Committee upon committee

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By Harold Morgan

Our legislature is about process. Analogies to producing products, such as writing a computer program, making furniture, or creating and serving a restaurant meal don’t work. That figures.
The legislature is a big committee consisting of somewhat smaller, but still sizeable committees — the 70-member House and the 42-member Senate. The two chambers in turn break into smaller committees with overlapping membership. Party membership creates two other committees overlaying everything else.
“The Legislature’s primary job (is) development of the state’s budget,” the Legislative Council Service reminds us in “Highlights 2013,” its policy summary of what is properly called the 51st Legislature, First Session, 2013. The 2013 session was limited to 60 days. Any topic could be considered.
A session of the legislature has two other functions, both outside the scope of the LCS summary.
First, the session provides a forum for focusing public attention on the issues of the day. The issues may be substantive, such as gay marriage, or silly, such as the Senate Rules Committee not voting to confirm (or dump) Hanna Skandera as Secretary of the Department of Public Education.
Albuquerque Democrat Sen. Linda Lopez, Rules Committee chair, said the committee (meaning herself) just couldn’t get around to scheduling a vote, even after 10 hours of hearings on the nomination. Lopez is running for governor with a pitch of “new energy.” Right.
Between substantive and silly lies the continuing pursuit by Gov. Susana Martinez of not offering driver’s licenses to people in the country illegally.
Session time also turns the Capitol into a sort of community meeting place and street theater for citizens.
During the session the Legislature melds two budgets to map state government’s work for budget year starting July 1. One budget comes from the Legislative Finance Committee and the other from the governor.
While our Legislature is commonly described as a citizen legislature (true) with members who serve without salary (true, but they get per diem expense reimbursement) with specific limits on the length of the session (also true), the interim committees — 29 of them this year — extend the time of legislative activity to nine or 10 months of the year.
Committees have started the 2013 work. The Land Grant Committee had a June 11 meeting. The Legislative Finance Committee met in May and usually gathers each month during the summer and early fall and then more often toward the end of the year.
With all this process stuff, getting something done takes a while. A nice example comes from Senate Bill 99, the Dental Amalgam Waste Reduction Act, which passed this year. Dental amalgams are used in making tooth cement and contain mercury. In 2006, water supply concerns generated a House Memorial requesting that the Department of Health study the dangers of mercury amalgam. Then Rep. (now Senator) Peter Wirth, Santa Fe Democrat, was the sponsor. (A memorial is a type of legislation that often says, “Please do something.”)
The processing, plus some bright ideas from individual legislators, turned into 1,814 pieces of legislation, including 1,468 bills. Subtracting substitute bills leaves 1,245 real bills. The rest were joint resolutions, joint memorials, memorials and one concurrent resolution. House members generated 754 bills with 714 coming from senators. Nearly all these bills are separate from the budget, which is jammed into just a few bills, most famously House Bill 2.
Just under a quarter of the bills passed. Martinez signed 224 and partly vetoed four.
The legislation, successful and otherwise, comes with both themes and grand topics and individual, specific items. Next time, we will look at the grand and the detail.