A Guide to Surviving the 2007 Legislative Session
What do you get when you cram 112 state legislators, hundreds of eager staffers and more lobbyists than ticks on rez dogs into a four-story building for 60 days? Besides several respiratory infections, sleep deprivation and more handshakes than a three-armed Kiwanis club member, you get another strange and wonderful New Mexico Legislative Session.
Now that the 12 days of Christmas are over and the luminarias packed away, it’s time to turn our focus to that other New Mexico tradition: the crazy state Legislative Session, which begins next Tuesday, Jan. 16.
In New Mexico, like a few other states, our citizen legislature packs their work into a 30 or 60 day session depending on the year. In odd-numbered years the State Legislature meets for 60 days. That means for the first 30 days not much outside of receptions, memorials and press conferences will happen. Forget the first 100 hours idea that Speaker Pelosi and crew are trying in the U.S. Congress. In odd years in Santa Fe, the real work doesn’t begin until the middle of February. Sure, there are lots of committee hearings and a few votes. But if history is any indicator, the real work will come down to the last few weeks with the final four or five days being a mad, sleepless marathon to get as many languishing bills passed as possible.
Most of the expected four- to five-thousand new bills will die before they ever see the governor’s desk. However, a few hundred will pass that could effect our daily lives, from health care to our schools to new roads and infrastructure.
Some of the more important and notable proposals include:
Ethics Reform. Probably the biggest scrum will be watching legislators try to pass a new package of proposals to reform the way elections and ethics are handled in the state. After the past year’s political scandal circus here and in Washington, this may be the year to truly reform our political system. There are states with worse systems of ethics and campaign finance rules than ours, but not many.
The most contentious piece of the ethics package may be the proposed independent ethics commission, which would have the ability to subpoena witnesses and provide serious oversight of state officials. The governor’s proposal includes a ban on gifts more than $250 ($100 during the Legislative Session). A hundred bucks doesn’t buy much in Santa Fe, so the perks for unpaid legislators may be coming to an end.
It is hard to believe that there is currently no limit on how much an individual, company or organization can give to a legislator or statewide candidate. The governor’s proposal would place contribution limits of $2,100 for statewide candidates and $1,050 for district candidates such as legislators and Public Regulation Commission (PRC) candidates.
One of the most disappointing recommendations is the proposed public financing only for candidates for judicial office. Today, candidates for the PRC can apply for public financing. The governor’s proposal would add judicial candidates to that list. Clean elections advocates plan to push for public financing for all state elected officials.
Minimum Wage. With Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Bernalillo County having already passed a minimum wage increase, and the new Democratic majority in the U.S. Congress promising to do the same, one might think passing a state minimum wage increase wouldn’t be high on the agenda. Think again. The governor and Democratic legislators want to beat Congress to the punch. The tricky part will be the fact that some legislators want to carve out certain industries such as agriculture or food processing. Advocates want to preserve the right of cities to raise the minimum wage even higher than the $7.50 an hour proposed by the governor. Votes for a few key senators in southern New Mexico will be key to the bill passing. Should be fun to watch.
Carving Up the Piggy. Thanks to a strong economy and a booming oil and gas industry, the governor and legislators will have several hundred million dollars in new cash to divvy up for pet projects and programs. Capital outlay, the money used for projects in individual legislative districts, will be a potential flashpoint between the governor and legislators. Last session, a disagreement between the governor and state senators on how much pork each senator would get almost brought the session to a halt. Will the sparks fly again?
Several other issues including some tax reform, incentives for new renewable energy, revisiting payday lending reform, passing a comprehensive land and water conservation bill, and the ever popular tougher penalties for DWI and sexual offenders will likely be on the agenda.
Cramming so much important work into a few weeks a year seems like a nutty way to run a state. It surely is. But in New Mexico, we like to do things our own way. So load up on your vitamin C, get some extra sleep, don’t forget the hand sterilizer and join the legislative parade.