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 V.17 No.8 | February 21 - 27, 2008 

Roundhouse Roundup

Making Sausage

Here are the greasy links your Legislature did—and didn’t—grind out for you

They say it isn't pretty, making laws. A bill gets introduced, vetted in a series of committees, brought to the floor of the House or Senate and voted on. For a measure to become a law, to leave the state Legislature and become part of New Mexicans' lives, it has to pass both the House and Senate. Then the governor has to sign it.

The Legislative Session ended Thursday, Feb. 14, at noon. After the session ends, the governor has 20 days to scribble on his signature or veto the bill. Gov. Bill Richardson has until March 5 to make his decisions. All bills that are passed will be effective on May 14.

During the even-numbered years, such as 2008, New Mexico's session lasts only 30 days instead of the usual 60. The 30-day session in the past was used primarily for budget considerations, though for a while now, many other kinds of measures have been changing hands at these short sessions. All of New Mexico's 112 legislators will be running for re-election this year, which some have speculated added a layer of intensity to the politics of the session.

Though he signed a $6 billion budget, Richardson vetoed a number of items within that bill before he did. He lopped off $6.3 million for maintenance on the state's universities; $3 million of federal cash for extending the school year for elementary students in high-poverty schools; $150,000 to put locally grown fruits and vegetables onto school lunch tables; and much more.

Gov. Richardson aimed to get major health care reform off the ground this year, and because that didn't happen, he's calling legislators back for a Special Session that will focus only on health care. Some lawmakers have expressed doubts that these complex measures will jump through all the necessary hoops, even in a Special Session.

Richardson held a press conference after the regular session was over, calling it the most unproductive one he's seen since he's been in office. But Richardson didn't make many friends in early 2008. He found himself scrapping with legislators. He tussled with Lt. Gov. Diane Denish over providing her with state police security.

Richardson had another spat with Denish, who Saturday accepted a spending bill from the Legislature, though it's usually the governor who would receive the bill. Richardson contests Denish’s ability to accept bills on his behalf. According to the rules, if the governor got the bill on Saturday, he would only have three days to make his choices. If he took it in on Monday as he said he did, he would have 20 days. To top it off, Attorney General Gary King sided with Denish.

Talk about ugly. That's lawmaking. These were the measures on legislative plates this session.

Humans for Sale

SB 71: Makes Human Trafficking Illegal

Passed House and Senate

Description: This bill puts the crime of human trafficking on the books. It makes it illegal for anyone to recruit, solicit, entice, transport or obtain other people and forcing them into labor or prostitution. Anyone convicted of human trafficking is guilty of a third-degree felony, and the offense can be a second- or first-degree felony depending on the age of the person being trafficked.

Pro: It's unacceptable, especially in this day and age, for human trafficking to exist. This bill should help eliminate it. The measure clearly lays out who's in charge of enforcing the law. Whether you're doing the trafficking or just profiting from it, you're guilty of the same crime.

Con: Why don't we already have a human trafficking law?

Health Care For Everyone

HB 62: Health Solutions

Passed the House

Gov. Bill Richardson called a special session to deal with health care reform.

SB 3: Health Securities Act

Stuck in Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee

Description: The governor's health care reform bill, called Health Solutions, is designed to provide all New Mexicans with affordable health care. The plan would not allow insurance companies to deny anyone coverage based on pre-existing conditions and would also mandate at least 85 percent of all profits go toward future care. Employers would either have to offer their employees health insurance or contribute to a health care fund that would help the uninsured get coverage. Individuals will have to pitch in as well. By 2010, everyone in New Mexico would be required to have insurance, according to the bill. Health Solutions also sets up the "New Mexico Health Insurance Alliance" to make sure all health care organizations in the state are on the same page.

The Health Securities Act, proposed by Sen. Carlos Cisneros essentially eliminates insurance companies from the health care equation and replaces them with a mostly government-funded health care system.

Pro: The governor's plan could bring down the cost of health care and provide coverage for the 410,000 New Mexicans without health insurance.

The Health Securities Act would make health care coverage a given for New Mexicans.

Con: Health Solutions tries to strike a balance between lawmakers who want to provide government-funded health care to all New Mexicans and those who don't want insurance companies to pack up and leave the state. This compromise may not have satisfied either side.

The Health Securities Act has been introduced every year for the past 20 or so. On the whole, New Mexico lawmakers don't seem interested in this kind of approach to health care.

Stem Cell Research

SB 23: Biomedical Research Act

Passed the Senate

Description: The Biomedical Research Act makes it legal for some categories of human embryonic stem cells to be studied. The bill does not allow human cloning.

Pro: There is a lot of hope in the scientific community that working with stem cells could lead to cures for several degenerative diseases including: Alzheimer's, heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, macular degeneration, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease and cancer.

Con: The argument against stem cell research is rooted in the belief that human cells, the building blocks of human existence, should not be destroyed. Plus, no human cloning? Come on, let's have a little fun.

Reduce Carbon Emissions

HB 305: Sets Standards for Reducing Energy Use

Passed the House and Senate

Description: House Bill 305 requires that in 2014 utility companies must save an amount of energy equal to 5 percent of their 2005 sales, and in 2020, they must save an amount of energy equal to 10 percent of their 2005 sales. The bill also allows utility companies to provide energy-saving programs for low-income families. Doing so is currently illegal.

Pro: The law reduces carbon emissions and could also create new jobs because it encourages utility companies to pursue alternative forms of energy. People with lower incomes can also benefit from special programs designed to save them money.

Con: Utility companies might not like having new restrictions placed on them and they could be tempted to leave the state in favor of another locale with less demanding requirements. Or, if the restrictions cut into profit, they might lay off workers to make up the difference.

More Than Friends

HB 9: Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act

Passed the House

Description: The Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act would give some of the same privileges and culpabilities afforded married couples to people in domestic partnerships, heterosexual or homosexual. The bill defines domestic partners as two adults who have chosen to share in each other's lives in a relationship of mutual caring and support. Those who want to be recognized as domestic partners must apply for a domestic partnership certificate from the state.

Pro: The bill makes it illegal to discriminate against domestic partners and goes a long way toward leveling the playing field between married folks and domestic partners.

Con: If domestic partners have all the same rights as married couples, why can't they call their relationship a marriage?

Free the Public Defender

HB 193: Creates the Public Defender Commission.

Passed the House and Senate

Description: This bill sets up a public defender commission and puts it in charge of picking the chief state public defender (CPD) for New Mexico. Currently, the governor selects who he wants for the position. The commission consists of 11 members selected by the governor, other elected politicians and public figures.

Pro: This keeps the chief public defender from being in the governor's pocket. The CPD would be less likely to only advocate for defendants when it suites the governor.

Con: The bill creates another level of unneeded bureaucracy. It takes power away from the elected governor and puts in the hands of a board with some members who aren't accountable to the public.

Shielding Whistleblowers

SB 132: Prohibits Retaliation Against Public Employees

Stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee

Description: Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort’s bill would have prevented an employer from punishing a worker for: threatening to disclose an unlawful practice, testifying about the employer, or refusing to participate in something he or she considers improper. If public employers do retaliate, their workers have the option of suing for damages.

Pro: Ethics troubles plague our state. A chance for public employees to come clean without fear of losing their jobs could help point to ethical weak spots.

Con: Whistleblowers protection should also include some clause helping to guarantee anonymity. A big part of the reason people don't blow the whistle is they might not have the resources to sue their employer for getting revenge. Avoiding the hassle by protecting identities could help.

Check Those Ethics

HB 564: Statewide Public Financing

Stuck in House Appropriations and Finance Committee

HB 309: Creating an Ethics Commission

Stuck in Senate Rules Committee

SB 267: Campaign Contribution Caps

Stuck in Senate Committees Committee

Description: The first would allow the public financing option in Albuquerque's City Council races last year to be used for statewide elections. The second would create a commission to investigate ethics complaints. The third limited the amount of money people or groups could give to campaigns.

Pro: Candidates could receive funds for their campaigns from public coffers instead of spending time gathering dough from contributors they would owe favors. An ethics commission could help protect the anonymity of whistleblowers as it would serve as a middle man. New Mexico is one of five states without campaign contribution limits.

Con: Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez’s campaign money bill didn't go far enough to limit contributions, and its predecessor, SB 387, did even less. Still, maybe some contribution caps would have been better than none.

Drunk Drivers Behind Bars for Longer

SB 197: Longer Sentences for Repeat Offenders

Stuck in Senate Judiciary Committee

Description: As the law stands, DWI offenders are committing felonies but can't be classified as "habitual offenders" as other felons. They can't be given longer sentences upon repeat offenses. This bill would allow a judge to dole out more jail time to those who repeatedly collect DWIs.

Pro: Getting those who regularly drive intoxicated off the streets could help reduce our DWI fatality rates.

Con: The measure didn't include treatment for repeat DWI offenders, which has caused legislators to turn it down for seven years. Some called it too harsh.

Doing Battle with Domestic Violence

SB 68: Increasing Penalties for Three or More Batteries of Household Members

Passed House and Senate

Description: Those convicted of battery or aggravated battery of a household member would face more jail time and more probation. They could also be required to complete an intervention program. Upon multiple convictions (three or more), the batterer faces a third-degree felony charge.

Pro: A tougher stance on domestic violence, including more jail time, could give repeat batterers more time to cool off and force them to think twice before doing it again.

Con: The state's prisons are a mess. More jail time and felony convictions could add to overpopulation woes.

Crack Open the Committees

HB 297: Allow Public to Attend Conference Committees

Stuck in Senate Rules Committee

Description: Conference committees hammer out the final drafts of bills. This measure would force any such meeting to be open to the public. A reasonable notice of the meetings would be required, too. A meeting is defined as a "gathering of the members called by the presiding officer."

Pro: Conference committee meetings are among the last to be closed to the public. Increased transparency in government can only be a good thing.

Con: This bill could force committee members to hold more backroom, informal meetings not called together by the "presiding officer," in an effort to avoid such transparency.

A Helping Hand for Parolees

HB 224: Creates a Drug Treatment Pilot Program for Women Prisoners

Passed the House but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee

Description: Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas' bill sets up a pilot treatment program for opiate-addicted women behind bars. The program would be available to 50 women who have an opiate addiction and will soon be released from prison.

Pro: Without rehabilitation, it's likely prisoners will find themselves right back in jail after being released. The program could help drug-addicted female prisoners get back on their feet and give them a realistic chance of succeeding outside prison walls.

Con: Some argue that spending money on convicted criminals should not be a high priority. Those who do believe prisoners should receive treatment might be disappointed that only 50 women will get the chance to try the program.

For a bill to become law, it must pass the House and Senate and get the governor’s signature.

 

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