January 21, 2018

Ceremonial measures: Building camaraderie but squandering time

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New Mexico State Senate. Wikicommons

At the end of every legislative session, there are dozens of bills that die on the House or Senate floor.

When asked what happened, legislative leaders invariably shrug their shoulders and say, “We just ran out of time …”

Which is true. But in the days and weeks that lead to the last moments of a session, lawmakers eat up untold hours — joking around, talking sports, engaging in ceremonial activities and spending time on legislation that doesn’t have the force of law.

Call these activities “time bandits.”

Gov. Susana Martinez last year struck a chord — even with some of her critics — when she blasted lawmakers for spending time on “meaningless bills,” such as those to establish an official state dance or state holiday song or official state hamburger. Martinez was unhappy because the Senate did not hold confirmation hearings on many of her nominees and didn’t pass bills she was pushing.

The time the House and Senate spend on nonbinding pieces of legislation, known as memorials, causes much of the heartburn. But defenders of the practice say it gives lawmakers a chance to express their position on an issue.

Sometimes, memorials request a state agency to conduct a study on some matter. Other times, they state a position on a controversial political matter, such as one that proposes opposition to construction of a federal border wall on state land. These normally produce lengthy partisan spats if they make it to the floor.

Often, memorials simply honor some person, place or thing in New Mexico — a high school sports team, a politician who has died, or a New Mexico town or city. Many municipalities are bestowed a designated day of honor.

Veteran legislators often defend this use of their time, saying it helps build camaraderie and allows lawmakers to blow off steam. Some also argue that the House and Senate often take up nonbinding memorials because something has caused a delay in hearing a bill.

Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, said some memorials dealing with important issues can make a difference. For instance, a few years ago he sponsored one calling on the Legislative Finance Committee to look at the effects of legalizing marijuana. McCamley later used those findings to craft his own legalization bill.

Even memorials that honor a person for their accomplishment have value, he said.

“It really makes somebody’s day,” McCamley said. “To have a piece of paper signed by everyone for some accomplishment may not be important for us, but it’s important to them.”

All of this can grate on the nerves of those watching legislative proceedings from the galleries or on the Legislature’s webcast.

Some lawmakers have criticized the practice. In 2012, then House Republican Whip Don Bratton of Hobbs introduced a tongue-in-cheek memorial calling for a second legislative session that year just to handle memorials.

In that memorable memorial memorial, Bratton noted that in 1996, there were only seven House memorials introduced. But in 2012, there were nearly 80. Bratton’s legislation said memorials in the House alone that year cost the taxpayers roughly $35 per page for 450 pages and that the House had spent an average of two hours a day debating them.

And it’s only gotten worse. In 2016, the most recent 30-day session, there were 110 memorials plus nine joint memorials introduced in the House — and even more in the Senate.

In less than a week after the current session convened, the House has introduced 22 memorials and joint memorials, while the Senate has introduced 24. To be fair, many appear serious, covering legitimate issues such as creating a UNM Movement Disorders Center, reviewing other states’ workers’ compensation trends and forming an opioid crisis subcommittee.

But there also are the usual ceremonial time-wasters: OK’ing a 50th-anniversary Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta stamp; celebrating “Santa Fe Day” and “Las Vegas Day.” And both the House and Senate have memorials calling for a study on a possible sugary-beverage tax. They could just study this: Last year, voters in liberal Santa Fe overwhelmingly rejected such a tax.

Longtime observers say perhaps the most esoteric memorial in recent memory was the one carried for three straight sessions by the late Rep. Eric Youngberg, R-Albuquerque. That timeless piece of legislation declared that ancient Macedonians should be recognized as Hellenes, and that the inhabitants of the northern province of Greece, as well as Macedonia, should be recognized as their descendants. Youngberg, who died in 2010, said he introduced the measure as a favor to a Greek friend. The House finally passed the memorial in 2007.

But memorials aren’t the only time bandits you might see during this session. Here are some others:

“I’d like to introduce my guests”: Each day, both chambers start out with a flag salute, a prayer and then a tedious procession of lawmakers introducing their young pages — usually listing the kid’s parents, school, hobbies and other vital information — and recognizing people in the gallery, such as relatives, stray dignitaries and rows of bored-looking students.

How ’bout them Vikings?: If you miss the Super Bowl this year, don’t worry. Just drop by the Roundhouse the next day, and you’ll hear the Monday-morning quarterbacks of the Legislature relive the whole game during the morning floor sessions. Even more so with the annual House-Senate charity basketball game, which is scheduled for Feb. 5.

Praising the dead: When a former legislator dies — at least those who have been in the Roundhouse recently enough to have worked with some of the current members — he or she will get a tearful send-off from both the House and the Senate. These normally last for at least an hour. Veteran Democratic Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela of Santa Fe died last year, so he’s bound to get this treatment — even though the no-nonsense, wonkish Varela probably would have preferred his former colleagues work on legislation instead.

So long, it’s been good to know ya: Some lawmakers also give the roses to the living. When a legislator is retiring, colleagues will lavish them with praise, as well as humorous stories (which usually aren’t that funny). This is the last regular session for longtime Rep. Nick Salazar, D-Ohkay Owingeh, who announced he will not seek re-election to the seat he was first elected to in 1972. He’s bound to receive a lengthy tribute on the House floor and maybe even in the Senate, where Salazar has many friends. Also leaving are three representatives running for higher office. McCamley is running for state auditor, while Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo, is running for the U.S. House and Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, is running for state land commissioner. Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, has said he won’t run again. House members are bound to take time to salute these colleagues and any others who announce retirement in the next three weeks. None of the senators are facing re-election this year, so there will be fewer retirements there.

What about that official state burger?: New Mexico has a state bird, a state cookie, a state gem, even a designated aircraft, which all began with legislation. But because of criticism last year from the governor — and because it’s a short session — there probably will be fewer of those type of bills this year.

But doesn’t it strike you as odd that there is no official New Mexico state hair-metal song?

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexica­n.com. Read his blog at http://www.santafenewmexican.com/roundhouse_roundup.