Old saying: nobody is safe when the legislature is in session.
This year, I agree more than usual.
My top concern was bad bills in good causes. I read several.
A bill can originate in many ways. A legislator or some anonymous friend starts with a good idea and messes it up with regulatory overkill or some other weird idea that makes the bill do more harm than good.
Legislators take their drafts to the Legislative Council Service, where staff attorneys draft the bills according to official standards. Their job is to draft what the legislator wants and not give their opinions of what might would work better.
As bills are heard in committee, some get the bad parts amended out. Some are put out of their misery by getting lost in the committee process. But a few make it through the gauntlet with their offensive provisions intact.
If a badly written bill for a good cause comes to the floor without being fixed, legislators who are forced to vote for it or go on record as being opposed to something they support. These votes are almost impossible to explain later.
I’ve written previously about a few such bills so I won’t repeat those comments here.
Here’s another option: draft bills earlier and review them before the session. That’s one possible function of interim committees.
Interim committees meet between legislative sessions, usually starting in May. The season begins with the first meeting of the Legislative Council, mostly composed of members of the leadership. This year’s meeting happened on May 3. The Legislative Finance Committee, the most powerful committee because it produces the draft state budget, started earlier on April 29.
In-session committees have a specific responsibility: to review bills and vote on them. They follow formal procedures and are always rushed, usually crowded, and generally behind schedule based on a schedule that begins with wishful thinking.
Interim committees have more time. They mostly do not vote on bills. They discuss issues and listen to reports prepared by state agencies, outside experts or the year-round staff. There’s more opportunity for public comment. They are gathering the information that could lead to legislation.
They also sometimes have bills drafted and vote on approval of those bills. If a committee endorses the bill, that endorsement carries over when the bill is introduced in the session. But they have no power to officially pass legislation. That can only be done in the session. So there’s much less pressure.
In normal years, interim committees meet all around the state, giving voters in many communities an opportunity to participate or observe in person. The year 2020 was not normal, as we all know; most meetings were online. It is expected that committees will be meeting in person again this year. The schedule is posted on the nmlegis.gov website. The public can tune in to webcasts on that site.
One bill I read this year was so badly written that a person reading it could not tell what it was intended to do. A supporter explained the bill’s purpose to me, but I could not find that purpose in the language of the bill. The bill didn’t get very far.
If this bill had been reviewed in an interim committee, somebody could have pulled the supporters aside and whispered tactfully that their bill was well intended but unintelligible.
We keep hearing calls to lengthen the legislative session. Eventually that will probably happen, but in the meantime interim committees can help move legislation along.
I have heard legislators say, “I can’t commit until I read the bill.” I used to think that was a stalling tactic. Nowadays I think maybe they are being prudent.
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