Contrarian thinking to legislature

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By Merilee Dannemann

There’s an old saying that no one is safe when the Legislature is in session.
Most of us wouldn’t argue about whether a lawmaking body is needed; the pace of change in modern society dictates that laws must be added and updated regularly. But the glib little saying is a sharp reminder that there’s always a risk. A legislator once commented to me that the Legislature spends 90 percent of its time correcting its previous mistakes.
A couple of arguments about our New Mexico legislative process arise year after year, especially during the crowded 30-day sessions.  
First, shouldn’t the 30-day sessions be longer – maybe expanded to 45 days? Why does the darn thing have to be so rushed? Isn’t the state’s business so important that more of it needs to be done, and aren’t the issues so complex that more time is needed for analysis and understanding? Second, closely following on the first, shouldn’t legislators be paid a real salary instead of just per diem expenses? The current system restricts participation to those who can afford to serve without pay (except for certain public school employees we’ve been reading about, but that’s another topic). Wouldn’t we get more thorough review of proposed laws, and a more broadly representative body of lawmakers, if participation were more open to those with ability, regardless of their income?
So here are some arguments for “no” and “no.”
The number of bills introduced has increased quite a lot in recent years. Has the increase happened because more legislation is necessary or just because it’s possible? Communication technology has made the processes faster and easier. Nowadays it’s hard to remember life before e-mail and instant printing. Today it’s possible to fling words around much faster in much greater quantities than ever before.
A bill does not really exist until it has been officially introduced on the floor of the Senate or House during the session. But the Legislature has invented a new process called pre-filing which allows bills to be fully prepared and almost introduced in advance, an efficiency that helps get more bills into the mill, which some old timers would no doubt call a sacrilege.  
There will always be pressure from constituents to solve more problems by introducing more legislation on more subjects – sometimes a good thing, but not always. The constitutional time limit controls that pressure, and some legislators are grateful for it.
Like a full pipeline, the legislative process will tend always to be filled to its carrying capacity. If the capacity increases, so will the number of bills, and the workload will be just as stressful as it is today.
Committee hearings occasionally start in the afternoon and last until 3 a.m., and unhappy constituents are forced to stay lest their bill be heard when they aren’t there to defend their position. Longer sessions won’t stop that.
And should we start paying legislators a real salary rather than just per diem? According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a dozen states have “citizen” legislatures, but New Mexico is the only state paying only a per diem expense allowance.
We hear no arguments for a year-round, full-time Legislature, thank goodness. So it must be asked, would a part-time salary be enough to enable new groups of people to run for office? They would still, as today, need another source of income. People with full-time jobs or businesses to run would still face the same obstacles as today in taking time off for legislative service. An eventual shift to legislative salary may be inevitable, but we can’t be sure that this would result in the kinds of improvements that idealists wish for.
Contact Merilee Dannemann   through triplespacedagain.com.