Note: This story is part of a package of stories on the New Mexico Legislature that the Quay County Sun has obtained from the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper.
By Steve Terrell
The New Mexican
While politicians talk a lot about welcoming public participation in the New Mexico Legislature, which convenes at noon Tuesday, in reality, trying to participate can seem like an obstacle course for members of the public who are unversed in the ways of a legislative session.
Published schedules of meetings often are useless. The meeting rooms tend to be cramped. The rules and procedures can seem arcane and hard to follow.
Here are a few tips for citizens trying to keep up with a legislative session. With a little patience, you might get the knack of it.
o First of all, don’t depend on the schedules for floor sessions and committee meetings that you find on the Legislature’s website. The schedules become more and more unpredictable as the session goes on. It’s not because of some sinister conspiracy trying to thwart public participation. Basically, it’s a matter of logistics. If a floor session in the House or Senate goes long, the committees of that body will be delayed. And if either political party in either chamber decides to meet in caucus to plan strategy, even more delays can be expected.
o The same goes for committee agendas. Just because a bill you’re following is fourth on the agenda, don’t expect it to be heard after the third item. Bills can be moved up or down at the pleasure of the committee chairman. Sometimes a committee will hear a bill out of order as a courtesy to the sponsor, who might have to rush to another committee meeting. Do not expect them to hear your bill out of order as a courtesy to you.
o Likewise, you can’t depend on the order of items on House and Senate floor calendars. The speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader can and do switch around the order as they see fit.
o Another obstacle is that many of the rooms where committees meet are tiny. So if you’re following a high-profile bill, there’s a good chance the committee room will fill up and you’ll be left standing in the hall. Sometimes, if a bill is expected to attract a huge crowd, the committee chairman will arrange to hold the meeting in the House or Senate chambers. But don’t count on it. That normally doesn’t happen.
o Parking used to be one of the most frustrating obstacles of trying to follow the Legislature. But since the state built the $13 million parking structure just west of the Roundhouse a few years ago, it’s much easier. The entrance is on Galisteo Street north of Paseo de Peralta. Some of the 580 spaces are reserved, but there are about 300 first-come, first-served spaces available. And best of all, it’s free.
For those who make it to the Roundhouse, here are some rules to remember:
o At floor sessions and committee meetings, please observe decorum. The public is not allowed to applaud or boo. Be respectful. Remember that most of the lawmakers are friends, even if they belong to different political parties. And all of them have deep respect for the institution. So if you are rude to a lawmaker you disagree with or you have some emotional outburst during a committee meeting or floor session, you’re liable to offend legislators who might otherwise be sympathetic to your views.
o Frequently when a bill draws a big crowd and many people want to testify, the committee chairman will ask speakers not to repeat what already has been said. Unfortunately, speakers routinely ignore this plea and chairmen tend not to crack down. But for the sake of the rest of us, remember: repeating the same points over and over are more likely to bore the committee members instead of influence them.
o Nobody except legislators and staff can go on the House or Senate floor during a floor session. (Don’t even try. The sergeants at arms will stop you, and there’s plenty of them.) But you may go on the floor to talk to lawmakers before or after the floor session.
o You can find bills, committee schedules and lists of members at www.nmlegis.gov.
o Contact lawmakers by calling the legislative switchboard: 986-4300.
o And for those who want to follow the session from the comfort of a home or office, the floor sessions and some committee meetings are streamed live over the Internet. (http://tinyurl.com/nmlegwebcast)
Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his political blog at roundhouseroundup.com.