February 20, 2015

‘Dummy bills’ can introduce new, resurrect bills late in the session

The last day to file to file legislation for this session was Thursday, but there is still a good chance new bills will surface before March 21.

Each legislative session a set number of bill templates are filed, then later amended. These bills are informally known as dummy bills and are sometimes used to create last-minute legislation or to save legislation that previously failed.

A common practice for lawmakers is to file bills with no actual content for use to pass  last-minute legislation. These last-minute bills, commonly called ‘dummy bills,’ are more officially referred to as ‘generic bills’.

These generic bills consist of a generic title and no actual content. The New Mexico constitution allows for certain bills to be streamlined through the legislation process. According to Article IV, Section 15:

“No bill, except bills to provide for the public peace, health and safety, and the codification or revision of the laws, shall become a law unless it has been printed, and read three different times in each house, not more than two of which readings shall be on the same day, and the third of which shall be in full.”

Often these blank bills are used as a placeholder for last minute legislation. In previous years, generic bills have become signature bills of a legislative session.

In 2013, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, introduced a bill to increase tax credits for television shows filmed in New Mexico. The bill made it to Gov. Susana Martinez’s desk, where it was vetoed before the end of the session. The day before the session ended, Maestas revived HB 641, a generic bill that had been sitting idle for a month. The original title said the bill pertained to public peace, health, safety and welfare.

It was quickly amended in committee and went straight to the House floor. The new bill went before the full House with significant additions.

Within 24 hours, HB 641 was sent to the Senate, which further amended the bill and sent it back to the House for a concurrence vote. The Senate added a tax incentive for businesses, something they knew the governor would approve.

The bill was known, unofficially, as the “Breaking Bad Bill” and passed the House with seconds to spare. The timing was so close that some lawmakers argued that Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, who was Speaker of the House at the time, allowed the vote after the clock ran out.

“The governor vetoed [the original bill] about five o’ clock, Thursday, the speaker sent it to [the Business and Industry Committee] and we got it passed on the House floor on Friday morning,” Maestas said.

In 2014, a bill that affected college scholarships began as a generic bill. Senate Majority Leader, Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, used SB 347 to tighten the requirements of the Lottery Scholarship.

These bills were the exception, not the rule.

Most generic bills stay dormant through the end of the legislative session. Even if a bill gets traction in the last days, the clock keeps ticking and the task of passage becomes more difficult.

In 2013,  Ken Martinez amended a generic bill to change a provision of the Public Records Request Act to protect certain individuals’ identities. His HB 627 was introduced with 15 days left in the 60-day session and easily passed the House with five days to spare. The bill never made to the Senate floor for a vote.

Martinez told New Mexico Political Report that generic bills serve a purpose and help lawmakers make last minute decisions.

“What they’re there for is usually to take care of unforeseen circumstances,” Martinez said. “They shouldn’t be used extensively, and they never are.”

There were 96 generic bills filed on Thursday. They are split evenly among the House and Senate.