Analysis: Budget takes backseat to memorials, whistleblower bill

By Steve Terrell: The New Mexican

So what did taxpayers get for the $4.87 million 30-day budget session of the state Legislature?

Well, one thing we didn’t get was a budget for state government. Because the state Senate and House couldn’t agree on a budget plan, Gov. Bill Richardson said he’ll call a special session to convene next Wednesday.

Both the governor and House leaders said the House and Senate were getting close to a budget compromise — but they just ran out of time.

But there was lots of time for other legislative activity.

To be sure there were lots of bills passed. There’s the whistleblower protection act to stop possible retaliation against those who report official wrongdoing. In the final hours, the Legislature passed a bill to reform the scandal-ridden State Investment Council. There’s a bill that would replenish the state general fund by some $150 million that had been set aside for capital outlay projects that never got off the ground. A bill prohibiting “double dipping” by public employees who retire and then return to work with a government salary while also receiving retirement benefits also passed.

And, if the governor signs the bill, you’ll be able to take a concealed weapon into a restaurant that serves beer and wine.

But there were many hours spent on activities that the average person, and maybe even a few average legislators, might consider less than productive.

First there’s the whole area of memorials, non-binding pieces of legislation in which lawmakers express the general will of the House or Senate — or in the case of a joint memorial, both. Memorials can express an opinion on a national issue or honor a star athlete from some legislator’s local school district, or recognize historical figures like the Navajo code talkers.

Some memorials pay tribute to political figures who died in the previous year. Among those so honored this year were former Gov. Bruce King, former chief of staff to former Gov. Garrey Carruthers Maralyn Budke, and Patty Jennings, wife of Senate President Pro-tem Tim Jennings.

Others declare special days for various people, New Mexico communities, organizations, etc. This year, the Legislature took the time to declare “League of Women Voters Day,” “Farm & Ranch Day,” “World Cup Day,” “Las Cruces Day,” “100th Anniversary of the Boy Scouts Day,” “Native Plant Day,” “Medical Marijuana Day” and “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Day” among others.

Often memorials request state agencies study various issues, looking at possible future legislation.

Among the study memorials that passed were House Memorial 75, sponsored by Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, which asks the Department of Cultural Affairs to study the feasibility of designating the Santa Fe Children’s Museum as a state museum; House Joint Memorial 30, which asks the same department to study the feasibility of designating the historic Tucumcari Railroad Depot as the State Railroad Museum; HJM7, which requests the Children, Youth & Families Department to assist private groups in a study of child homelessness in the state; and Senate Joint Memorial 56 which requests the Department of Game and Fish to study consolidating various licenses and stamps “to reduce the complexity and facilitate the purchase of the proper licenses for hunters and fishermen.”

But all memorials take time. Some just a few moments for a quick explanation and a vote, other more controversial matters can take an hour or more.

Here’s a breakdown of the non-binding memorials and joint memorials passed by each chamber.

The House passed 66 memorials and 47 joint memorials, 22 of which were passed by the Senate. The Senate passed 36 memorials and 34 joint memorials, 14 of which also passed the House.

Then there’s the matter of “mirror” bills — identical or similar pieces of legislation introduced in both the House and the Senate. Neither bill goes to the governor for signature unless it passes both chambers.

This year the most time-consuming mirror bill was the Hispanic Education Act. Each went through the committee process in both chambers and each eventually was passed by both chambers, so both will go to Richardson to sign. It was a controversial measure — Republicans opposed it strongly. So the act was debated at length not once but twice in both the House and the Senate — as the clock ticked on the budget.

Richardson told reporters Thursday that he hopes the special session will be more focused and said he will not put many bills other than the budget on his call.