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Talk to your legislator in June not January

By Merilee Dannemann

A fellow who thought of himself as a political reformer approached a friend of mine, a former legislator, one January to ask for support for a large group that planned to visit to the Roundhouse during the legislative session.  
“Whom do you plan to talk to?” my friend asked.  
“Everyone,” the man replied.   
“What do you plan to talk about?” my friend asked.  
In other words, advocacy for general principles, not specific bills.
Whoops! Bad plan, bad timing. The gentleman was wasting his time and proposed to waste other people’s time as well.
If you want to talk to a legislator in January, you had better be talking about a specific bill and have your suggested amendment drafted and in hand.
January is way too late to talk about ideas or principles. The time is now, when they are at home, and the earlier in summer the better.
New Mexico legislators are most likely to be home now, working at a job or running a business, pursuing legislative matters as time permits and as the interim calendar demands.
They participate in interim committees, which study issues and develop legislation that will be formally introduced during the session.
When the regular session ends — in mid-March for a 60-day session like this past one — legislators go home, read their mail, do their laundry, and rest up for a few weeks.  Then the interim committees start meeting, a few days each month.  
New legislation is developed throughout the year, and the long-suffering staff of the Legislative Council Service is always on the hook to draft something new at the request of a legislator.
However, there is a predictable cycle. By autumn, legislation is being developed into specific language. Interim committees are moving at full throttle.  
When the session opens in January, most bills are drafted, ready for formal introduction, and may even have been filed in advance.
This year the legislative calendar is going to be much worse than usual because of a monster known as redistricting, with a special session in September that is sure to leave legislators bruised and churlish.
Next year’s regular session is constitutionally limited to 30 days and is supposed to be limited to budget matters, but every year the pressure becomes greater to load the agenda with more and more bills.
The professional political class follows the same calendar. Every special interest has its lobbyists. Like legislators, they went home exhausted in March. We can presume that they are fully caught up on their laundry by now.
And they are already flexing their muscle for the 2012 election, raising money and targeting districts for nasty election fights.
New Mexico still has a volunteer “citizen legislature.” You can meet your legislator in a neighborhood coffee shop to talk about an issue that concerns you. But the pressures of 21st century politics are changing this legislature, even without changing the state constitutional structure.
The “citizen” character of our legislature is probably in its last years. Take advantage of it while you can.
Important legislation sometimes originates from ordinary citizens expressing their needs and frustrations. Perhaps even more important, bad legislation can be prevented when legislators are reminded of their constituents’ priorities.
If you need to contact your legislator in January, you want that legislator to remember your priorities and know your name.
And when you meet him or her this summer, it’s a courtesy to pick up the tab for the coffee.

Merilee Dannemann
© New Mexico
News Service 2011