Short circuiting the process

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Behind the curtain of last week’s house meltdown

By Sherry Robinson

Little girls in flamenco costumes filled a ladies room in the state capitol one day last week, primping before they danced in the rotunda, a gentle appeal to preserve funding for arts and culture.
These diminutive, ruffled lobbyists are one of many such waves coursing through the Roundhouse, all with a message. They’re the backdrop to a lot of political theater and explain, in part, the meltdown we saw last week in the house and its precedent-setting outcome.
On the legislative session’s first day, the Tea Party held a rally outside. For the next week, we saw a succession of education proponents, including early childhood advocates with small children in tow.
Human Rights Day produced a massive rally in support of undocumented immigrants – and their driver’s licenses. They wore t-shirts saying, “We chose New Mexico, too.”
Another day, hundreds of the elderly handed out heart-shaped AARP fans. The film people made a dramatic showing in t-shirts reading, “We are New Mexico.”
Meanwhile, citizens stream through lawmakers’ offices. An elderly woman with a walker inches through a cramped waiting room. College students in school colors plead with their legislator to not raise tuition.
Contrary to what you’ve heard, citizens’ voices are heard. Usually.
Last week, Rep. Andy Nunez succeeded in plucking his bill from the committee that tabled it and dragged it onto the house floor, a maneuver the longest-serving members could only remember occurring once.
We may not always agree with their decisions, but committees filter, study and often improve bills. Some die because they weren’t well thought out, others because they’re unnecessary or fly against majority opinion.
HB 78 would repeal driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. The unconventional move, coupled with the divisive subject matter, led to 13 hours of emotional speechifying. In the six or seven hours I heard, two words popped up repeatedly: “my constituents.”
Nunez insisted he’d heard from hundreds of constituents demanding this bill. Rep. Eliseo Alcon said he’d heard from his own constituents and many of Nunez’s. “They’re the people who clean your hotels and pick your chile,” Alcon told the Hatch farmer.
Pundits look for the wizard behind the curtain, and in this case the wizard is in plain sight. Gov. Susana Martinez campaigned on this issue (as did her opponent) and wants to deliver.
Critics think she’s pushing a wedge issue to raise her profile as a national Republican candidate, but about this time in a session, previous governors have flexed their muscles to get bills passed. The difference is that none have upended the process itself.
Democrats expended a lot of lung capacity trying to rip open Nunez’s curtain, but he performed like a coached witness in a big trial, with some polished, prepared Republicans defending him.
Some, no doubt, assumed Nunez acted out of revenge, having paid a price for failing to dethrone the house speaker. His transformation began earlier. In his 10 years as a representative, Nunez has carried water and agriculture-related bills and championed the occasional liberal cause. In the 2010 session, his House Memorial declared solidarity with the people of Ciudad Juarez.
In November, he won a close election against a Republican who now chairs the Las Cruces Tea Party. One day after refusing to vote for House Speaker Ben Lujan, Nunez introduced the bill in question. In rapid succession, he changed his party affiliation to Independent, agreed to change his bill to suit the governor and saw his bill tabled.
Maybe it was about his constituents. The result nonetheless is a precedent that will smack everyone in the teeth. Now anybody who disagrees with a committee decision can short circuit the process.
It’s a long way from the wishes of most constituents. They still want lawmakers to stop this foolishness and work together to solve problems.

Sherry Robinson
LA News Services