Inside the Capitol

Saturday, January 15, 2005

1-21 Legislature's Opening Week

SANTA FE – The opening week of New Mexico legislative session follows a standard format. On the third Tuesday of the January, at high noon , both houses of the legislature are gaveled to order. The roll is called; all members sign in and guests are introduced.
It is a time for much pomp and circumstance. Many lawmakers have their families in town to sit with them on the floor of the chamber. It is the only time that is allowed all session, so women especially, are dressed to their finest. They are joined by former lieutenant governors, all outfitted in red vests, a symbol of their former office.
After all the preliminaries are finished, the Senate is invited to the House chamber for a joint session to hear from the governor. The House gallery, one floor above the chamber, begins filling up about 10:30 a.m. Anyone wanting a seat cannot wait until the joint session begins.
At about 1:30 p.m., a delegation is sent up to the fourth floor to escort the governor from his office to the chamber. The arrival of that delegation no longer is a surprise to the governor. Both chambers are wired for sound and every office, including the governor’s can listen in to proceedings.
Gubernatorial state-of-the-state addresses follow a formula of bragging about accomplishments and then reciting a wish list for the coming session.
The speeches have long been carried by at least one, and usually more, television stations. It is an opportunity for showmanship, but recent governors haven’t been into that. Gov. Bruce King was generally a man of few words, who knew such speeches didn’t matter much, anyway.
Gov. Gary Johnson wasn’t much of a speaker either, but sometimes he spiced his up his addresses with a theme, such as the seven summits he asked lawmakers to scale with him early in his first term. He then enumerated seven major issues he wanted lawmakers to address.
Everyone knew Johnson had scaled Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak, and would attempt Mt. Everest as soon as his term was over. What most of us didn’t know at the time was that the zenith of mountain climbing is to conquer the highest peak on each of the seven continents. Johnson revealed that was his goal during his descent from Everest.
Gov. Bill Richardson’s opening day speeches are customarily lengthy, with many accomplishments to talk about and a bucketful of projects and programs left to tackle.
Following the governor’s address, bills are introduced in both houses for a brief period and then both chambers recess for the day because everyone has worked through the noon hour and wants to get some lunch.
The following two days are devoted to a flurry of bill introductions in both houses. Legislative committees hold organizational meetings, but not much is discussed because the bills being introduced are not yet available for the public.
Suggestions have been made for years that bills be pre-filed, allowing them to be printed ahead of time so committee work can begin the first week. But legislative leaders feel they lose some control over the system if that happens.
The result is that by Thursday noon, the early flurry of bill introductions has subsided and there is nothing much to do, except for finance committees to meet. So, while bills are being printed, many lawmakers go home for their last song weekend. For those from the perimeters of the state, it may be the last chance to be home at all for the next two months.
New reporters in Santa Fe for the first time often don’t understand the system. So on Friday, you may see an expose about how the legislature is playing hooky already and slacking off on their jobs. That does not sit well with legislative leaders and the reporters sometimes pay for it.
One such reporter, years ago, was Conroy Chino, now the state Labor secretary.


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