February 11, 2016

Sometimes, bills in NM take years to finally pass

The issue of driver’s licenses and who in New Mexico should be able to have them is a long-running topic in the New Mexico Legislature.

Indications say, an agreement should happen this year thanks to pressure from the federal government.

RoundhouseHowever, it is only one such issue with a long and winding road towards passage.

Many lawmakers in the Roundhouse agree that it is common for bills to see years of debates, years of committee assignments and years of failure before they make it to the fourth floor and the Governor can sign them into law.

A number of current laws have spent years being fine-tuned and changed in order to gain more traction. In 2009, Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, saw her decade-long effort to abolish the death penalty become a reality when Gov. Bill Richardson signed the bill into law.

Former Democratic Senator Dede Feldman of Albuquerque has seen a number of repeat bills in her 15 years in the legislature. Feldman said it is generally understood that passing laws is a slow and steady race.

“It is the conventional wisdom that reform takes a long time and you’re not going to win it the first time out,” Feldman said. “It will take two, three, four, maybe five times before a measure passes in full.”

Other times, Feldman said, high profile situations can speed up the process.

“Timing is everything and if something big happens there is a tendency to react and to want to do something,” Feldman said.

Feldman told NM Political Report that the issue of creating an independent ethics commission falls somewhere in between. There have been numerous attempts to create an ethics panel in the past ten years, always unsuccessful. Feldman said ethics are on the minds of New Mexicans, considering two high profile cases involving elected officials and money.

“No question that this gains new urgency with Dianna Duran and with Phil Griego,” Feldman said, referring to the former Secretary of State who resigned ahead of pleading guilty to six criminal counts of embezzlement and fraud and the state Senator who resigned after violating the state constitution.

There’s also the issue of elections for the entire legislature coming up. Feldman said both Democrats and Republicans will most likely use the ethics commission to attack opponents if the bill is not passed.

“If nothing happens, I’d think the issue is ready for partisan plucking,” she said.

Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, said he has had some experience with persistently filing bills that don’t make it to the Governor’s desk. He said often it’s a matter of just making sure a bill gets a good audience.

“A lot of times it has to due with exposure to different members who hadn’t seen it or hadn’t paid attention to it the previous year and helping to hear concerns and then being able to address those concerns,” Roch said.

Of the driver’s license debate, Roch said New Mexicans have seen some significant changes in how lawmakers view the subject.

“If you looked at his issue five years ago the pendulum swung from full repeal of the old 2003 law to status quo, nothing changes,” Roch told NM Political Report. “[Now] we’re right in the middle and the little gap between us is primarily fingerprinting.”

That legislation passed the House, as it has for years, and advanced through two Senate committees. It is now waiting a third committee hearing while the two sides negotiate.

Rep. Andy Nuñez, R-Hatch, a cosponsor of the House driver’s license bill, and a long time supporter of repealing the current law, said he is confident that his bill will finally make it to Gov. Susana Martinez’ desk.

“I think we’ll get this out,” Nunez said.

Not everyone is as optimistic about where their perennial bills are this year.

Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, introduced a measure last year to legalize and tax marijuana sales in the state. The new House Republican leadership assigned his bill to five committees and the bill stalled in the first committee. Generally three committee assignments is considered a kiss of death for a bill; most bills receive two committee assignments.

This year, his marijuana bill has not advanced past the House Rules Committee where it would normally be assigned committees.

McCamley previously told NM Political Report that his goal was to continue pushing the proposal with the hopes to create a well-crafted bill, possibly years down the road. He said his plan to inform other lawmakers of the benefits of taxing marijuana like alcohol has been somewhat derailed.

“Unfortunately this year, the Republican leadership decided to shunt it off to the Rules Committee which hasn’t met,” McCamley said.  “So they’re killing it without a discussion.”

Bills are sent to the Rules Committee to decide if they are germane or not in 30-day session. Bills that are not deemed germane cannot be discussed. Generally, bills are pulled from there by the Speaker when the governor sends a message that the topic can be discussed.

McCamley cited a recent poll that showed a majority of New Mexicans want legalized marijuana and said he hopes to keep pushing the issue and continue the conversation.

“As Brad Pitt said in Moneyball, ‘It’s a process,’” McCamley said.

For now, though, he said, “We’re not even having the discussion and that’s not the way that I really like public policy to go.”