I’m trying to understand how this sprawling beast of a legislative session works, so this morning I strolled with innocent wide eyes into the Senate gallery of the Roundhouse, where an audience of almost no one looked on from stadium-style seating, down into the long stretch of carpet, desks and padded leather seats that make up the Senate floor.
The impeccably dressed lawmakers have already gotten one big measure passed, with Senate and House both voting in the affirmative for $5 million to fund the 30-day session. That includes $154 a day for legislators, paper costs for all the bills, and salaries for staff. This came to mind for me when I opened the door to the Senate gallery and was immediately within arm’s reach of two security guards wearing angular dark suits and chatting with each other.
The chatting cut off quick and they both turned to lock eyes on me. “Take off your hat,” one said, so I did. When I found a spot to spread out in the front row, another security guard was on me immediately because I’d put my hat and notebook onto the wooden ledge in front of me, which drops off to the Senate floor and has a railing. When I leaned forward a little later – trying to get a look at Sen. John Arthur Smith as he lamented people paying less for natural gas because that means fewer tax dollars for the state – a security guard I hadn’t met yet sprang like a panther down the short flight of steps to tell me not to touch the railing. “It’s just for decoration.”
Lieutenant Governor John Sanchez was leading the huge meeting. Sanchez reminded me of a mean third-grade math teacher – he’s quick with his gavel if gum-smacking Senators start talking too loudly while business goes down. What business? Well, the mayor of Santa Fe was sitting and smiling in a little area at the head of the room, near the lieutenant governor. Members of the Santa Fe City Council sat next to him, also smiling, along with the Santa Fe city manager and the Santa Fe city attorney, who does not smile.
The senators each had turquoise gift bags on their desks, with downtown parking passes and a pass to get into the city’s recreational facilities for free. One senator asked if that meant he can go golfing, and the mayor nodded yes. Everyone laughed. One by one, about 20 different senators took time to thank the Santa Fe guys for hosting the session.
“I not only think of Santa Fe as ‘The City Different,'” said one, “I think of it as ‘The City Special.'”
Another: “It’s a city that when you talk about New Mexico some people will say ‘Oh, that’s Mexico.’ Then they’ll think and say ‘Oh, New Mexico… that’s where Santa Fe is!’ It is truly a stamp on New Mexico.”
I feel like they should thank the mayor for the free gym memberships on their own time, given the cost of this lavish 30-day production. But on and on they went.
I asked a woman sitting next to me what brought her to the state Senate on a Thursday afternoon. Turned out she’s a volunteer, chaperoning a group of foreign exchange students who need a live lesson in local government. What are they learning? I asked. She thought for a little while. “Well, they’re going to laugh about how many times they sang ‘Happy Birthday.'”
They sang “Happy Birthday” so many times that one senator formally asked for it to stop. Then another senator said it was his wife’s birthday and he was hoping for another “Happy Birthday” for her. (I don’t think she was even there.) Instead, mercifully, he asked Senator John Pinto to sing “the Potato Song.”
Pinto, a Democrat representing McKinley and San Juan, sang a snappy diddy in Navajo. Then another senator explained where the song came from: When Pinto was in the Marines, an entire battalion was fighting over a single case of beer. The code talkers got together and sang the Potato Song and got the beer.
Another senator said he’s gonna work on drafting a memorial they can vote on in celebration of the Potato Song.
Just when I’m really getting confused about what the hell I’m watching, they move to the “introduction of legislation.” Ah, here we go. A guy starts reading all the bills that have been introduced. (“Senate Bill 95: An act making an appropriation to create a Native American suicide prevention program.” “Senate Bill 96: An act limiting social promotion and creating a program of intensive remediation….”)
After each one, the Lt. Guv repeats the number and then sends it into committees – the public affairs committee, the eduction committee, the finance committee, the judiciary committee…. Each bill will be reviewed at committee, then kicked along the pipe to another committee. Somewhere in this process, most bills will die by silenced pistol.
Today I spoke with Peter Wirth, a Senator representing Santa Fe, for an Independent Source PAC story about closing corporate tax loopholes. (Click here for that.) When I had what I needed for the article, I asked him about all the time they appeared to be wasting. “No offense,” I added. Wirth said this is simply procedure. The law requires a formal, out-loud introduction of each bill at the start of the session, and there’s more than 100 of them, along with items added by Gov. Martinez. Now that the formality’s out of the way, Wirth said, it’s time for some scrappy, election-year lawmaking.
So I want the committees, which start Friday. That’s where the blood of democracy gets pumped, and that’s where I’ll head next. Committees: Boo-yah!