With seven days remaining in New Mexico’s 30-day legislative session, House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, has begun referring Senate bills to the House Rules Committee for review.
There’s just one problem: The committee has yet to meet this session, leaving the bills stranded as the session winds down.
The committee chairman, Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, says his panel must determine whether certain bills that have already passed the Democrat-controlled Senate are “germane” and can be considered during the 30-day session that is supposed to focus on the state budget and items that the governor authorizes.
“Please be advised that we are making every effort to justify a reason to rule the Senate-passed bills germane,” Bandy wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen. “However, we wanted to make you aware that some may be referred to the House Rules Committee because they simply do not meet the germaneness requirement.”
The maneuver is indicative of the partisan bickering between House Republicans and Senate Democrats that has dominated the 2016 session.
Angry Senate Democrats stood in their floor session Wednesday and said the maneuver by Bandy is petty politics designed to obstruct bills that the Senate’s own review committee has already ruled as “germane.”
Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said the House procedure was an “unprecedented” and partisan attempt to shut down bills from the Senate. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has placed on the agenda numerous bills that she favors, especially on crime and harsher punishment, that fellow Republicans in the House have carried. McSorley said Republican House members launching a procedure to review Senate bills gives Martinez even more power over the legislative branch.
“Don’t they have a spine?” McSorley said of House Republicans, his voice approaching a shout. “Don’t they have a backbone? Don’t they have a brain?”
In an interview moments later, Bandy said the practice that House Republicans have put in place conforms with the state Constitution, which he carries in his pocket. He said Senate bills are being treated the same way as House measures that did not receive a message from Martinez that would automatically place them on the legislative agenda.
Bandy conceded that his Rules Committee has been inactive. “We have not met at all,” he said. Asked when it would meet to consider whether Senate bills are germane, he said, “Probably soon.”
The 17-member House Rules Committee has not been able to find a convenient time to get its members together, Bandy said. The Rules Committee’s members include House Speaker Tripp and three other Republicans who chair different committees. All are busy, and so the Rules Committee hasn’t been able to meet, Bandy said.
Asked who had decided that Senate bills would be subjected to a review by the House committee, Bandy responded to a different question. “You’ve seen that before, somebody answering with what they want to say instead of what they’ve been asked,” he said.
To review House bills, Bandy said, a Rules subcommittee of two Republicans and two Democrats has considered whether bills were germane.
Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, president pro tem of the Senate, said senators were not holding up House bills by shuttling them to her review committee. Sanchez, the Senate majority leader, said he would not stall House bills in retaliation.
Bandy, though, said Republican House members are made to wait for Senate action on their bills, “everybody sitting there like a bunch of supplicants.”
For a bill to become law, it must be approved by both the Senate and House of Representatives, then signed by the governor.
It wasn’t clear immediately how many Senate bills have been sent to the House Rules Committee. Three Democratic senators publicly said their bills had been routed to the inactive committee, yet the Legislature’s official listings showed that one of those was already under consideration in the House.
Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said his bill for tens of millions of dollars in funding for water projects through the New Mexico Finance Authority had been sent to the Rules Committee, but the legislative website shows that his proposal already is scheduled to be heard by House members.
Cervantes’ bill, endorsed by an interim committee of Republican and Democratic legislators, is identical to a House bill by Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell. Ezzell’s bill received a message from the governor but Cervantes’ did not.
“It’s one of the clearest examples of partisan play,” Cervantes said. But on Wednesday night, Cervantes’ bill was listed as being assigned to the House agriculture committee, meaning it is in play and not stuck in the Rules Committee.
For his part, Bandy said he was only following a consistent process for hearing bills that might not be germane, and the criticisms he received didn’t matter. “Sticks and stones,” he said.