BY CLIFFORD M. REES, JD
The COVID-19 Pandemic has impacted most, if not all, of New Mexico life, including the operation of the New Mexico Legislature. The spotlight on the New Mexico Legislature highlights needed reform of the legislative process to bring the institution into the early 21st Century.
In this article, I will outline past efforts to reform the New Mexico Legislature and what legal authorities individually, and in some cases collectively, need to be scrutinized to effectuate reform. I will close by making 15 specific recommendations to modernize the New Mexico Legislature.
BACKGROUND TO LEGISLATIVE REFORM
From 2007-2008, an appointed Legislative Restructuring Task Force met and made recommendations to update the New Mexico Legislature. (See “Publications” on the New Mexico Legislative Website for its recommendations). Since issuing its recommendations, only the Open Conference Committee recommendation was enacted in the 2009 Legislative Session (See Section 10-15-2 NMSA 1978 of the NM Open Meetings Act, being Laws 2009, Chapter 105).
STRUCTURAL CHANGE and PROCESS CHANGE
The legal basis for the New Mexico legislative process rests on five sources: the New Mexico Constitution, New Mexico statutes, New Mexico caselaw and House Rules, Senate Rules and Joint Rules established by the vote of the State House and/or State Senate. If an issue is not covered by any of the previous legal authorities, the default is to Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure (2020 Edition), published by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
15 Proposed Suggestions to Modernize the New Mexico Legislature:
- pay Legislators approximately $45,000 – $50,000 annually, perhaps based on the average NM salary (requires an amendment to the NM Constitution);
- provide each Legislator at least one Legislative Analyst to help their Legislator prepare and track bills, amendments and substitutions, prepare testimony and witnesses, track Committee hearings & votes;
- provide a District Office for all legislators who live more than 25 miles from Santa Fe, staffed by a constituent services liaison like members of the US Congress have in their home Districts;
- update the NM Legislative Web Page maintained by the Legislative Council Service by increasing the period covered for past legislation from 1995 -present to 1975 – present;
- post the roll call votes on the NM Legislative Website for Motions to Table taken during Committee hearings and Floor proceedings;
- post proposed amendments and substitute bills when they are being debated during Committee hearings and Floor proceedings on the Legislative Website;
- require the Legislative Council Service to post its Informational Memos and Style Manual under “Publications” on the Legislative Website.
- limit the number of bills a Legislator can introduce (Query: Does this constitute a First Amendment infringement of Speech Issue imposed on Legislators?)
- limit the time spent in Committee and on the Floor on Memorials that aren’t legally binding; limit the number of other ceremonial events on the Floor;
- limit the time on Floor Debates – For the House of Representatives – 1.5 hours; for the Senate – 1 hour. (Half the current times allowed for debate by the Rules of each House);
- require Committee Chairs to schedule every bill referred to that Committee unless asked to be removed from the Agenda by the Bill Sponsor;
- reform the Interim process between Regular Sessions (See House Joint Memorial 1, 2020 Regular Session, co-sponsored by Representatives Daymon Ely and Greg Nibert);
- create a written legislative history for each bill similar to the U.S. Congress; currently NM Courts interprets the “plain meaning” of the language of the bill itself as to the bill’s legislative intent;
- annual 60 -90-day Sessions, all bills are germane, with a one-week mandatory recess at the midway point (requires an amendment to the NM Constitution); and
- continue to broadcast Committee and Floor proceedings on the Legislative Website but provide more transparency in the process to annually create the General Appropriations Act (aka “the State Budget”) and “Junior” appropriation legislation to supplement the State Budget).
I invite additional suggestions for legislative reforms that I may have overlooked. Our State Capitol, commonly known as “The Roundhouse”, is “the people’s house” and we all have a stake in what transpires there. Democracy is not a spectator sport!
Editor’s note: Clifford M. Rees, JD is an attorney living in Santa Fe with a special interest in New Mexico’s legislative process. He has served as seasonal legislative staff and as a legislative contractor since his retirement from the Executive Branch of NM State Government in the Fall of 2005.