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Anyone who pays attention to the Legislature has had this experience: Differing versions of a bill pass the House and Senate; the bills go to a conference committee; the bill that comes out is very different from the two that went in.
What happened? Hard to tell. Why? Because New Mexico is among a handful of states that close conference committee meetings. So what? Well, do you want government to conduct business in the open or behind closed doors?
The perception is that conference committees “reconcile” differences between versions of the same bill. In fact, they have considerable power to craft legislation. While joint legislative rules say the conference committee can’t alter the bills that come to it “unless the item has been the subject of a legislative committee hearing during the session,” that’s broad language. Nearly anything discussed during a committee hearing can become part of a conference committee’s final bill, including ideas that were rejected or ideas brought up solely for the purpose of preserving them for later use in conference.
But when the bill comes out of conference committee, the House and Senate must take it as presented – no changes.
That’s how conference committees can and do make law in secret, circumventing the democratic process.
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