It’s taken me a while to settle down and write this post-session wrap-up. Partly because I’ve been so annoyed with some of what I saw happen at the Legislature, and partly because I wanted to get the chance to compare notes with others who experienced it too.
It’s been a week now – so, I’ve done my comparing, and I’ve found plenty of others who had the same thoughts as me.
One overwhelming theme I witnessed during the most recent 30-day session was the continuing lack of public access to the legislature.
Important decisions were literally made in the middle of the night.
I sat in a Tax and Revenue Committee after midnight on the last night of the session listening to legislators debate (and reject) a cigarette tax that could have raised millions for the state. No one was there to hear the pros and cons except the legislators, their staffers, a bunch of paid lobbyists and a handful of reporters.
And the so-called tortilla tax – remember that? That much-maligned measure sailed through the Senate in the dregs of a Saturday morning. It would be an understatement to say that the rest of New Mexico was pretty mad when it woke up and heard the news.
Am I naïve to think that is just plain wrong?
Part of the problem of public access could be solved if there was better public notice of when bills will be heard in committee or on the floor. I saw a lot of bewildered “regular” people up there waiting to testify on bills that affected them. Should legislators be required to give more notice? For the sake of the public, perhaps so.
This is where webcasting the committees could also help. Sen. Eric Griego had proposed an amendment which would have done so, but didn’t get the chance to introduce it on the floor. And what about archiving those webcasts, so the public can watch them later? Even a webcast committee hearing at midnight won’t get an audience — but the public can access an archive.
One last thing – toward the frantic end of the session, I noticed an awful lot of Republicans in the House using up the maximum three hour debate limit per bill in order to run out the clock. Good bills die in the waning moments of the session because of those “minibusters.”
Similarly, SR1, the measure to expand the number of cameras used for webcasting of Senate floor proceedings, languished for four days on the table before dying when the session ended. This happened despite Leader Michael Sanchez, who controls the Senate calendar, suggesting that he would bring it to a vote.
But inexplicably it didn’t happen. It was all a big tease.
The fact that I saw some legislators waste colossal amounts of time made it hard for me to accept the excuse offered by some Thursday afternoon that they were “so close” on the budget and simply “ran out of time.” I know some legislators did work hard and were as frustrated as the rest of the state when the session ended without a budget.
Legislators were supposed to meet this week Wednesday to finish their job, but got a last minute-reprieve from Governor Bill Richardson.
When they reconvene next Monday at noon, let’s hope they make much better use of their time.