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Senate should reform its committee rules


The Senate, whether in Santa Fe or Washington, D.C., has long prided itself on being the more deliberative of the two legislative bodies.

The House, where each seat is up for grabs every two years, may twist and turn with the political winds of the day. But the Senate, filled with legislative lifers who have seen numerous past administrations come and go, provides stability and a long-term view.

It’s the world’s greatest deliberative body, or so we’re told. But, can you really make that claim when you refuse to hold deliberations?

In Washington, Mitch McConnell disposes of House bills without a word of public debate. In Santa Fe, that task falls to the committee chairmen. Judiciary Chairman Richard Martinez and Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith had a combined 48 bills passed by the House die in their committees this session, often without a hearing or a vote.

It was considered something of a breakthrough this year when Smith agreed to let Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham make an appeal to the Finance Committee for increased early-childhood education funding. He agreed to listen, but not to give the bill a vote.

The vote taken in the Senate this year to kill a bill by Rep. Joanne Ferrary that would have legalized abortion was rare. Of the more than 220 bills passed from the House to the Senate this year, only 10 were defeated by votes on the Senate floor.

Those votes are not just rare, they’re also messy. They leave a permanent record of who is to blame when a bill is defeated, often sparking talk of primary election challenges.

It’s much cleaner to kill a bill in committee without a vote. Which is why it is so much more common. There were more than 80 bills this session that passed in the House and never made it out of committee in the Senate.

The fate of House Bill 356 was typical of how the process usually works. That was the bill to legalize marijuana.

After first clearing the Health and Human Services Committee, the bill went to the Judiciary Committee, where it was replaced by a committee substitute. It was then amended on the House floor before being passed on a 36-34 vote. The bill then moved over to the Senate, where it was amended again by the Public Affairs Committee.

After all of that, the bill reached its final committee – Senate Finance. Smith told the media that the bill did not have enough votes to pass, and that the sponsor had therefore requested that he not hold a hearing.

We never get to know how close the vote would have been, who opposed the bill or what their opposition was based on.

It’s not just the Finance Committee. Nearly 30 House bills died in the Senate Judiciary Committee this session.

I understand why the Legislature places so much faith in the committee process. Limited to 30-day and 60-day sessions in alternating years, there isn’t enough time to debate every bill on the floor. There has to be a way to weed out what gets to the final vote.

But the process only works when the committees do their jobs. That means holding hearings and taking votes, even on the tough bills.

The House reformed its committee system several years ago to make it fairer and remove the discretion of the chairman to decide what bills are heard and when. The Senate should do the same.

For longer than a decade, the fate of early childhood funding has lied in the hands of one man, Smith. The full Senate never gets to vote on the issue. That has to change. Walt Rubel can be reached at waltruebl@gmail.com.


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