Inside the Capitol

Saturday, February 18, 2006

2-24 Games Politicos Play

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- Recently a rookie state senator commented that the Senate had all the guns in a fight with the governor. He's wrong. In a democracy, the guns are spread, albeit unevenly, among all public officials.
By the end of the 2006 Legislature we got to see what kind of heat the various participants were packing.
We saw bills that obviously weren't going to make it through the process because the Democratic leadership of one house or the other had assigned them to too many committees, or to committees known for killing such measures.
We saw bills languish because committee chairmen refused to let them be heard or acted upon. We saw bills make it to the floor of the House or Senate and sit on the table day after day without being considered.
We saw battles between the House and Senate over which chamber was holding up the other's bills. The common revenge, in this battle of equals, was to stop hearing any of the other chamber's bills.
We witnessed the tug-of- war between Gov. Bill Richardson and the Legislature over action on the governor's package.
In the final hours of the session, Republican members of the House and Senate finally got to unholster the minority party's small-caliber weapon -- the mini-filibuster. Unlimited filibusters, as sometimes seen in Washington, aren't allowed in the New Mexico Legislature.
But the rules permit a few hours of extended debate. That doesn't pack much of a punch until the final morning of a legislative session, which must end at noon. Then all bills still remaining are fair game.
And usually they are all shot down in one final filibuster. This year, after a session-ending filibuster in the House, Rep. Dan Foley, one of the filibuster participants, said the tactic will continue until Republicans are treated fairly.
That means only one thing. Filibusters will continue, because the minority party will always be treated unfairly. Would anything change if Republicans became the majority party?
Back in the '80s, coalitions of Republicans and conservative Democrats took control of both houses of the Legislature and the minority party still was treated unfairly. In fact, coalition leaders found some ingenious new ways of violating minority rights.
Take a look at Congress if you want to see New Mexico in reverse. Democrats threaten a filibuster and Republicans call them obstructionists. They ask that the issue just be given an up-or-down vote. That's only fair, they say.
That's a tactic New Mexico Democratic legislators haven't used. Democrat leaders usually just make a grudging acknowledgement of the minority's rights. Does that indicate our lawmakers are less mean than those in Washington?
Probably so, but it could also mean that some of the bills meeting their death in the final hours of the Legislature weren't favorites of Democrat leaders either.
Many of those bills were part of the huge package sent down by Gov. Richardson. How convenient to let Republicans take the rap.
Of course, the governor understands this too and he has numerous weapons in his arsenal. He has a veto pen, which also can be used for line-item vetoes of appropriation bills. And he can call lawmakers back into a dreaded special session during campaign season.
The special session issue is a two-edged sword for the governor. If he calls one, the outcome could be the same as in the regular session. Former Gov. Toney Anaya called three special sessions one year with no luck. The Senate decided not to even show up for the third session.
But if Richardson doesn't call a special session, the image of the powerful governor is gone, and with it, some prestige on the national scene.
Gov. Richardson must choose his weapons carefully for this one. He would be smart to quit trying to act like Lyndon Johnson and go back to using the diplomatic skills at which he has already proved himself most adept.
FRI, 2-24-06

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



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