House Democrats protested. The pleaded for transparency and fairness. They complained about politics.
But their objections to House Speaker Don Tripp’s decision to hear a bill to reinstate the death penalty after midnight on Thursday morning, with no notice to the public, fell on deaf ears. Tripp, R-Socorro, was on his phone at times while Democrats made their case for delaying the hearing until after the sun came up so the public could be told it was happening and have a chance to watch.
After more than two hours of debate on whether to hear the bill, and then another three hours debating the death penalty, the House passed House Bill 7 on an 36-30 vote just before 6 a.m. and sent it to the Senate for consideration. The legislation, if enacted, would allow the death penalty for people who kill children, police officers and corrections officers.
Democrats blasted the fact that Republicans, who control the chamber’s agenda, were holding a hearing on the high-profile, controversial bill after dark and with little notice for the third time in the ongoing special session.
“To do this now, I think, is truly ill-considered, ill-conceived, and it sends a terrible, terrible message to the citizens of New Mexico — that they can wake up to huge changes in public policy without anybody knowing what happened,” Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told Tripp.
“If you want to debate this bill, do it tomorrow, when the people are watching,” Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, said.
A visibly angry Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, said his constituents have less access to state government than most New Mexicans because Doña Ana County doesn’t get Albuquerque television. “Not only is this a slap in the face to most people in the state, it is an even bigger one to the people in my community,” he said.
Their protest came after Tripp set aside the schedule that had been published online well after midnight and moved to a new, “supplemental” calendar that included only the death penalty bill. Nineteen of the House’s 33 Democrats spoke against the move.
“It’s not fair to the people. It’s not fair to us as legislators. It’s not fair to anybody,” said Rep. Bealquin “Bill” Gomez, D-La Mesa.
“Every person in this state, through us — through us — has a right to be heard, and that right has fallen into the hands of chicanery and shenanigans for political ploys,” said Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque.
Several Democrats expressed frustration about Tripp being on his phone. Some suggested he was talking with Gov. Susana Martinez instead of paying attention. Rep. Martinez paused more than once during his speech to wait for Tripp to listen.
“I’ve got all night, Mr. Speaker,” he said.
McCamley and Rep. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, teach courses to college students. Both urged Tripp to take action that would improve those young people’s views of government rather than affirm their cynicism.
If the tables were turned, McCamley said, “You’d be out there saying this isn’t right, this isn’t fair, this isn’t transparent, this isn’t good for democracy. … You’d be absolutely right. This shouldn’t be happening.”
Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, who joined Republicans in pushing for webcasting of House meetings several years ago even though some Democratic leaders opposed it, agreed. “I believe in fair play,” he said.
Rep. Andy Nuñez of Hatch, who cosponsored the death penalty bill, was the only lawmaker to speak in favor of the middle-of-the-night hearing. Nuñez used to be a Democrat when that party controlled the House. He’s now a Republican at a time when the GOP controls the House.
“When I was in the majority on that side, nothing different happened than is happening now,” Nuñez told Tripp. “I support your decision because we need to do the same thing.”
Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, and others took issue with the comparison. Regular legislative sessions end on deadline, and late-night hearings are necessary to get work done, they said. In this instance, there was time to schedule a hearing during the day.
“In my 24 years I don’t think we’ve done something like this with such an important bill ever,” Rodella said.
Several Democrats accused Republicans of using a special session focused on addressing a budget shortfall of several hundred million dollars for political purposes. Control of the House is up for grabs in the upcoming Nov. 8 election. Many members — including Nuñez — are in hotly contested races.
The thinking is that Democrats will be hammered for voting against reinstating the death penalty at a time when New Mexico is coping with the recent murders of two police officers and several children.
Some pointed out that experts were present to testify on the bill, which they said suggests that Republicans were preparing for the hearing while keeping Democrats and the public in the dark.
“What you are doing tonight, and what you’ve been doing this whole special session, is nothing but dirty, partisan politics, and you all know it,” Rep. Martinez charged.
“Many of us campaign in order to govern, but it appears that some of us govern in order to campaign,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque.
There was a practical reason to force the vote. The Senate, after a several-day hiatus, is scheduled to reconvene at 11:30 a.m. Thursday. Democrats who control that chamber have resisted hearing the governor’s crime bills. If the House hadn’t passed the bill during the floor session that began Wednesday, the Senate might have had a second chance to act on budget bills and then adjourn before being given crime legislation to consider — as it did last week.
That wasn’t reason enough to justify the middle-of-the-night hearing, Maestas said.
“I know that the chief executive wants to stick it to the Senate, but that’s not our beef,” he said.
McCamley hurled a number of statistics at Tripp, saying states with the death penalty have higher murder rates, 42 percent of inmates on death row in the United States are black, and 156 people on death row have been exonerated because of evidence that came out after trial.
“People in my district are a majority people of color, and I think they’re going to want to hear this,” he said.
Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, said he believes “reasonable people can differ on the death penalty” — which he once supported, but no longer does.
“But because it’s such an important issue, it ought to be discussed carefully, and rationally, and lucidly,” he said. “I know I’m exhausted, and I suspect everyone in here is. … It’s not going to get the level of attention it deserves tonight.”
“Is it literally worth staying up all night for what I believe to be a political purpose?” McQueen asked. “We all know why this is being pushed, and I think you all know why this is being pushed. And I think it’s really sad.”
Some House Republicans missed McQueen’s statement because they left the floor to rest. They returned after the Democrats’ speeches for the party-line, 35-32 vote to consider the bill. After that, the House moved into its debate on the death penalty.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, named six police officers who have been murdered since the state repealed the death penalty in 2009. She also named several children who have recently been murdered, including 10-year-old Victoria Martens of Albuquerque. Police say Martens was drugged, raped, choked and stabbed, and her body was dismembered and burned, hours before her birthday party. Her mother reportedly watched the crime for her own “sexual gratification.”
“These children, these officers deserve justice,” Youngblood said.
The debate continued for several hours after that, but the eventual result was already clear.