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Fixing the NM Legislature 

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Sometimes, you have to have the big reforms before you can pass the small reforms.

There has been talk recently about making the N.M. Legislature more professional. If it were easier for ordinary citizens to run and for legislators to work, maybe they’d pass better bills.

A recent study by the University of New Mexico made three proposals to fi x the state Legislature: pay legislators, make legislative sessions longer and hire staff for each legislator. All three of those suggestions are now on the agenda.

House Joint Resolution 8 removes the state constitution’s prohibition on legislative pay. Amounts would be set by a citizen commission on legislative salaries.

Most of HJR 8 is spent on the details of setting up this commission. Yes, legislators should not set their own salaries. That would be the first objection to allowing salaries in the first place. People like me think you get what you pay for, and that with pay, you’d get more regular candidates – not just rich or retired. But many voters think legislators do such a bad job that they don’t deserve to be paid. The logic may be circular, but that doesn’t make it less popular. We’ll see – first if legislators will risk putting this amendment on the ballot, and second whether voters other than me will vote for it.

A second recommendation to make the legislature more professional is on the table as HJR 2. This amendment would replace the 30-day budget session in even years with a regular 60-day session. So instead of having long and short sessions in alternate years, there would be a long session with an open agenda every year with a five-day recess in the middle of the session. Bills vetoed by the governor in one session could be overridden by a two-thirds vote in the next session.

I like the idea, but not the details. I think both sessions should last until the work is done, not just 60 days. Currently, many bills get delayed until the last three days of the session. The minority party can then delay to keep bills from being passed.

Legislators are most qualified to write the details, but one way or the other, they should stay until every bill is handled – passed, rejected or tabled. The obvious way is to require them to keep working until they are finished, even if the 60th day stretches into the 61st night. Incentives for both parties should be to finish the work, not to talk bills to death.

I also don’t like the idea of holding vetoed bills for an override vote in the next session. That’s too late. Priorities would change in a year.

For reasons too complicated for this column, the current system makes it almost impossible for vetoes to be overridden. This enables legislators to vote for bills that they don’t agree with but that they think voters would support. They expect the governor’s veto to save them.

My preference would be for a one-day veto session 30 days after the main session ends, in which only vetoed bills are handled. The voting could be electronic from home. There’s no need for discussion, since the bills have already passed. A veto system where overrides are practical would make legislators more careful about what they vote for, and the governor more careful about what she vetoes.

The interesting thing about these amendments is that HJR 8 was proposed by five Democratic women, and HJR 2 was proposed by three Democratic women. What’s with that? These seem like reasonable nonpartisan ideas that should supported by both Republicans and men. Future votes by the Legislature, and possibly by the people, will show whether that was just a coincidence. The third issue — legislative staff – was dealt with first thing this session in a way that infuriated some Republicans. Democrats used the feed bill to insert $2.5 million for a study on creating district offices, with full-time staff for each legislator. The feed bill to fund the session must pass. Otherwise, everyone can just go home. Some Republicans thought putting this study in the feed bill was a hardball maneuver. Also, some thought the conclusion was too obvious to justify a study. I agree that putting staffing in the feed bill was a dirty trick, and I think there’s no need for a study beyond the one already done by the university. Legislators are the experts. They should just decide whether they need more staff, and whether they can pay for them. Fortunately, it’s not too late to cancel the study and hire the staff.

There’s a lot more to discuss about the legislative session, but I’m out of space. Stay tuned.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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Bruce McKinney

Bruce McKinney is a Silver City business owner, close observer of local government and occasional troublemaker. In his column, which appears every other Wednesday, he tries to address big questions from a local perspective. Send comments and ideas to
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