After not quite one year in the State Legislature, one of the most important lessons I've learned is that we have, in our legislative processes, a powerful platform for the voice of the people ... though sometimes how that voice gets heard is not always readily clear.
When people talk about the Legislature, they often complain about the influence of lobbyists and other moneyed interests. However, without denying the truth of those concerns, I still see the “Citizens' Legislature” in New Mexico actively responding to ordinary citizens when they bring issues to it.
It is in the widely-ignored hearings before the dozen or so interim legislative committees that meet throughout the summer and fall that we find a primary platform from which citizens' voices are expressed to lawmakers.
These interim hearings rarely attract much attention from the working press who cover the Capitol beat because they are often held around the state, outside of Santa Fe, and because they don't usually result in clear-cut decisions. They have another purpose: fact-finding and the gathering of information.
(You can forget television news reporting on interim hearings; that medium confines itself to filming press conferences, staging “investigative reports” and leering over crime. Absolutely nothing else interests it, apparently.)
But even though it goes unnoticed by the press for the most part, the information that comes to the Legislature via interim hearings frequently becomes the basis for bills that carry some momentum into the regular session.
So it was last week with two groups of rarely-heard citizen voices that trekked to Santa Fe to speak at two different interim committee hearings. Their tales are both instructive and encouraging.
First, there was a presentation before the Land Grant committee by a group of former heirs to the Atrisco Land Grant. The sprawling property that comprises the remnants of the former grant stretches from Coors all the way to the Rio Puerco on Albuquerque's southwest mesa.
Atrisco was converted some decades ago by an earlier piece of legislation from a community land grant into a privately-held company, the Westland Development Corporation. The grant's thousands of heirs, descendents of the original grantees, were converted into shareholders.
Now Westland seems to be on the verge of wiping out the last vestiges of the grant by selling the entire remaining parcel, hundreds of thousands of acres, to developers from out of state. That sale, for what is rumored to be $200 an acre, will make millionaires out of a few of the heirs (mostly the current board of directors)—and end forever the promise of the historic Atrisco Grant and what it might have meant for all the families involved.
In a microcosm, what is about to happen to Atrisco recaps the history of the erosion of much of New Mexico's Spanish and Mexican land grant past. If you want to understand how ancestral lands could have been lost/
Fifty years ago there were signs all over Northern New Mexico warning Hispanic families never to sell their land. Now the Westland board is about to pull the plug on perhaps the most valuable of those ancient land grants. For most of the heirs, the money from the sale will be spent and forgotten quickly. When it is gone so will be the potential for a self-sustaining future.
A group of the heirs came to the Land Grant Interim Committee to express their hope that the Legislature might somehow be able to block the sale. While discovering that probably isn't possible was depressing for many on the committee, they still saw the importance of putting out full, accurate information on the situation and insuring that the election on the sale, when it takes place, is conducted honestly and fairly.
The voice of the people, once heard, doesn't vanish. Its value can take many forms besides the hammer of legislative mandate.
That same week, another Legislative Interim Committee, the Health and Human Services Committee, heard from a different citizen chorus. These were teenage girls from Young Women United, a coalition of high school women of color in Albuquerque's southeast quadrant. They attend Highland and Albuquerque High and the Public Academy for the Performing Arts (a charter school).
They brought a very important request to the committee, one they'd reached through a process of talking to and researching the needs of other young women both in and out of school. Their request: information—specifically, comprehensive sex information. They backed up the request with lots of solid data.
APS is not providing comprehensive sex education currently. Neither do many of the girls' families. The result is high rates of sexually transmitted disease, teen pregnancy, early marriage and many girls failing to finish high school—a virtual guarantee of lifelong poverty.
The poised, fully informed and very passionate young women who addressed the committee got an enthusiastic response. They will keep working on their legislation, a memorial requesting that our public schools prepare them for the real world they will live in as adults.
Neither of the two groups garnered any press coverage for their presentations. Yet both are examples of how important it is to have open access to the platform of public opinion represented by a legislative committee. They both deserve recognition.