Sunday, March 3, 2013

Some Thoughts on the Current NM Legislative Session

The present legislative session in Santa Fe has seen some sensible bills and some startling idiocies.

Proposing a pipeline carrying water from the Gila River to our area is beyond stupid, economically and ecologically.  It would destroy one river valley, cost zillions of dollars, and barely impact our long-term water problem.

If the bill is meant to spur folks over by the Gila to assert water rights that might otherwise go to Arizona, there’s gotta be a better way.

On sensible side, HB 286 would modernize penalties and fees oil companies pay.  The fees were set in 1935 - when the average annual wage was $1,108.   A dollar in 1935 was equivalent to about $16 now.  I’m not allowed to pay my speeding fines at 1935 rates.  (HB 286 would also strengthen enforcement by moving away from “self-enforcement” – the coyote guarding the chickens method.)

I liked Jeff Steinborn’s proposal (HJR 9) to have the UNM and NMSU Board of Regents consist of three elected and two appointed regents, plus a student-chosen student member and a faculty member chosen by the regular regents. (I’d prefer the faculty have some say.)

Rep. Mary Helen Garcia has publically explained her recent committee votes  against proposed constitutional amendments regarding same-sex marriage and the minimum wage.

Garcia explained that the legislative process should be respected, that it provided the best chance for citizen involvement, and that the constitutional amendatory process should be reserved for rare cases that require it.

Folks often use such “process” arguments to justify a vote that’s against fairness or likely to be controversial, but we don’t need a 600-page constitution.   Initiatives and constitutional amendments are great populist tools, but their overuse can be disastrous.  Citizens end up with too many ballot issues, most generating  battles between expensive, superficially persuasive, and wholly misleading TV commercials.

The minimum wage amendment would protect poor folks against inflation; I’d prefer that; but leaving the legislature free to decide when changes are warranted isn’t unreasonable.  I hope Rep Garcia votes for HB 416 (a one-time increase from $7.50 to $8.50) and that the Legislature will remove the amendments that would substantially limit its affect.

Gay marriage isn’t subject to changing economic factors and trends.  There’s a simple progression: marriage was once permitted only between a man and a woman of the same ethnicity, then was broadened to include mixed marriages, and will eventually include same-sex marriage.    Each year, same-sex marriage is favored by higher percentages of poll respondents , and recognized by more states.  As old fogies die off, the “controversy” will eventually evoke yawns.  New Mexico should get on with marriage fairness now.

The only two arguments against gay marriage are that “it wasn’t done in the past” and that “God doesn’t like it.”  Both arguments supported anti-miscegenation laws.  The argument based on God’s views doesn’t pass Constitutional muster, given our deep commitment to separation of church and state.  Jesus’s views on the subject unclear.   If God doesn’t like same-sex marriage, s/he doesn’t have to enter into one – or officiate at one.   HJR3's proposed amendment specifically protects religions that disapprove of such marriages from having to celebrate them.

  Reducing penalties for recreational use of marijuana makes sense.   Jail sentences for folks with small amounts are stupid: people doing no harm end up in jail, and taxpayers’ dollars feed, house, and guard them at a time when we must reduce unnecessary governmental expenditures.  (Would you rather educate kids or put hippies in jail?) This is one both leftists and the Tea Party ought to support!

The House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee voted along party lines to recommend HB 465.  Republican Jason Harper is worried that with lighter penalties more people would drive under the influence of marijuana.

That’d beat having folks drive drunk.  Back in the 1960's a Scientific American article pointed out the vast difference: drunk drivers are more impaired than stoned drivers; and as the hours pass, the drunk driver’s impairment grows, while the stoned driver’s driving improves.  Many of us have witnessed this.  Democrat Emily Kane, a legislator and professional firefighter.  She says she’s responded to many accidents caused by alcohol, but none caused by marijuana.

Governor Martinez opposes liberalization; but a majority of New Mexicans favor small civil fines and no jail time for marijuana possession, while a narrow 52% majority favor legalizing grass for adults, and then regulating and taxing it.

And the two hot issues of holding back third graders and giving drivers’ licenses to undocumented foreigners?

Regarding third graders, I don’t see this as a one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter, or whatever other banality you want to throw at it.  Kids certainly ought not to progress very far in school without becoming literate; but some sensitive or slow-developing kids could be psychologically damaged by repeating a grade, when some of them would probably catch up to their companions in a year or two if promoted.  I’d encourage schools to limit “social promotion”; but neither social promotion nor holding kids back is the right answer in every situation.

I’m not sure why the driver’s license is such a big deal, either way.

It makes some sense to give them licenses and make them insure their cars.

I also favor making restaurants selling out-of-state chile confess that mortifying fact on their menus.  Since the House approved that one unanimously, it’s probably unnecessary to opine on that.  But, jeez, I love our chile!

[The column above appeared this morning, Sunday, 3 March, in the Las Cruces Sun-News, under a livelier headline: "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in the NM Legislature."]

Time will tell whether the column is overly kind to Mary Helen Garcia.  Votes against letting the people vote on amendments for same-sex marriage and a minimum wage that rises with inflation, as well as sponsoring the unsuccessful try to mandate holding kids back in the third grade if they don't read at a specified level, she does seem out-of-step with her party and much of her constituency.  

The rationales offered in her written explanation vary.  I'm not sure I agree that legislation -- rather than letting us vote on an amendment -- offers the best opportunity for citizen participation.  On the other hand, a "sound off" comment this morning criticized her statement that she believed constituents elected her to use her own judgement.  In general, I'd agree with her.  Part of the idea of having legislators is that it's too cumbersome to have everyone vote on everything, because if we all took the time to get educated regarding each issue, we'd never have time to make shoes or write columns or grow chiles.  Therefore we elect folks we trust and respect, and who share our values generally, and I agree with her that she should vote what she thinks is right, not what her constituents necessarily want, particularly on complex issues that not all of her constituents understand.   I would also urge her to use her judgement to vote for fairness and equality, even if her constituents were no sufficiently enlightened to share that judgement.  It's specifically her judgement with which I disagree here; and equal access to marriage ain't such a complex issue that she knows more about it than we do.

If you're interested in reading the texts of some of the bills discussed in the column, here's some help.  Checking on a few details for the column, I found myself at Legiscan, which seems a convenient place to learn sponsors, details, and the status of a bill or resolution -- in any state or in Congress.   Conveniently, you can search by bill number or key words.   At any rate, the following are links to download as pdf's the texts of bills you may want to read through:

For example, to download the full text of HB 286 click on its name and, in the new window that comes up, click on the orange text following the word "Download."  You can then view, print, or save the full-text.

To read SB 416, raising the minimum wage from $7.50 to $8.50 per hour, click on: SB416


To download full text of HB 426, click on HB 426 . Similarly:




Or for any other legislation, just go to the Legiscan site and search by the bill's name or a key word.

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