Single subject principles

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By Merilee Dannemann

There’s a hidden lesson for New Mexicans in the federal government shutdown. It shouldn’t be hidden.
Most of us are alarmed, frightened and furious about the shutdown and the paralysis of government decision-making process at its highest level.
We understand why it’s happening: one issue is being held hostage to another issue.
In the United States House of Representatives, a member cannot vote on a so-called “clean” bill that simply restores funding to the entire government. Because of the passionate opposition of some members to Obamacare, every bill allowed on the floor to fund the government incorporates a provision de-funding or delaying Obamacare.
Any member who wants to vote for the basic purpose of the bill has to vote for the anti-Obamacare care provision also because the two matters are written into one bill.
Regardless of what you think about the Obamacare law, this is a nasty technique. It’s sometimes called log rolling — bundling unpopular legislation into more palatable bills, so that the popular bills carry the unpopular provisions to passage.
Something like this could not be done in New Mexico, or in most other states. Our protection is a state Constitution provision known as the single-subject rule that says you can’t cover two separate subjects in the same bill.
Here it is: New Mexico Constitution, Article IV, Section 16, “Subject of bill in title; appropriation bills.”
“The subject of every bill shall be clearly expressed in its title, and no bill embracing more than one subject shall be passed except general appropriation bills and bills for the codification or revision of the laws; but if any subject is embraced in any act which is not expressed in its title, only so much of the act as is not so expressed shall be void.
General appropriation bills shall embrace nothing but appropriations for the expense of the executive, legislative and judiciary departments, interest, sinking fund, payments on the public debt, public schools and other expenses required by existing laws; but if any such bill contain any other matter, only so much thereof as is hereby forbidden to be placed therein shall be void. All other appropriations shall be made by separate bills.” 
The single subject rule was invented to stop the very kinds of abuses that offend us when we see them practiced by Congress: bad or controversial provisions, attached to good or essential bills, to arm-twist legislators into voting for things they would not have supported if they had been able to vote for each issue independently.
This is not a recent invention. The rule was first enacted in ancient Rome. The Lex Caecilia Didia, enacted in 98 B.C., was designed to forbid the practice of “lex satura,” the proposing of laws containing unrelated provisions.
The rule came into the American legal system state by state, beginning with the New Jersey Constitution in 1844. By 1912 most other states followed, and today 42 state constitutions have a single-subject rule. It has been in the New Mexico Constitution since statehood.
The New Mexico provision also requires each bill to be fully described in the bill’s title. I looked up SB275, a workers’ compensation administrative cleanup bill with multiple related provisions; the title is 134 words long, with 12 clauses. It’s complete so everyone can see what’s in it. In federal legislation, the titles sometimes say, “and other purposes.”
While we all continue to jump out of our skins at the craziness in Congress, let’s appreciate that at the state level this is one thing we don’t have to worry about — and make sure that if anybody decides to modernize the state Constitution, this provision stays right where it is.
I’d suggest amending the federal Constitution to add such a rule, but I know better.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through triplespacedagain.com.