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Capitol Punishment

One man's diary of democracy in action, keeping an eye on the legislature in Santa Fe.

By Jeff Berg

 

"And so they linked their hands and danced round in circles and in rows."

—Loreena McKennitt, from her song,
"The Mummer's Dance."

 

Not exactly what you'll see while watching the New Mexico legislative session in action. Herewith the diary of how I learned that during my recent few days' journey to the appropriately named Roundhouse in Santa Fe:

Sunday, Jan. 28 (all times approximate)

09:30—Leaving Las Cruces, noting it's a beautiful day, and there is still a skiff of snow on the Organ Mountains. Decide to pass on convenience-store burrito in hopes of getting real food in Albuquerque or Santa Fe.

The Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

11:00—Note weather forecast on KUNM, Albuquerque Public Radio, is calling for a couple of inches of snow in Santa Fe. Glad that I thought to bring my winter jacket. Not glad to think that I neglected to actually get it out of the closet.

13:15—Arrive Albuquerque, pass on lunch and go to a recommended movie that I had missed, Casino Royale.

16:00—Leave theater, noting that another 2.5 hours of my life are gone forever.

16.15—Buy coat, thus negating any money I would have made on this article.

17:00—Adjourn to formerly good pizza/pasta cafe in Albuquerque, Tomato Cafe.

17:05—Fail to notice substantial price increase coupled with huge influx of kids at a once-adult pizza place. Agree with server that we should flee and go have a beer, but he fears for his job. Manager on duty renames cafe "Romper Room."

19:00—Arrive Santa Fe at my chosen accommodations—La Petite Bedbug. Arriving with me is a splitting headache, compounded by lack of Internet access in room, which was fervently promised in advertising.

21:00—After watching part of an episode of "The Simpsons" (television is a novelty to someone who does not have cable or any other type of home reception), I brush aside multi-legged roommates and call it a day.

 

Monday, Jan. 30

06:30—Arise after fitful night's sleep. Scald self in shower and use another novel invention, a hair dryer. Char balding scalp with this device.

07:00—Ramble to motel lobby to use Internet, since all efforts to fix the problem are for naught. Delete UK lotto and almost-real-Rolex e-mails. Wonder if I reply to two ads for increased length and girth if that will mean that I will have twice current length and girth.

08:15—Leave motel for home of New Mexico's legislators, the Roundhouse. Quickly remember that traffic in Santa Fe moves by committee. Upon arrival in capitol area, note that parking is a joke. Gentleman offers me all-day parking for $15 with "in and out privileges" (no thanks, I'm straight and married) or $10 for parking without such privilege; $3 gets you an hour. Laugh when I think of what editor of publication would say if I submitted a receipt for $15 worth of parking.

08:30—Find closest free street parking, a mere 12-minute walk from the capitol building.

09:00—Arrive at Roundhouse, noting a number of free publications (not Desert Exposure) available in the lobby. Glibly smile, as I realize that I have articles in two of them. Wonder if they will ever pay me for them.

09:05—Wander around Roundhouse to get the feel of the place. It is pretty busy, and today is Las Cruces Day, which is one reason that I came here this early in the session. Lots of "suits" scurrying from place to place and small buttonhole-type meetings in the hallways. A large number of state police are present.

Las Cruces Day turns out to be a bust, at least to me. In the exhibition area of the Roundhouse, a number of booths are set up, supposedly to trumpet the glories of Las Cruces. But most are manned or womaned by NMSU or WSMR employees, with the exception of ones from the Chamber of Commerce, a Best Western touting its meeting rooms, and the weekly Las Cruces Bulletin, another of my "employers." I doubt if there is a person in Las Cruces more gung-ho about New Mexico's second-largest city than Bulletin publisher David McCollum.

09:20—Happen into Delano and Gayle Lewis ("Ambassador at Large," February 2007 Desert Exposure).

09:25—Stop at office of Sen. Leonard Lee Rawson. A good friend, Jeannie Hill, is working for him this session, compiling survey results. With weary eyes, she reports that 2,500 of 13,000 surveys sent out have been returned. Democracy is indeed in action.

09:40—Onward to the visitors' gallery overlooking the state senators. The entire building is very well appointed, and worth going to just for the incredible amount and range of beautiful art on display.

10:00—Noting bored children sitting on a bench in front of the desks occupied by Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and others, it occurs to me that they are pages. None seems to have a cell phone. Scan audience for presence of Mark Foley.

10:05—After announcements and bulletins, introduction of new legislation is read. Completely bored after a few minutes, I decide that I won't stay here all day as originally planned.

How to Make a Law the New Mexico Way

Let's say that you want to see a new law declaring that freelance writers receive full, free and complete health care, compliments of the state. Here's what happens after you submit your completely irrational idea to your local senator or state representative and he or she agrees:

  • A bill can be introduced in either the House or the Senate by one of our 42 senators and 70 representatives, none of whom receives a salary.
  • The bill is given a number, read twice on the floor, printed and then handed off to the proper committee for review.
  • At least one of 16 committees has to review the bill in each house. At this time, the bill can be approved, amended or forwarded to the next committee with a recommendation, or suffer an early death by tabling. These committee hearings are open to the public.
  • If okayed by the committee, it then goes back for consideration to the house where it was introduced. Once placed on that house's calendar, it is formally scheduled for a third reading and final vote.
  • If passed by that house, the bill continues its trek back to the other house for a repeat of the entire process. If approved without amendment or change, it then goes to the governor for his signature or veto. Amended bills go through a conference committee for a hoped-for compromise. If reached, it then goes back to the Senate and House for a final vote.
  • If not signed or vetoed within three days, and if the legislature is still in session, the bill becomes a law. The governor can veto portions of a bill, but only if it contains an appropriation. If adjourned, the governor has a bit of flextime, 20 days, to sign a bill or veto it by not signing it.
  • Generally, a bill will become a law within 90 days after adjournment. This can be put aside if the legislators specify an emergency, thus making the bill effective as soon as it is signed, or given a future date for it to go into law.
  • For more information and to track bills (there are hundreds this year) check out the very current legislative Web site, www.legis.state.nm.us.

10:08—Some big guy in a suit asks me to take off my baseball cap. Briefly I consider resisting, but decide that discretion is the. . . .

10:10—Another big guy comes down to the row of seats where I am sitting and tells me to take my notebook off the ledge. This is getting old.

10:15—I observe that almost every one of the work areas (the desks are long tables shared by eight or so senators) has a number of goodie bags, two commemorative coffee mugs, big bags of (Valencia) peanuts, Sonicare electric toothbrushes, and a bottle of some kind of beverage. Certainly these are gifts from lobbyists.

10:18—As I look around the gallery, I realize there is almost no one here. I spot a few scattered lobbyist-looking types and a few others who wander in for a couple of minutes, then leave. No wonder the two big guys were watching me, my cap and notebook. No one else was there to watch. This is kind of like a baseball season: Everyone shows up for Opening Day and then again for the World Series. The legislature has a big hoop-de-do when the session opens (60 days this year), and then later when they are about to adjourn.

10:20—Several senators exchange barbs, each phrasing their mild insults or observations with appropriate Senate-type language and protocol. I decide that none of these folks should quit the Senate to do stand-up comedy. They are not the least bit funny. What is funny is trying to picture them with powdered wigs.

10:30—After a senator updates his co-senators and the six of us in the gallery on the weekend's New Mexico basketball scores, things almost turn serious.

10:31—Sen. Stuart Ingle of Portales has his feet up on a desk drawer.

10:40—Sen. Ingle puts his feet down, but is now reading a copy of the Portales News Tribune he has secreted under his desk.

11:00—I watch intently, waiting for something to write about. Ever alert, I awake to find that something is actually going on. A number of appointments are made by unanimous vote. Someone is given a post with the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, with others going to lesser-known entities.

Until 11:40—Committee reports lead into the end of the Senate session just before noon.

11:50—Everyone bids a hasty retreat. I think this would not happen if the capitol were moved to Las Cruces. I think that they all are scurrying out to some of the abundant great restaurants that dot Santa Fe. That could never happen in Las Cruces. Although everyone could park in Las Cruces.

11:51—I amble over to the House chamber gallery. Action here is a bit better and the place is gently buzzing with activity and conversation. I spot my new hero, Las Cruces Rep. Antonio Lujan, who has introduced legislation to get cell phones out of the hands of drivers. I also espy my own rep, Joseph Cervantes, who told me several months ago that he would not support Spaceport funding, thus making him another momentary hero, and new rep Jeff Steinborn, whose numerous campaigns have received my help at times. Rep. Steinborn is nibbling a sandwich in-between quick votes. My own stomach growls with jealousy. I leave to tend to this issue.

14:50—Return to Roundhouse after watching a newly released Western film that was shot in part near Lordsburg. Observe that besides being a bad movie, the credits thank "Lodsburg." Some towns don't get any respect.

15:00—Buttonholed by Todd Dickson, news editor of the Bulletin. An underappreciated journalist, Dickson shares details of pending legislation for ID theft and some thoughts on recent movies, but not the one filmed near "Lodsburg."

15:15—Most committee meetings seem to be out early, and Las Cruces Day has apparently been reduced to a half-day, since all of the booths have evaporated.

15.30—Return to La Petite Bedbug before adjourning for a wonderful early dinner. Surprised to find that LPB has "turn down" service. They don't "turn down" anyone who wants a room, including my randy neighbors. The only chocolate on the pillow is a melted piece from an earlier tenant.

18:00—Done for the day. Begin work on this and other stories. Change rooms, since the Internet access still does not work in the room.

 

Tuesday, Jan. 30

07:00—Arise hale and hearty. Curious, since I went to bed as Jeff Berg.

09:00—After showering and doing some more work on articles that will soon miss deadlines, I head out to enjoy Santa Fe. The Senate and House morning agendas looked mighty similar to the previous days.

10:40—Arrive at the Roundhouse, where today is Firefighters' Day. Reps from various fire departments have set up shop in the rotunda. Apparently there were reports of smoke-filled rooms.

11:20—Mosey over to the Senate chambers, but it is pretty drowsy again. Hardly anyone in the gallery except for the big guy in the suit who made me remove my cap yesterday. He demands that I do so again the second I enter the room. I suppress my urge to toss him over the railing and onto the Senate floor.

11:30—My head is getting cold so I move over to the House balcony. Much more interesting events here, but still not very exciting. Decide to break for lunch, and second my own motion.

12:00—Sort of enjoy lukewarm East Indian buffet in downtown Santa Fe. Quick trip to a real bookstore, and then back to the Roundhouse to attend a committee meeting.

13:00—A block from the Roundhouse, a probable lobbyist in a large American car is backing up down a narrow side street, toward the much busier thoroughfare, Old Santa Fe Trail. Incredibly, while he is doing this, he is not watching where he is going, and is also talking on his cell phone. He stops briefly before actually backing out onto the busy street, nearly hitting me. A crossing guard watches this implausible scene, too. Again note that the Santa Fe city ordinance banning blathering on cell phones does not work. This does not bode well for the legislation proposed by Rep. Lujan. Damn.

13:05—Having reaffirmed that Sartre was right when he said, "Hell is other people," I check out the afternoon activities in the lobby of the Roundhouse. AFSCME, the very vocal public-employees union, is holding a rally therein.

13:50—I decide to attend a committee hearing of the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Gail Chasey of Bernalillo County.

This is where things get serious for myself, this article, and for the pending bills that have been presented. (Many never make it past the first reading. Nearly 2,000 were introduced this year.)

The general public is allowed comment on each bill that is scheduled for review by a House or Senate committee. The room this hearing is being held in is way too small, and even though it is about 25 degrees outside, it feels like 85 inside. Of course, the meeting does not begin on time, and finally at just after 2 p.m. (that's 14:00 if you're following along), the House committee members straggle in and take their seats.

There is an overflow crowd for this assembly, mostly because of a bill presented by the committee chair herself that would eliminate the death penalty for all crimes in New Mexico. Everyone seated around me is for the bill, as they all murmur about mistaken identities, poor defense lawyers, etc. There are about 50 to 60 people waiting to hear what will happen.

The meeting finally comes to order, and Chasey introduces two speakers, both women, who have lost family members to murder.

The first woman is most eloquent in her statement, moved to tears as she recalls the killing of her husband, an Albuquerque attorney. She, like many others in the crowd, feels that money spent for the long, drawn-out process of getting someone onto death row, let alone getting them into the cemetery, would be better spent as funding for victims' needs.

The second woman, who lost a son to a murderer, also in Albuquerque, recalls driving from Las Vegas, NM, to Albuquerque after being informed of the killing. She recalls praying, "Please don't let me hate," over and over during that long trip. Her son's killer never actually faced the death penalty, however, and had the charges reduced to manslaughter. The woman, an African-American, hints strongly that the crime was racially motivated, but never says so directly.

Several of the six committee members seem distracted, and at times inattentive, during this testimony. They sometimes get up and go to a nearby room without waiting for what I feel would be an appropriate time—like between speakers. I find this mildly insulting, and feel that the ground rules of this meeting should be shared with the audience beforehand.

The opening and closing of the chamber door is also very distracting. The room is packed, but no one is outside monitoring the traffic flow, as was promised by some low-level lackey before the meeting started.

After the witnesses, the hearing is opened to comment from the audience. A quick survey by the committee shows that the majority of the audience supports Rep. Chasey's oft-introduced bill.

Most of the speakers are brief in their commentary, and many are from church groups. Other attendees include someone from the ACLU, a doctor who was formerly employed by the state prison system (who notes the interesting trivia that the death certificate of someone who is executed says that the cause of death is "homicide") and the chief public defender for the state of New Mexico.

Those opposed? Among others, a gentleman who represents the New Mexico District Attorney Association (northern counties), several law-enforcement officials and, most notably, Patti March of the New Mexico Survivors of Homicide support group.

March, the final speaker, gives a long and fact-filled report about the death penalty, gently brushing aside the cost factor and offering some insight into the feelings of other families of murder victims who did indeed desire to see the murderer put to death. Her casual but strong mention of what someone who was murdered was now unable to do—breath, eat, hug, read—as opposed to what someone who was in jail could still do—breath, eat, hug, read—is a logical argument, not an emotional one as those put forth by most of the earlier speakers.

It should be noted here that Gov. Bill Richardson supports the death penalty, so chances are the measure would eventually be vetoed, as it seems to be expected that a serious presidential candidate could not oppose the execution of a bad-hearted individual.

Nonetheless, Chasey's bill carries the committee by a 4-3 vote, and is sent on to the judiciary committee for further debate and assessment.

After this vote, most of the people in the room file out, quickly replaced by those who've come to hear about or speak about other pending issues.

During the rest of the time I spend listening to the point-counterpoint about the merits or uselessness of the bills being discussed this day, it becomes obvious that everyone has an agenda.

 

One of the other bills drawing a large audience is one that would require protesters at funerals to protest an hour before or an hour after the actual ceremony, and to stay 500 feet away from the burial site. This bill, in part, was the result of a recent incident in Rio Rancho, where members of Rev. Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq. Rev. Phelps' parishioners travel from Kansas around the country to the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and elsewhere (they also were present at former President Gerald Ford's services), claiming that the deaths are God's judgment upon America for tolerating homosexuals.

The church's Web site is filled with vitriolic diatribes about gays and lesbians. As I briefly scan these pages of insanity, I'm surprised and saddened to learn of the death of a relative of a former supervisor when I worked for the US Postal Service in Missoula, Mont. Phelps and his sick flock were on hand to mock the services of SPC James Riekena.

The incident in Rio Rancho also attracted the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of bikers, many of them veterans. Their mission is to counter Phelps and his traveling horror show, and attempt to keep them away from and out of sight of mourners. After the bill is briefly outlined, several speakers rise to support it, including two Patriot Guards, Cruz Garcia and David Mora, both combat vets. Garcia, who is disabled, speaks of honor for the fallen, but also makes allowances for Phelps' First Amendment rights. Mora gently disses Garcia before speaking, teasing him about being an Army vet instead of a USMC vet like himself.

Both men are dressed in typical biker garb, and look like they've seen their share of hard roads and harder times. But they are eloquent and passionate in their statements. Mora, a burly man of perhaps 50, is moved to tears by what he shares with the hushed audience.

Representatives from the ACLU and a church group speak against the bill, again using logic, not emotion—-pointing out that it would open a door for Phelps to begin a long and winding court case, which apparently is something he is itching for.

The bill passes, but the vote is again close, 4-3. Some of the spectators speculate it might die in the judicial committee, because of constitutional issues.

I decide I've seen enough of democracy in action. It's past 5 p.m., and the agenda still has a long way to go.

 

18:00—Dismiss idea of a real dinner, return to room, and mull over what I have learned and witnessed.

20:00—Decide to make a brief trip out for a snack and to peruse a nearby music store before returning to work on articles.

20:30—Upon exiting music store, I find it has started to snow in earnest.

 

After these adventures, I am glad to know I have more of a say in the laws that are passed upon us than I thought. I may not have any influence at all as an individual, since most of the speakers at the committees were representing special-interest groups. That makes it, of course, rather vital for one to hook up with other like-minded individuals to speak out on issues that you are impassioned about.

So, get involved. Write letters. Make calls. Send e-mails or faxes. Letters to the editor can still sometimes make a named politico tremble or smile.

As the sign I carried at my first anti-war protest urged, "SAY SOMETHING!"

 

Senior writer Jeff Berg will never run for office.

 

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