Saturday, March 21, 2009

Speaker Confronts Sen. Smith in Front of News Media As the Legislature Ends: What Was This About? Listen to the Confrontation

The first open conference committee in New Mexico history was presided by Senator John Arthur Smith immediately after the end of the legislative session. Perhaps, from the Speaker's point of view, it was a little too open too quickly.

After the open conference meeting, back on the floor of the Senate, Speaker of the House Ben Lujan walked up to Senator John Smith, who was speaking to reporters, and gestured at him emphatically, saying, among other things, "you're not worth a darn," in front of a number of television cameras and reporters. Smith replied, "thank you, Mr. Speaker," and later, when the Speaker had left, told reporters, "obviously the Speaker hasn't had as good a session as I have." If you want to hear the confrontation, listen here: (recorded by Kate Nash, found on Roundhouse Roundup)
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The dispute appears to have been related to Smith's decision to open up the meeting to the media. Speaker Lujan had sponsored HB 820, which would allow local governments to partner with private enterprises in eligible enterprises by issuing bonds. It failed to pass through the House twice on tie votes. Apparently the Speaker was able to add portions of HB 820 as a last-minute, relatively obscure amendment to SB90 and HB 854 (these bills had passed both houses, on matters unrelated to HB 820 but relevant to the Senate Finance Committee, which is why Smith ended up presiding over the conference committee), hoping conference committee members reconciling either SB 90 or HB 854, would approve the bill as amended to include those elements the Speaker wanted. Conference committees determine the final wording of bills passed by both houses whenever there is a difference in the language of both bills. In this case both SB 90 and HB 854 had passed both houses with differences in language, so a conference committee meeting was necessary.

Smith's decision to hold the first-ever open conference committee immediately following the session thus threatened to expose in public the Speaker's efforts to find a way to get part of HB 820 passed into law through a relatively un-transparent process. Knowledgeable persons have explained that one of the potential beneficiaries of HB 820 was a film company in Santa Fe hoping to get state help to finance a movie studio near the railyards. And, indeed, when the sponsor's of the bill understood the conference committee would be held in public, in room 332 (Senate Finance Committee) their enthusiasm for supporting the amendment waned and the amendments were removed. Conference committee members have a right to quiz a bill's sponsors about any aspect of its contents. In private, members might let a questionable amendment slide into law out of courtesy, especially to the Speaker. In public, however, rigorous questioning would reveal this was a last-minute pet project that couldn't get passed the House through the normal process of legislative action. Given that it was a bill sponsored by the Speaker, voting for it would look like they were doing him favors rather than voting on the merits, and it might be reported that way on the front pages of the news media. Pass or fail there would be a risk of negative coverage for the speaker and his allies.

The Speaker was, perhaps understandably, upset with Smith at what he may have taken to be an effort to embarrass him in public. In the exchange (above) The Speaker repeatedly asked Smith repeatedly, "why didn't you call me?" A call, presumably, might have gotten the amendments removed without exposing the Speaker's movida in public.

Smith, on the other hand, perhaps understandably, was upset that the Speaker was trying to use a parliamentary device to sneak in legislation that had already been rejected through normal channels. Holding an open conference committee meeting was a way, then, for Smith to block the Speaker, and he seized the opportunity. Smith was under no obligation to hold an open meeting; it was a spontaneous decision. Even though the open meetings law has passed, it is not yet signed by the governor, and will not become law, if signed, for ninety days.

Nerves are on edge at the end of any session. This session was even more edgy than most, since the state is in a financial crisis and the legislature is forced to say "no" to many worthy projects. Neither Smith nor the Speaker should be criticized too much for showing less than 100% courtesy toward each other under the circumstances. Both are gentlemen and are unlikely to hold grudges over this incident.

Perhaps more to the point, if this process truly remains open, knowing in advance that amendments will be scrutinized in public, legislators will be far more cautious in their approach to getting approval in conference committees for legislation that would not stand up to the light of day under normal channels.

Rep. Joseph Cervantes fought hard for many years to get HB 393 passed, opening up the conference committee process. And the passage of HB 393 is one of the true landmark bills of the 2009 legislative session. It is one of those bills that everyone agrees should have passed long ago, but only after it has already passed and become part of a more democratic legacy. Believe me, it wasn't easy to do. It stands as a true monument in the legislative record of achievement of Rep. Joseph Cervantes, who hails from our own South Mesilla Valley.

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