January 21, 2015

Sweeping changes to House committee structure clear first hurdle

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The New Mexico House of Representatives.

With the pomp and circumstance of the first day of the session in the past, the legislature got down to work.

And the first order of business of the new House majority was an effort to make drastic changes to the committees in the House.

In a House Rules and Order of Business Committee hearing that began on time at 9:00 — a pledge by new Speaker of the House Don Tripp who said they would start committee hearings on time — House Republicans voted to approve the changes that included replacing the House Voters and Elections and House Labor and Human Resources Committees as well as changes to most of the chamber’s other committees.

HR 1 passed on a 10-8 party line vote.

The resolution including the rules changes is expected on the House floor later this week.

House Democrats had significant questions about the changes.

“We’re two days in and it very much seems that they’re trying to impose this Washington D.C. dysfunction,” Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, told New Mexico Political Report after the hearing.

Six of the eight Democratic members of the committee had comments on the proposed changes. They expressed concerns about the proposed committee changes, especially the removal of the Voters and Elections and Labor committees.

House Minority Whip Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, said she was “taken aback” by the removal of the Voters and Elections Committee. Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said “if nothing else” the symbolism of removing the Voters and Elections Committee was telling.

Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, suggested the proposed House Government and Indian Affairs Committee should be named the House Government, Voters and Indian Affairs Committee. The change was approved it was the only change proposed during the committee hearing.

Still, Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, said it was “troubling” that it would no long be a standalone committee.

“It was kind of a home for all those voting advocates on both sides of every single issue,” Martinez said. He said that now advocates will have to wait longer to hear voting issues.

Other changes approved by the committee received significant disapproval from the Democrats on the panel. Those included the removal of the House Labor and Human Resources Committee, which is being folded into the new House Business and Employment Committee, the change of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee to the House Ways and Means Committee and the addition of wildlife to the Agriculture, Water Resources and Wildlife Committee.

“Wildlife is a natural resource and it is owned by the public,” Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said.

Speaker of the House Don Tripp, R-Socorro, said that there will always be debate on where certain bills go.

“We could argue back and forth and never reach a real consensus,” Tripp said. “There are implied jurisdictions.”

House Chief of Staff Ryan Gleason explained the proposed change of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee to the House Ways and Means Committee, saying, “Taxation has a negative connotation out there.”

He also explained that nearly two dozen other states and the United States House of Representatives have Ways and Means committees instead of Taxation and Revenue committees.

“We’re looking to grow the jurisdiction of that committee” to entitlement programs, Gentry said about the change in names and jurisdiction.

Andy Lyman contributed to this report.

Correction:

A previous version of this story said that Brian Egolf had proposed the addition of “Voters” to the House Voters, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee. It was actually Moe Maesta. We regret the error.