Freshman legislators with fresh ideas

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Legislative sessions that follow on the heels of an election can be quite refreshing, if for no other reason than freshmen legislators often arrive at the Roundhouse pumped with the energy of fresh ideas.
That is particularly true when an election produces a large turnover in the composition of a Legislature, as is the case here in New Mexico this year, where fully one-third of all state senators and roughly 30 percent of all state House members are freshmen.
It was perhaps to be expected, therefore, that new ideas seem to be popping up with some degree of regularity at this year.
Recently in this column, we checked in on freshman Las Cruces Rep. Bill McCamley’s ill-fated effort to pass a measure through a House committee that would have limited the lengths of those interminable political campaigns to which we are subjected every election year.
Just last week another legislative freshman had the experience of seeing his novel and perfectly sensible idea bite the dust in the state Senate.
It breaks no news to note that Legislatures are intensely political by their very nature.
But never is a Legislature more partisan than when members find themselves reapportioning and redrawing the districts defining seats in their own two houses and other districted offices which must be reconstituted so as to consist of relatively equal populations.
It happens every 10 years after a new census, and the politics can be savage. Incumbents want districts reconfigured so as to favor their own incumbency. The political parties want districts redrawn so as to favor their prospects when an election rolls around
It’s also costly, since anything the Legislature does by way of redistricting inevitably ends up in court where one or another party figures it worth the gamble (and expense) to see if there’s a better deal to be gotten out of some judge.
Estimates are that court costs following unsuccessful efforts by the Legislature and the governor to redistrict in New Mexico in 2011 added up to at least $8 million in taxpayer dollars.
And you can find political observers who’ll tell you they think it was even more than that.
So when freshman state Sen. Bill O’Neill, an Albuquerque Democrat, arrived in Santa Fe on Jan. 15 for his first legislative session, it struck him as sensible to relieve the legislature of its redistricting burdens with an amendment to the state Constitution creating an independent bipartisan commission which would assume those duties in the future.
The very thought of such an arrangement had some folks around the Legislature scratching their heads in dismay, but it is hardly a revolutionary notion.
Indeed, O’Neill’s resolution had the backing of that venerable good government group, the League of Women Voters. What’s more, a number of states — Arizona, Alaska and California, among them — already use the commission system for redistricting.
The Arizona plan was adopted in the late 1990s and created a five-member commission, the members of which are appointed by the governor, state Senate president, state House speaker and the chief justice of the state supreme court.
Alaska’s redistricting commission is also a five-member board, whereas the California commission is a 14-member body, composed of five Democrats, five Republicans and four members of neither party.
All such redistricting commissions are designed to be “bipartisan.”
Ironically, it was bipartisan rejection that doomed O’Neill’s commission resolution at the Roundhouse last week, when Senate Democratic Majority Leader Michael Sanchez and Republican Minority Leader Stuart Ingle voted to table the measure 6-to-3 in the Senate Rules Committee.
Then, too, meritorious ideas have been known to live another day.