Most people in New Mexico, even those who know very little about how legislation is made in the state, know that we have a “citizen legislature.” In fact, New Mexico is the only state that does not pay its legislators, although they do get a per diem to cover the costs of being in Santa Fe during the session.
The idea of a non-professional legislature is attractive to many, but every year brings calls for something to be done to make the legislative process more effective at addressing both short-term needs and long-term planning. Suggested solutions include: paying legislators so candidates who better represent the diversity of the state are encouraged to run; providing legislators with permanent staff to help them with bill drafting and analysis; extending the legislative session so there is less incentive to stall bills without allowing meaningful votes; and allowing needed vetting of complex legislation.
The results of recent elections and the legislative sessions that followed them should make us step back a bit and think more deeply about how and why the legislature can be dysfunctional. The legislative long (60-day) sessions that followed each of these elections made it clear that legislative outcomes depend on the people who wind up at the Roundhouse to do the people’s business. Who New Mexicans elect matters.
During the anti-conservation administration of Governor Susana Martinez, there was little point in promoting pro-conservation legislation that, even if it managed to get through the legislature, would be vetoed by the Governor. The emphasis for eight years was on blocking legislation that would harm our air, land, water, wildlife and communities. We were effective at that task, but we and our allies knew there was critical work that also needed to be advanced on climate and public lands.
The elections that followed yielded dedicated pro-conservation champions, pushing out legislators too beholden to oil and gas and other interests or too mired in an outmoded way of doing business that couldn’t accommodate the urgent needs the state faces. Replacing them were candidates representing New Mexico’s diverse communities who have a strong will to get things done.
The flood of pro-conservation and other visionary legislation in the 2019 and 2021 long sessions was the result of a dynamic shift in the legislature and the knowledge that Governor Lujan Grisham would be supportive. And yet, many new legislators expressed frustration with committee processes, entrenched committee leadership, and the short session length, all of which led to many bills dying before getting a real hearing and meaningful vote. Steady electoral gains have helped, but there are still bottlenecks in the system.
Time, of course, is the big enemy. Thirty-day sessions that are limited to budget-related bills and whatever else the Governor wants to propose might be workable, but wide-open 60-day sessions are simply too short. Pro-conservation legislation alone in the 2021 session amounted to more than 100 bills. We could only reasonably support half of them. In order to pass, bills generally need to get through at least two committees in each chamber, plus floor votes in those chambers; if there are substantial amendments, then reconciliation comes into play before a final vote can take place.
Committee discussion is regularly used by anti-conservation legislators to substantially slow the process down. For example, a legislator will do a slow walk through a bill, asking endless questions about a word or phrase or line, then moving on to the next one. When they’re finally finished, an anti-conservation ally will start in again, often focused on the same minutiae as before. If a bill gets to the House or Senate floor, the same process takes place.
This session made another issue painfully clear. Committee chairs wield tremendous influence – either intentionally or inadvertently – in killing bills. Committees such as Judiciary and Finance are frequently the second referred committees for many bills, meaning that as bills wind their way through the committee process, they tend to pile up on the dockets of committees they’re referred to second. With potential hours of debate and discussion on each bill, chairs can struggle to move through the backlog.
This has renewed talk of having a professional legislature or enacting other reforms that can, at the very least, ensure that bills get a fair and reasonably quick hearing. New Mexico has big needs – not least of which is ensuring a rapid and just transition to a renewable energy economy and the economic diversification that can adequately replace the state’s long over-reliance on the boom-and-bust revenues from oil and gas extraction. With these critical challenges in front of us, we cannot do business as usual at the legislature.
Know the Score > Take Action
Say ‘thanks’ … or, ‘no thanks’!
Tell your Legislators that you ‘know the score’
One of the best ways to influence the voting records of your elected officials is to communicate regularly with them. If your legislators scored well, it’s important to thank them and to support them. If you feel you weren’t well-represented by your legislators’ votes, it’s important to hold them accountable by letting them know what you think about their votes. The Scorecard is your key to staying informed on your legislators votes and getting in touch with them.
Communicate with the Governor and your Legislators
Whether you’re congratulating them on their score or expressing your disappointment, be direct, courteous and polite.
The most important part is letting them know that you are paying close attention to how they vote or, in the case of the Governor, what actions she takes on legislation that affects our air, land, and water.
Calling your legislator directly and sending letters through regular mail remain by far the most effective ways to communicate with your legislators.
The Governor and Lieutenant Governor can always be contacted at the State Capitol. Except during the legislative session, state legislators should be contacted in their home districts. You can get their contact information by clicking on their name on the current Legislators page.