Inside the Capitol

Monday, February 11, 2008

2-13 Governor Missing In Action

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- The "do-nothing" Legislature found Gov. Bill Richardson missing in action last Saturday night. The result may be bad news for a peaceful end to the 2008 session and may even signal a special session.
In general, legislative sessions are predictable. But some sessions have a little twist. Last year, for the first time during Gov. Richardson's administration, lawmakers got the big budget bill to him more than three days before the end of the session.
That meant the governor had to take action on the measure before the session adjourned. The result was considerably fewer line-item vetoes than when Richardson had 20 days following the session to take action.
This year, lawmakers got three money bills to the governor ahead of the bell, but the governor's office was locked and no one was available to accept the bills.
So legislative leaders presented the package to Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who presides over the Senate. Denish agreed to accept the bills for the missing governor.
Did the lieutenant governor have that authority? Was the governor required to have someone available to accept bills from the Legislature? And why is the timing so important?
It's a game of high stakes strategy. If the governor has to exercise his vetoes before the Legislature adjourns, lawmakers have time to override those vetoes. They also can punish the governor by voting against his pet bills in the final days.
But if the governor can wait for 20 days following the session, lawmakers can't override vetoes without calling an extraordinary special session, which requires a supermajority of lawmakers to accomplish.
The result is that lawmakers have to be careful about how they treat the governor's favorite legislation in the final days lest they incur his displeasure and suffer more vetoes as a result.

Attorney General Gary King was asked for an opinion about the legalities but there have also been calls for court action. The main problem appears to be a failure to communicate.
The governor and Legislature both do their business in the Capitol. Governors usually stick around when the Legislature is in session in order to be available in case someone wants to talk.
Ideally, the governor's staff should have checked with legislative leaders before totally vacating the building. Someone with the authority to accept bills should have been left on duty. And ideally, legislative leaders would have notified the governor of their intent to send bills to his office on a Saturday evening.
One of the disappointments of this legislative session has been the lack of movement of ethics legislation. "Good government" groups, such as Common Cause, feel that such legislation is necessary to bolster the public's confidence in government, especially following the scandals New Mexico has experienced the past few years.
But ethics legislation always moves slowly. It doesn't enjoy lobbyists with deep pockets twisting arms of reluctant lawmakers. Every new piece of ethics legislation has lawmakers doing more reporting, accepting less money or fewer gifts or undergoing more severe penalties if they are caught breaking the rules.
If the ethics legislation requires more reporting or disclosures by lobbyists, it won't move quickly either because those are the people who have the ear of lawmakers. So even in the wake of government scandals, the majority of lawmakers have the tendency to want to make change as slowly as possible.
All in all, it's been a fairly typical Legislature -- much smoke and little fire. That's not all bad. A good half the legislation on the books is likely unnecessary or even harmful. Some lawmakers feel their purpose in Santa Fe is to keep bad legislation from passing.
And most of the deep-pocketed lobbyists are there for the same reason. They look for proposed legislation that regulates their clients businesses and assure that it gets tucked away in some committee chairman's drawer never to see the light of day.
WED, 2-13-08

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



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