Inside the Capitol

Thursday, March 19, 2009

And Now the End Is Near...

FRI, 3-20-09

SANTA FE - Ready or not, it all ends at 12 noon on Saturday. The official timepiece is the wristwatch of the majority leader of each house. It's not the clock on the wall that everyone on the chamber can see. That wouldn't be any fun.
It's those unseen timepieces that the House and Senate leaders control that tell the official time. And, of course, control and power are the names of the game that is played in the Legislature. The way things work is controlled by where the most power lies and who grabs the most.
No longer are there as many visible shenanigans. Majority leaders no longer stop the clock as they did 40 years ago. That was taken to court. And the court said 12 noon means 12 noon.
It's just gotten more subtle. The sign on the Senate webcasting screen says that nothing one sees is official. "Official" is determined by what Senate leaders declare is official.
The budget bill, which began in the House, has emerged from the Senate Finance Committee. Gov. Bill Richardson has declared himself dissatisfied with it because money has been taken from education to put in Senate pork barrel projects.
Money to purchase the College of Santa Fe campus was cleared from the budget. Teachers and state employees are still upset that they are expected to use their federal stimulus payments to offset 1.5 percent of the employer's share of their retirement benefit that they must pick up for two years.
A bill to readjust the public School distribution formula has made it through the House along with an increase of 0.75 in the state gross receipts tax. It doesn't have much time to get far in the Senate.
Efforts to extend health care haven't gone much of any place. Federal stimulus funds may help some. But progressives have lost another one.
The general rule is that the amount of time spent publicly discussing a topic varies in inverse proportion to its importance. Thus education, health care, and even the budget take a back seat to items of a process nature.
One of those big items is ethics, which breaks down into openness, honesty and transparency in government and elections. The Senate is known for dragging its feet on these issues, especially the leadership. After talking all session about it, some of those bills finally are being brought out of the dark in the final week, when only miracles can get them through the rest of the process on time.
An item that appeared to interest lawmakers was increasing the transparency of nonprofit organizations that venture close to political activity. But that now appears dead, as predicted here, because of far-reaching unintended consequences.
Openness of Senate sessions through video webcasting has been amusing. The Senate bought three cameras but decided to use only one stationary camera. It captures the backs, and bald heads, of nine of the 42 senators in the middle of the chamber. Even the senators see the humor.
On the good news side, a bill lowering title insurance costs is on its way to the governor. A second bill advocated by Think-New Mexico, to decrease the size of schools, has passed the Senate and is in the House.
As predicted here a week ago, late session tensions resulted in a temporary standoff between the House and Senate over slowness of the Senate in hearing House bills. The House recessed for a while on Wednesday while the pressure was relieved. The result was night sessions for both houses to catch up with work.
Expect late sessions again tonight as both houses move toward noon adjournment tomorrow. Saturday morning sessions are a wild card. Sometimes much happens. Sometimes nothing happens. The Senate sometimes filibusters. Once, it completed its work Friday night and had a huge party in the chamber all Saturday morning.

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