The New Mexico governor’s office is modern and up-to-date; and operates much like other governor’s offices throughout the country. The last major update came in 2020 when a new cabinet-level department was added to coordinate services for young children. The New Mexico Legislature is antiquated and out-of-date; and is thoroughly unlike any other state legislature in the country. I’m not sure when (or if) the last major update was, but it happened sometime before I came here in 2002.
Those differences have created a power imbalance between the governor’s office and the Legislature that is most stark during times when a Democrat is serving as governor. There were some epic budget battles when Garry Johnson was governor, and constant tension during the two terms of Susana Martinez.
But, Bill Richardson was able to bully legislators into passing a huge tax cut that benefited our state’s wealthiest residents (and Richardson’s quixotic presidential aspirations), even though lawmakers knew it would come back to haunt them. They didn’t want to be seen as going against the leader of their party.
That dynamic played out this session on the issue of the governor’s public health order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Current rules give the Legislature no role in that process. It is entirely at the discretion of the governor as to how restrictive the rules will be, and how long they will be in place. Legislators had it within their power to change that this session, but choose not to. Once again, Democrats didn’t want to be seen as going against the leader of their party.
The Legislature will never be on an equal footing with the governor’s office until there is a change in its basic structure. As it is now, we have full-time professionals in one branch, and part-time amateurs in the other. I don’t use the term “amateur” derisively. Unlike legislatures in other states, our lawmakers receive no salary and have no staff, other than somebody to help answer phone calls during the session.
And so, many legislators have other jobs that they must also be attentive to. Meetings of the Senate Judiciary Committee were cancelled this session, reportedly because Chairman Joseph Cervantes had important work with his private law firm that demanded his time.
Beyond being unpaid, legislators are also only required to work during the sessions. That’s 60 days in odd-numbered years and 30 days in even-numbered years. There are interim meetings held between sessions, but no requirement that lawmakers attend them.
You get what you pay for. In this case, I’d argue that we’re getting a lot more than we pay for, as many unpaid legislators work hard throughout the year. But it’s still woefully inadequate. Beyond the unpaid, part-time status of our Legislature, it’s power is also diminished by being limited to 60-day and 30-day sessions. The brevity of that time period ensures that only a limited number of bills will get passed each session. And, anything unique or creative is doomed to failure.
The Legislature has it within its power to change this system and make itself a legitimate co-equal branch, but refuses to do so. We came close to taking a tiny step in that direction this year. A joint resolution to nix the alternative 30-day and 60-day system made it through the House and onto the Senate calendar. Ironically, it died because there wasn’t enough time in the session for it to be heard.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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