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THE VIEW FROM HERE

A rule is broken with passage of every bill

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Every bill passed by the New Mexico Legislature begins with a conspiracy to break the rules and then cover it up. And every member is in on it.

Before the start of floor debate on any bill, the sponsor has to read the following disclaimer: “I ask unanimous consent that the rules be suspended and the record reflect that all actions have been taken ...” for final passage of the bill.

I always wondered why they didn’t just change the rule, instead of agreeing to break it every time. And I wondered what would happen if just one of the 112 members decided not to go along with the agreement.

Under the rules, every bill has to be read out loud in public before debate can begin. We saw a similar rule enforced in the U.S. Senate before passage of the recent pandemic relief act. In Congress, that just delayed the inevitable.

But in a legislative session required to end at noon after 30 or 60 days, enforcement of that rule could jam up the whole process.

That’s just one example where unanimous consent is required to get around the old rules. Another is the floor leader standing up at any hour of the day and declaring that it’s 12 o’clock, in order the “roll the clock.” The rules also require that the journal be read out loud every day.

I remember once years ago when Lee Rawson was Senate minority whip that Republicans made vague threats about invoking the rule to read each bill out loud, but I don’t know if it’s ever been seriously considered in the years I’ve been here.

Which is a little bit surprising. In a system where the minority party doesn't have many built-in protections, that would seem like an easy way to just blow everything up.

When I first started covering the Legislature, I found many of the outdated rituals to be intriguing. Kind of like joining a secret club. But I never thought of them as useful or efficient.

The word efficient almost never comes to mind when thinking about the Legislature. And that’s probably OK. The process for passing new laws is intended to be long and difficult, with multiple opportunities for revision or rejection. But it shouldn’t be made more difficult by antiquated procedures.

There may have been a time when transmitting information was much slower, and reading bills out loud in public made sense, but it doesn’t now.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes argued recently that he thinks our system was intentionally designed to limit the number of bills passed each year, given the difficulty back then of reprinting all of the law books and then distributing them throughout the state.

Those challenges no longer remain, but the system is still set up to limit what can be done each year.

There will be hundreds of bills with strong support from members in both parties that will die on the Senate and House calendars at noon this Saturday, just as there are every year when the session is required to end.

Which bills get through, and which get left waiting in line, is a matter of pure luck, and can always be altered by just one member who decides to hold the floor and run out the clock.

I don’t know why lawmakers haven’t updated the rules through the constitutional amendment process. But I suspect just one person refusing to consent would be more than enough motivation.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.

Walt Rubel