Politicians of all persuasions give unlimited lip service to the importance of public participation in the New Mexico Legislature. They frequently dispense feel-good homilies about the Capitol being “the people’s house.”
But trying to keep up during a session can seem like an obstacle course for members of the public not versed in the culture of the Legislature.
Published schedules of meetings often are useless. The committee rooms tend to be cramped. The rules and procedures can seem esoteric and hard to follow.
During his two-year tenure as speaker of the House, Don Tripp, R-Socorro, made an effort to make the House floor sessions and committee meetings more accommodating to the public. Committee hearings normally would start on schedule in the early afternoon, followed by an evening floor session, at which legislation was debated.
Though this made it easier for people to plan, some complained that this schedule basically ensured long, long nights in the House of Representatives. In other cases, committee hearings were scheduled on tight deadlines, giving little time to even the most important or controversial bills.
This year, Democrats have regained control over the House from Republicans. Tripp is gone, and Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, is expected to be elected speaker on Tuesday. He said last week that he’ll keep the basic committee schedule Tripp used, though in the early weeks of the session, there will be fewer evening floor sessions.
Here are some tips for trying to follow the legislative session. With a little patience, you might get the knack of it.
- Don’t trust committee agendas. If a bill you’re following is fourth on the agenda, you can’t expect it to be heard after the third item. Committee chairmen and chairwomen can move items up or down at will. Sometimes a committee will hear a piece of legislation out of order as a courtesy to the sponsor, who might have to rush off to another hearing. But don’t expect them to rearrange the agenda as a courtesy to you.
- The same thing goes for the order of items on House and Senate floor calendars. The speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader have the power to switch around the order as they see fit. And that’s a power they exercise frequently.
- Many of the rooms where committees meet are small. Some are downright claustrophobia-inducing. If you are following a high-profile bill, there’s a good chance the committee room will fill up quickly and you’ll be left standing in the hall. Sometimes, if a bill is expected to attract a huge crowd, the committee chairman will arrange to hold the meeting in the House or Senate chambers. But don’t count on it. Get there early so other people will be the ones in the hallway.
- Only legislators and staff can go on the House or Senate floor during a floor session. This rule is strictly enforced. But you may go on the floor to talk to lawmakers before or after the floor session.
- Know the numbers of the bills you are following. Some issues will be the subject of two or more separate bills. Knowing the bill number will help you follow it on the legislative website, nmlegis.gov.
- The entrance to the Capitol parking garage is on Galisteo Street north of Paseo de Peralta. Some of the 580 spaces are reserved, but about 300 first-come, first-served spaces are available. It’s free and open late.
- Contact lawmakers by calling the legislative switchboard: (505) 986-4300.
- And for those who want to follow the session from the comfort of a home or office, the floor sessions and some committee meetings are streamed live over the internet at nmlegis.gov/webcast.