Roundhouse 2013: The Senate Graveyard

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Photo Credit: Dirigentens via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Dirigentens via Compfight cc

By Dede Feldman

— Two of the most important bills in the 2013 legislative session didn’t even get a vote on the Senate floor. Onlookers wondered if the Senate has become a graveyard for proposals that challenge the status quo, no matter how much popular support they have.

The Senate has usually been more conservative than the House, but this year—with a de-facto conservative coalition in power in the Senate—results were especially disappointing.

A constitutional amendment would have allowed the public to decide whether to temporarily divert a small portion of the state’s enormous permanent fund to early childhood programs. It died in the Senate Finance Committee. The measure, which has passed the House twice, is backed by a huge coalition of educators and business groups (but alas, not the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce). Members of the coalition cite study after study that show investing early is the key to fixing our ailing K-12 educational system and putting us on the road to economic prosperity.

Who is Digging the Graves?

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith simply refused to bring the bill up for a vote―even though it was sponsored by Democratic Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, who didn’t press the point. Most observers say it would have passed the Senate, but Smith said it didn’t have the votes in his committee.

So, end of discussion, regardless of any amendments or new data about the measure, which was, after all, only a move to allow the public to weigh in on this important public policy issue. It’s the second time that Smith has buried it. The senator regularly pocket vetoes many other measures―just ask any legislator whose bill has disappeared in Smith’s graveyard.

Several years ago, Smith, from Deming, was nicknamed “Dr. No” for his staunch opposition to tax increases and his hostility toward spending by then-Gov. Bill Richardson. Since 2009, he has assumed almost total control over the budget. That control was clear this year with his eleventh-hour amendment that totally revamped the tax code. The move left no time for discussion or input from rank-and-file legislators. The situation soon may resemble the era of Senate Finance Committee Chair Aubrey Dunn, who in the ’70s and ’80s shared little information with his fellow senators and killed many a bill.

Rep. Miguel Garcia’s HB 77 requiring background checks on guns purchased at gun shows also died without a vote from the full Senate. The bill passed the House on a bi-partisan basis and Gov. Susana Martinez was sending signals that she would sign it. The measure cleared two Senate committees, despite intense lobbying from NRA members, some of them carrying guns in the Roundhouse. And public support was building: A poll taken by Mayors Against Illegal Guns (a group funded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg) showed 83 percent of registered voters in New Mexico favor closing the gun show loophole.

But Majority Leader Sanchez didn’t call up the bill for discussion until it was too late―11:15 a.m. on closing day. (The session ends at noon.) That made the measure an easy target for filibustering, amendments and death by a million cuts. Time ran out before a vote could be taken. Sanchez, who has supported gun control measures in the past, made a last-ditch statement about how this bill was the most important bill of the session. His actions spoke louder than words. Had he called up the bill for debate the previous night, the outcome might have been different—at the very least, a vote would have been taken.

Voting is what legislators were sent to Santa Fe to do. With voting comes accountability―something that advocates and partisans want, but legislators (and their leaders) tend to avoid. That was the pattern this year in the Senate, starting with opening day, when the majority leader engineered a truce between Senate Democratic factions so that there was no contested vote on the most important issue of all, the election of the president pro tem.

Could it Be Different?

Over the years, a number of senators have tried to enact structural changes to limit the power of committee chairs and leadership to act in defiance of the majority. In the aftermath of Sen. Manny Aragon’s tenure as pro tem, Sen. Richard Romero passed a bill to limit the time a senator could serve in that position to two terms. He urged committee chairs to hear every bill―sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats—and let the chips fall where they may.

Other legislators have suggested longer sessions to allow more deliberation on complex issues and avoid the massive die-off of bills for lack of action on the last day of the session. Most of these measures have been victims of strong leaders who exert control of the agenda for better or worse. The only thing to curb them is an active, united majority caucus, which is very rare, even in blue state New Mexico, which has a wide gulf between the urban and the rural, the North and the South.

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Dede Feldman is a former New Mexico senator, who represented the North Valley for 16 years. Follow her blog, From Just Outside the Roundhouse.

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