Inside the Capitol

Friday, February 17, 2006

2-22 Not Enough Time

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- The 2006 Legislature accomplished the task for which short sessions are designed. So they've packed up and gone home. Now it's up to Gov. Bill Richardson to decide whether he wants to call them back to tend to his unfinished business.
Originally, legislative sessions weren't scheduled for even-numbered years. Biennial budgets were crafted to covered two years. But several decades ago lawmakers decided too much changed during a two-year period to make biennial budgets workable.
So quickie sessions were authorized to set a budget in odd-numbered years. There was no reason other matters couldn't wait another year. In case of emergencies, the governor was given the power to add items to a session, but since most governors back then were former legislative leaders, that privilege was not abused.
But along came a governor with a boundless supply of energy and an expectation that everyone should want to work the 18-hour days he puts in. It has lost him staff members and now it is losing him some lawmaker support.
It isn't just Republican legislators who said "enough of that" this year. Senate Democrats felt the same way. Sure, all the items Richardson assigned to lawmakers at the beginning of the session might have been handled if lawmakers had done nothing else.
But New Mexico's legislators are social creatures. They gather for a brief time every year to make many important decisions. To do that, they need to get to know and trust each other and become as much of a team as possible.
Some of that interaction takes place in floor sessions with the public and press watching. Birthdays and holidays are celebrated. There is some form of diversion almost every day.
New Mexico's legislators also are political creatures. When constituents come to town, they are introduced to the chamber. Often those constituents desire further recognition, so they are given passes to sit on the rostrum, near the speaker of the House or president of the Senate.
And sometimes those constituents are interested in getting memorials passed honoring themselves, their organization or a particular cause. All this takes valuable time, but reelection campaigns always are around the corner and they are valuable too.
Important people also like to address the Legislature. Among them are the state's five members of Congress, who schedule different times to be in town and spend a day with the Legislature. Any remaining time is devoted to business. And sometimes that isn't much.
All states do it, but New Mexicans may spend more time on niceties than most. I'm pretty folksy, but sometimes I'm criticized for getting down to business more quickly than is considered socially acceptable in New Mexico.
I only have a third of a column left and I'm just getting down to discussing the end of the 2006 Legislature. How's that for making a point?
Considering that this was a budget session, lawmakers accomplished quite a bit. In addition to a $5.1 billion state budget, they passed $900 million in construction projects, including a healthy start at a $225 million spaceport and a $393 million commuter train.
They approved 80 percent of Gov. Richardson's Year of the Child initiative, drafted a constitutional amendment to create a water trust fund, cracked down on meth labs and got a start on anti-corruption legislation.
But they didn't get very far on Gov. Richardson's agenda. They didn't pass even a compromise form of the minimum wage bill he dearly wanted. They barely got started on his anti-corruption measures. Once again, they didn't regulate payday lenders. And they approved very little of his tax-cut package.
Richardson has 20 days following the session to decide whether to sign or veto what lawmakers did pass. Those decisions will be linked to whether he decides to call a special session while he and House members are seeking reelection later this year.
WED, 2-22-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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