Wednesday, February 15, 2006

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: IF I RULED THE LEGISLATURE

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 16, 2006

Earlier this week, I had to explain to editors several times one of the strange quirks of the Legislature, the “mirror bill” — how if the Senate passes a Senate bill and the House passes an identical House bill, neither bill becomes law unless the governor signs a bill passed by both chambers.

“It’s not the way I would have set it up,” I said during one of these conversations.

That got me to thinking. There’s lots of things about the Legislature I’d have set up differently.

Not that there’s a chance of instituting any drastic change in the legislative branch. These guys refuse to open conference committees and vote down bills that would have required telling the public more about their campaign contributors. They’re not about to do anything that would seriously change business as usual at the Roundhouse.

As a pure exercise in fantasy, here are some changes I’d make if I could magically restructure the Legislature:

* A unicameral Legislature: Why does there have to be two chambers in the Legislature? The current rationale for having two houses in Congress is that smaller states get a bigger voice in the Senate. But that’s not applicable with the states. Due to the one-man/one-vote doctrine, all districts in a state House or state Senate must have roughly the same population.

Some say the state Senate is designed to be a more “deliberative” body where members, who only have to run every four years (instead of two years like the House), can take a more long-sighted view.

You have to wonder if anyone who says that has actually witnessed a Senate debate.

Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral legislature. Minnesota, at the urging of former Gov. Jesse Ventura, considered it a few years ago but didn’t take the plunge. Currently, there’s a group called Unicameral Michigan working to force a vote on a state constitutional amendment that would abolish the Michigan state Senate.

Advocates say a unicameral legislature creates more transparency in government, eliminates legislative redundancy and saves taxpayer money.

Having two chambers creates more obstacles for bills, providing more opportunity to waste time to run out the clock and for using other procedural tricks to kill bills.

Granted, a lot of bills deserve to be killed. But if that’s the case, vote them down.

I would create one house with a nice, even 50 districts. Lots of House and Senate members could end up running against each other, a potential political bloodbath that would be fun to watch.

And with a unicameral legislature, the Senate chambers could be turned into a permanent large committee room for those really big issues that attract large crowds. (Unless, of course, the remaining lawmakers would want to turn it into a cockfighting pit.)

You wouldn’t have to open conference committees because there would be no need for conference committees. And I’d never have to explain “mirror bills” to an editor again.

* Limit on bills: I would put a cap on how many bills a legislator could introduce in a session. I’m not sure what number I’d impose, but something has to be done to cut down on the clutter of bills that seems to grow every year.

In this year’s 30-day session, there were nearly 900 bills in the House and more than 750 in the Senate. Most of these never got anywhere, and truth is, a good many really were never intended to go anywhere.

* Resolve to eliminate resolutions: I’d eliminate all unnecessary resolutions and memorials. Proposed constitutional amendments would still be allowed, and I suppose some of the studies mandated by memorials are justified.

And maybe the Legislature should have one more chance to pick a state cowboy song — but that’s it.

Seriously, there’s no reason legislators should be spending precious chunks of time debating unbinding memorials on quail hunting season (as the Senate did Monday night) while serious issues are waiting to be heard. If legislators want to honor some New Mexico athlete or spelling-bee winner or send condolences to the family of a prominent state resident who has died, they can send a card.

* Don’t share the love: One of the biggest wastes of time in a floor session is when some former legislator or other former state official is up for confirmation to some board or commission. Though I didn’t catch this happening during this session, all too often, the confirmation turns into an hourlong love fest with each lawmaker showering some former colleague with flowery praise.

That’s nice. But at the end of the session when lawmakers throw up their hands and say, “Sorry, we just ran out time” to consider serious bills, it’s hard not to think back to the day when they spent hours heaping sweet soliloquies onto some former colleague who was tossed out by the voters years before.

If I ruled the Legislature, the floor “debate” over confirmations would be limited to five minutes, unless there was actual opposition to the appointment.

* But share the food: On many days during the session, some community chamber of commerce or other well-meaning group will prepare lunch or dinner for lawmakers. That’s nice.

But it violates a basic principle we all should have learned in elementary school: Don’t bring anything unless there’s enough to share.

So if I were in charge, nobody could bring food for the legislators unless they share it with everyone else in the Roundhouse. State farm and ranch organizations do this every year, serving free barbecue and ice cream in the Rotunda. (Thanks, guys. The food was great Tuesday.)

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