One could say whether a bill makes it out of a legislative committee has everything to do with the lawmakers sitting on the committee. But Senate somersaults this week pretty much lay to rest the notion that the vote of a committee always matters. If lawmakers really want to pass something, they will.
The example this week: ethics commission legislation. The Senate Rules committee was unable to agree between two versions before members on Monday. So Senate leadership on Tuesday used a procedural maneuver to introduce an entirely new ethics commission bill and pass it through a normally exacting Judiciary committee and the Senate floor with unanimous votes – all in the space of one day.
Compare that to legislation that would rein in the influence of lobbyist money by requiring greater transparency and banning lobbyist spending on lawmakers during a session. The Senate Rules committee tabled House Bill 131 today, and it’s most likely dead.
In the case of the ethics commission, New Mexico lawmakers have less wiggle room. After more than a decade of refusing to create an independent ethics commission or asking voters whether they wanted one, enough scandals caused sufficient political heartburn that lawmakers finally let voters decide, and they spoke loud and clear in November. Now, there is no choice but to create the commission, either this year or next. The public optics would be too great for them politically, should they take no action.
But the Senate, it appears, isn’t in the same mood for lobbying reform.
Democrats have a 7-4 advantage over Republicans on the Senate Rules Committee. But enough Democrats weren’t in the committee room when HB 131 came up today, allowing Republicans to easily table it. The vote came a day after the same committee couldn’t muster enough members to take action on it, although the small set of committee members remaining did discuss it and one motioned a “do pass.”
While the concept of lawmakers “taking a walk” is pretty well accepted among veterans at the Roundhouse, we can’t say where all the lawmakers disappeared to when HB 131 was up before Senate Rules today, or yesterday. Maybe they were too busy in the final chaotic days of a legislative session, when lawmakers run from committee to committee to testify on their own bills or try to cut last-minute deals so their legislation will pass.
But when a bill is important to lawmakers, enough of them usually show up when it’s before a make-or-break committee like Senate Rules.
Notably, neither Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil nor Sen. Jeff Steinborn, Democratic sponsors of HB 131, described either yesterday or today a scorching amendment placed on the bill by the House that would ban spending by lobbyists on lawmakers during a legislative session. Yesterday, the few Senate Rules committee members remaining had friendly questions about HB 131, but no one asked a question or mentioned the ban on lobbyist spending.
It was as though the amendment never existed.
Here are the committee members present and absent during debate of HB 131 in Senate Rules.
Tuesday, March 12
Present: Senators Linda Lopez, Jeff Steinborn, Gerry Ortiz y Pino, Bill Tallman, all Democrats.
Absent: Democratic Senators Daniel Ivey-Soto, Clemente Sanchez, Mary Kay Papen; Republican Senators Stuart Ingle, Greg Baca, Cliff Pirtle, Mark Moores
(Watch: Senate Rules committee hearing on Tuesday, scroll to end of video.)
Wednesday, March 13
Present: Republican Senators Stuart Ingle, Greg Baca, Cliff Pirtle, Mark Moores; Democratic Senators Linda Lopez, Gerry Ortiz y Pino, Jeff Steinborn
Absent: Democratic Senators Daniel Ivey Soto, Clemente Sanchez, Mary Kay Papen, Bill Tallman
(Watch: Senate Rules hearing on Wednesday, scroll to end of video.)