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Letter from Santa Fe

Square Pegs in the Roundhouse

The legislature's 60-day theater of the absurd.

by Jeff Berg




One of the most exciting and important things that happened on my four visits to this year's meeting of New Mexico legislators was being able to find a parking place each time that didn't require hitchhiking back to Santa Fe from Socorro.

That didn't happen when I last wrote about capitol doings for Desert Exposure, in March 2007 ("Capitol Punishment")

It might not have been a legal parking place, although it looked it.

And I also noted other things that some folks may think of interest:

  • There remains no security check of any kind when entering the Roundhouse. AND you can carry a gun in the Roundhouse, but not in the Senate or House chambers, since, you know, we don't want any duels or shootouts between Whigs and Federalists.
  • There are state police present at entrances and walking through the hallways and chambers, but it is all quite casual. Officers are in committee meeting rooms when the public has comment on "hot button" issues, such as well, government intrusion into women's bodies and shootin' irons, as keen-eyed readers will read about later.
  • I was able to go in the House chamber during a recess during the session. No one challenged me; no one really looked at me. Many legislators and others were also milling about. Later I was denied access to a room because I didn't have a press pass. Once I got that, I was later denied because I didn't have a camera, even though it was announced the previous day that there were no cameras allowed.
  • At the doorway that I used to enter the House chamber, there was a small passel of older Hispanic men gathered around a table. These gentlemen, dressed in suits and ties, had badges indicating that they were "Security." They were more like foot traffic directors who made up their own rules. But they were all pleasant and efficient.

They were, to me, so "old school" New Mexico that I wanted to sit with them and chat. But when I thought of that, they had introduced their own "chat" session, which including having a crockpot of green chile stew or some such treat along with fresh tortillas and dessert. All of this right outside the chamber. They spoke Spanish among themselves and I wasn't sure if I thought of them as a throwback cultural icon or something that made me wonder about "security." Since I didn't see any guns, the best they could have done would have been to throw the crockpot at a bad guy. One would think that the Roundhouse, home to all of our statewide elected officials, might be a bit more leery of the idea that some displeased citizen would come in and leave some lead calling cards scattered about.


Be that as it may, I got an immediate and warm reception as soon as I walked into the Roundhouse from Mike Beckett, proprietor of COAS Books in Las Cruces. No longer living in Las Cruces myself, I decided that my first visit to this year's "theater of the absurd" (as the legislative session was described by Rep. Jeff Steinborn) should be on Las Cruces Day. Las Cruces is one of the few cities in the state that has its own day, actually a weekend, where a contingent of Las Cruces boosters heads north to have their say. After all, the city can be considered the "capital" of the "other" New Mexico, meaning any population spot south of an imaginary line centered in Belen, just south of Albuquerque.

Beckett was in attendance — one of, as I was told, 300 Las Cruces folks who came up for schmoozing and promoting. Although the rotunda was busy with foot traffic, it was not so busy this year as in 2007 with booths or displays from businesses and firms operating in Las Cruces. Positive Energy, a now-statewide solar energy firm, had a booth, as did NMSU, the Las Cruces Bulletin and my favorite New Mexico folly, the Spaceport.

Beckett introduced me to Stacie Allen, the 2013 head of the Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce Conquistadors, a group of fearless cheerleaders for the city in the desert. Relentlessly charming and upbeat, Allen explained, "This is a collaborative effort between the Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce and over 200 business leaders. They come here to talk about issues that matter to southern New Mexico, such as education, the Spaceport, and capital outlay."

The city of Las Cruces, Doña Ana County and the Bulletin all work to make this happen, said Allen, who is the CEO of Las Cruces' Big Brothers and Big Sisters in her "normal" routine. She added, "We're also here to support Mary Kay Papen (D-Las Cruces), who was just elected state Senate president."

Papen is the first woman to be selected for that spot since Louise Coe held a Senate seat from 1925-1940. Coe, an educator, was then the last woman to be in the New Mexico Senate, which is normally overrun by "good old boys," until 1965.

I ran the gauntlet of other Las Cruces attendees, some of whom I know, including folks from Positive Energy who will be mounting solar panels on our Santa Fe home this month, and many others I don't. I had a long, interesting talk with a Las Cruces city councilman, Miguel Silva. I stopped by various legislators' offices before heading for the galleries that overlook the House and Senate chambers.


Things have changed somewhat since the 1850 version of the state constitution of New Mexico was approved. (As the Office of State Historian explains, "New Mexico in 1850 was not yet an organized political Territory. It had a military governor. In May 1850, this first constitution was drafted, then adopted by a vote of 8,371 to 39. A governor was elected and a US senator named. Then the uproar began: Texas claimed half of New Mexico and threatened to occupy Santa Fe. Washington refused to seat the senator or recognize the governor.)

That slightly antiquated document includes such language as, "Every male person of the age of twenty-one years, or upwards (Africans, or the descendants of Africans, and uncivilized Indians excepted,) belonging to either of the following classes, and who shall have resided in this State for six months next preceding any election, shall be a qualified elector at such election." (Those two classes are US citizens and Mexican citizens who took an oath renouncing their allegiance to Mexico — wording is spotty here.)

And this: "No divorce from the bonds of matrimony shall ever be granted, except by special act of the Legislature." (Good thing I shed myself of previous wives in different states!)

But it might offer some sense of security that a lot of the other rights and laws provided for back then are still in effect, although many are altered through various amendments of some sort.

At this year's legislative session, a 60-day tête-à-tête among 60 state representatives (38 Democrats and 32 Republicans) and 42 senators (25 Democrats and 17 Republicans), legislators gazed at over 1,200 bills, memorials and resolutions representing over 50 subjects. Bills were introduced covering everything from a horse slaughtering facility (HB 90 asked for an appropriation of $20,000 to be granted to NMSU to "conduct a study of the feasibility of locating a horse slaughter facility in New Mexico to process horse meat for human consumption" — are horse tacos on the horizon, Wilburrrr? Reps voted "neigh" on this one) to HB 68, which would bring a welcome respite to all of us by shortening the political campaign season in some ways (tabled).


I arrived promptly at 10 to the gallery about the House chamber, only to find, of course, that nothing was going on, nor was anything about to happen soon. While waiting, I heard a familiar voice from the chamber floor (during a recess), that of Dr. Beth Vesco-Mock, director of the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley. Vesco-Mock was busily doing two things with two volunteers from the shelter. The first and least important was to get Rep. Phillip Archuleta (D-Doña Ana) to microchip his pets.

I figured that if Vesco-Mock and her assistants could wander the chamber floor, I could, too. I buttonholed Vesco-Mock, to find out why she was going from representative to representative, handing each a box of animal crackers.

"We are trying to get some money from capital outlay to buy a new van to take animals to other towns or cities where they would have a better chance for adoption," Vesco-Mock answered. "The city gave us an old truck that was going to go to auction last year, but it won't last much longer. I doubt that they will do it, but it's worth a try. Everyone has said they would vote for it, except for one representative."

I had to press her a bit to find out it was Lee Cotter (R-Doña Ana), who pulled off an upset victory over long-time Rep. Mary Jane Garcia last fall. I'd met Cotter in the past and it became immediately clear we had nothing in common except gender. Vesco-Mock said that Cotter had told her that he "didn't believe in that."


There was some good legislation that would make things better for some people. And then there were the suspect bills and resolutions that always bring out the differences in our society.

HB 122, introduced by the House's flashiest dresser, Nora Espinoza (R-Roswell), was sneakily called the "Woman's Right to Know Act." It was Espinoza's "stated" postulation that any woman who was contemplating an abortion should receive all the facts about her pregnancy, by requiring her physician to mandate "an ultrasound and the use of a fetal monitor to make the fetal heartbeat audible to the pregnant female."

Bills that are introduced in New Mexico go through committee review, and HB 122 went to the Consumer and Public Affairs Committee, which held a hearing on it. Espinoza brought a witness with her, a nurse from Albuquerque who claimed that she knew of doctors who did not do this with their patients and the patients were later appalled to find out that this had not happened.

It is during these committee hearings that the public has a voice. You can sit in a stuffy, crowded room with other informed or ignorant citizens, and when the committee chair asks for comments from supporters or from those against a bill, you can speak a brief piece. A show of hands was also asked for in this committee, chaired by Rep. Eliseo Alcon (D-Milan).

Supporters brought up the usual rhetoric, including some guy who spoke about Noah's Ark for reasons that remain unclear. The "nay"-voting citizens were much more prevalent, and a spokesperson from Planned Parenthood reminded all that this service was already provided for and those who did not receive it should seek relief elsewhere.

Rep. Espinoza stated at the outset that this bill was NOT an abortion bill, but rather one about women's rights. Only a few people believed her: two fellow Republicans on the committee (and even one of them wavered for a while) and the eight people from something called the New Mexico Freemen (the Noah's Ark supporters). The bill was tabled, effectively killing it.


Not being one for big "guv'mint" unless it fits her needs (see above), Rep. Espinoza also sponsored HB 114, which spoke of "prohibiting enforcement of federal firearm laws" in New Mexico, making any "federal officer who is an official, agent or employee of the United States government who enforces or attempts to enforce any act, order, law, statute, rule or regulation of the United States government upon a personal firearm or firearm accessory, or upon ammunition, that is owned or is manufactured commercially or privately in New Mexico" guilty of a third-degree felony.

Pistol-packin' gentlemen were in attendance and spoke up. One of them threatened the committee members with treason charges if they didn't pass the bill, as his square-butted "belly gun" rested smugly against his hip, the caliber probably matching his IQ.

The committee was not moved, the bill was tabled, with Rep. Alcon noting in his summary that he couldn't believe "that such a bill was written." This caused Rep. Espinoza to bluster her way out of the hearing room, her large decorative chapeau spinning rapidly around her carefully coiffured head.

Another shootin' iron bill that was drawing attention was SB 230, which would allow one school employee to carry a concealed weapon on school premises (perhaps an off-season job for Rep. Espinoza). Then there was a resolution by the busy Espinoza and Sen. Pat Woods (R-Broadview), which defined marriage as an act between a man and woman (killed).

Perhaps the bill that caused the most commotion was HB 206 — so much so that its sponsor pulled her contact information off the Web after the bill went viral and national. As originally drafted, the legislation specified that "procuring of an abortion as tampering with evidence in cases of criminal sexual penetration or incest" would be a crime, and a big one to boot. This lawmaking attempt was submitted by Rep. Cathrynn Brown (R-Eddy), an attorney by trade, who later claimed it was worded wrong, although the new version wasn't really any different. Amazingly, she had the support of several other representatives, all Republicans, all women, including the omnipresent Espinoza.


Supposedly, New Mexico's 1850 constitution also disallowed voting privileges to "idiots, insane persons and persons convicted of a felonious or infamous crime." Perhaps adding that phrase to the qualifications required to run for office should be introduced. It might give us a better opportunity to have smart, levelheaded and quality candidates.

It was an interesting session, but I had to hope that more people were contacting these elected officials electronically, by phone or by mail. Not a lot of citizens were in attendance, except for those who had interest in a specific bill or meeting, and most of those folks were from special-interest groups or lobbyists.

I've come away with the idea that democracy can work, but it needs more attention from reasonable people who don't wear three-cornered or tinfoil hats.




Longtime Desert Exposure contributor Jeff Berg now lives in Santa Fe.



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