of taxpayer time, and it's a waste of taxpayers' dollars."

This time, the shortfall poured gas on the fire.

Tax suggestions abounded: Tax New Mexicans who make a lot of money, tax booze, tax medical marijuana extensively, increase taxes on soda or cigarettes. And garnering the most vitriol was the so-called "tortilla tax." Sen. Bernadette Sanchez (D-Albuquerque) proposed the tax on non-staple foods. People talked about it for days. Reporters were at the ready when it hit the House Business and Industry Committee. But the bill ignited and burned like so many stovetop tortillas, and the committee voted unanimously against it without discussion. Day 30's afternoon saw the last-minute death of the food tax. How did the "tortilla tax" make it through all kinds of Senate vetting and, without a word, get silently snuffed out in a House committee meeting?

That's the way of the Legislature. There's a sense sometimes, looking down from the gallery, that the real wheeling and dealing is happening somewhere else. A couple of legislators key into the debate at hand, and others walk back and forth, answer phones, and type away on laptops. And though there's always an elected official willing to argue passionately on the floor, where do measures really live and die? Adding to the mysterious mix: Lobbyists continued to ply lawmakers with gifts in the final week, buying meals for committees, lunches for staffs, dinners in restaurants, reported the New Mexico Independent.

As the last minutes slipped away, both chambers furiously passed legislation, but still, no budget. They did manage to cull $130 million from stalled projects. Albuquerque's equestrian center saw a loss of funds, as did the controversial proposed education building at the Rio Grande Nature Center. Also on the chopping block were senior centers, museum improvements and school upgrades. Senators were calling for an extraordinary session, which would mean the Legislature would set the agenda, not the guv. Others suggested that a more focused special session with a plan hammered out by Richardson would take less time and use taxpayer dollars more efficiently. But one thing was for certain, the weary politicians would be seeing one another again—soon.

Even though the budget's still up for discussion, many other hot topics are not. Richardson says he'd like to keep the special session as short as possible, and so it won't include much more than the budget and bonds. The special session convenes on Monday, March 1.

The legislation's crafters couldn't just add "or domestic partners" to parts of the state's marriage statute. Instead, they had to restate each and every right the legislation would afford.

Here's what happened to some of the other issues the Alibi followed during the regular 2010 legislative session.

Drug Policy Reform

Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas (D-Albuquerque) introduced a measure that would have offered drug users treatment instead of jail time. Among the arguments in favor of the legislation: Treating nonviolent drug offenders costs less than incarcerating them. According to the Legislative Finance Committee's fiscal impact report, it costs the state $28,000 each year to jail a male inmate and $33,000 for a female inmate. Treatment programs can cost $1,300 to $2,000 annually.

Richardson supported the measure, and it passed the House. It left the Senate Judiciary Committee alive, but it was one of those bills that got lost in the chaos of crunch time and never made it out of the Senate. Word is that it would have had a decent shot and a fair number of votes.

Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico pushed for that bill and another known in shorthand as "ban the box" (SB 254, Consideration of Crime Conviction for Jobs). Sponsored by Sen. Clinton Harden (R-Clovis), the legislation removes the question on public job applications that asks whether an applicant has been convicted of a felony. Employers can still ask that question during the final interview and can conduct background checks later in the hiring process.

The idea here is to allow people convicted of a crime equal footing when trying to get a job. Drug Policy Alliance reports that "one of the biggest barriers for individuals returning from jail or prison is finding employment," and 40 percent of employers won't consider an applicant if the box is checked "yes."

SB 254 passed and is headed to the governor's desk for signature.

Domestic Partnerships

Proponents thought for sure it would pass last year. "It seemed clear that domestic partnership recognition would pass handily in 2009," wrote Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque) in a column for the Alibi. "After all, it had failed by only a single vote in the Senate after passing in the House in early 2008, and several of its most vocal opponents had lost re-election bids in the fall to legislators who expressed support for the idea." But it failed in a major way (25-17 in the Senate) in 2009 and looks to have only moved further out of reach since.

The problem lies in asking politicians to make a panel that could cause trouble for ... politicians.

From the get-go, 2010's domestic partnerships measure faced tall hurdles. First of all, it was 900 pages long, and there were murmurs that it was simply far too much reading during a 30-day session. Why was it so massive? Ortiz y Pino posited that its length was due, in part, to the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops. Though the bill covers same-sex and opposite-sex couples, the bishops left their longtime position of staid neutrality and came out against domestic partnerships. They'd been convinced that such rights might slick the slope to same-sex marriage. As a result, the legislation's crafters couldn't just add "or domestic partners" to parts of the state's marriage statute. Instead, they had to restate each and every right the legislation would afford.

SB 183, the 2010 domestic partnership bill sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) and Rep. Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque), was ruled germane to the session on Day 2. On Day 5, it was recommended that the judiciary committee pass the measure. On Day 14, the legislation was heard before the Senate Judiciary and Senate Public Affairs Committees, and the gallery was packed with supporters and opponents. From there, it was sent to the Senate Finance Committee, a move some considered the kiss of death. Ordering a bill to too many committee hearings in a 30-day session is a cheap way to kill it.

And there it croaked. Finance Chair Sen. John Arthur Smith (D-Deming) said it wouldn't be heard until a budget was completed. (And we all know how that turned out.)

Equality New Mexico considers that the bad news. The good news, said the LGBT rights organization, was all three of the measures that set out to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman failed. Two were introduced by Rep. Nora Espinoza (R-Roswell) and one by Sen. William Sharer (R-Farmington).

A bill introduced by Sen. Cisco McSorley (D-Albuquerque) that would have changed the marriage license forms to avoid the terms "bride" and "groom" also didn't survive.

Ethics

As corruption allegations roll through the headlines of New Mexico's newspapers, the ethics commission many were working toward warped like a record in the sun over the 30 days. Surely 2010 would be the year of an ethics commission, people said in January. It's been batted around every session for years. But the problem lies in asking politicians to make a panel that could cause trouble for ... politicians.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government did an analysis in early February of all the proposed ethics commission bills (six were in play at one point). The measures, according to NMFOG, shared the same flaw: secrecy. All of the meetings and documents of an investigation would be confidential. A written report would be issued once it was determined that an ethics violation did occur. That way, the argument went, a person's career wouldn't be jeopardized unless an accusation was proven. NMFOG proposed an alternative model in which confidentiality would be temporary, and then once a decision was made either way, documents would be made public.

Still, those were the relatively early days, when NMFOG and Common Cause New Mexico (an organization pushing for open, ethical government) were in favor of this legislation. So what happened to make those groups—along with the League of Women Voters, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and AARP New Mexico—withdraw their support of the ethics commission measure? Well, a person who filed an ethics complaint and didn’t maintain confidentiality about it could face a $26,000 fine—a much stiffer penalty than the commission could dole out to crooked public officials. Censure or public reprimand is all an official could get if found guilty. So potential whistleblowers would be in danger of being penalized more than the public official in question.

The ethics commission bill that made it the farthest passed the House but was never heard on the Senate floor.

You know what did pass both chambers? The “sunshine portal.” It creates an online database of government budgets, expenditures and revenue. You can thank Sen. Sander Rue (R-Albuquerque) for that one.

The Whistleblower Protection Act also passed the House and Senate and is on its way to the guv's desk for signature. It outlaws an employer from retaliating against public workers who report unethical or illegal actions. It also gives employees the right to sue if they've been retaliated against.

The pay-to-play ban advocated by Think New Mexico passed the House but keeled over in the Senate Rules Committee. It would have stopped contractors, special interests and lobbyists from making campaign contributions. It was supported by all living former governors, as well as Richardson.

Hispanic Education Act

Sparking hours of heated debate, the measure sponsored by Rep. Rick Miera (D-Albuquerque) didn’t ask for any money. Instead, it would have created a Hispanic education liaison in the Public Education Department and an unpaid advisory council to look at the Hispanic achievement gap. The Legislative Education Study Committee reported that 56 percent of Hispanic students graduated in 2008, and 71 percent of white students graduated. A series of checkpoints from the report showed similar results.

Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert (R-Corrales) said when she was growing up, her community took pride in all young people regardless of race. “Listening to these discussions is like regressing back to the ’60s,” she said. Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas (D-Albuquerque) pointed out that there was no force field around the state to protect it from institutional racism.

The legislation made it out of the session alive. A Senate-side version of the bill brought by Sen. Bernadette Sanchez (D-Albuquerque) also passed both chambers.

Concealed Guns

Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup) pushed a bill allowing concealed guns in certain restaurants, including places that sell beer and wine. The New Mexico Restaurant Association opposed the measure. When similar legislation hit the Roundhouse last year, the NMRA sought to limit the liability of the establishment in the event that a patron used a firearm. But the Legislature shucked the amendments.

"Restaurants already have their hands full with the responsibility to know when and how much each patron has had to drink, what their intoxication level is and if their driver's license is authentic, valid and states their actual birth date," wrote Carol Wight, executive director of the association on the New Mexico Independent's website.

The bill passed the Senate and the House with decent margins

Browse a complete list of bills that passed the House and Senate.

 
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