COMMENTARY: In 1910 Congress passed the Enabling Act that would allow New Mexico to become a state. The act set forth the terms and conditions that would finally, after nearly 60 years of trying, allow New Mexico to join the Union.
Chief among those requirements was that a constitution be in place. So in October of that year, 100 men gathered in Santa Fe to write one. It was overwhelmingly a conservative group, 71 Republicans from the conservative wing of the party, 28 Democrats and 1 Socialist.
When their work was done they sent the proposed constitution off to Congress, where it met a snag. Article 19, which covered amending the Constitution, required such a high bar — two thirds of both houses of the Legislature and no fewer than 40 percent of voters in at least half the counties approving an amendment, and requiring that the only process to do so be a constitutional convention, and making some sections of the document immune from amendment at all — that it practically ensured that no amendment would ever pass.
When the document reached Washington D.C., populist sentiment went against such draconian measures. Willing to compromise, Congress passed the Smith-Flood resolution, which required a vote of the people of New Mexico on a less-restrictive article. In the election of that year the measure was presented on a separate ballot, on blue paper, and has come to be known as The Blue Ballot. It passed, and on Jan. 6, 1912 New Mexico was admitted.
Over the years thousands of amendments have been proposed, all of them through the Legislature. Since 1951, when record keeping started, 233 changes have been approved by voters. In 1969 a constitutional convention was called, but in the end the proposed Constitution was defeated at the polls.
There is, however, a third way to change our state Constitution, and now is the time to utilize it.
Today we are faced with a Legislature that more and more seems to many to no longer truly serve the needs of the state. Transparency, open meetings, ethics commissions, even the length of sessions and pay for legislators are under increasing debate.
There is also an issue with the surprising amount of power that a Governor has over the Legislature. The governor may veto at will after the Legislature has adjourned, and despite the fact that lawmakers can override that veto in the following session, in actual practice it almost never happens, leaving the veto for all practical purposes override-proof. Combined with a line-item veto, the New Mexico governor becomes far more powerful than nearly any other governor in the country.
It would take decades to change all that in piecemeal fashion. If history is a guide, some of it may never pass the Legislature.
This is where an independent commission could solve all the problems at one time. Authorized in 1996, but never used, an independent commission can rewrite an entire article of the Constitution, in this case Article 19, and create a more open and ethical Legislature. The new article can then be presented as a single ballot measure, or as separate measures, directly to the voters.
The Legislature must first pass a bill authorizing such a commission, but once passed the commission can work independently of both governor and Legislature.
Will the process be messy? Of course. Everyone has differing ideas on what will make for a more effective Legislature. But in the end a new and stronger entity, capable of truly addressing the issues we face as a state, will emerge.
Surely, a more open and ethical Legislature will come out of such a wholesale rewriting, since the Legislature has shown over and over again its own reluctance to reform. The commission can address issues, such as pay, that the Legislature itself would like to see done as well.
We need change. That is the one thing everyone agrees on. An independent commission seems to be the best way to achieve that without spending decades doing so.
Anderson, of Farmington, is a past Democratic Party county officer and member of the party’s state central committee. She has been active in several political campaigns. Today she follows politics avidly as a concerned citizen.