Republican slowdown in New Mexico legislature kills medical marijuana bill

February 16, 2006

Steve Terrell, Free New Mexican

In the last hours of its 2006 regular session, both chambers of the New Mexico Legislature bogged down to a tar-pit pace.

The last hour in the House was dominated by first-term Rep. Justine Fox-Young, R-Albuquerque, who as a part of a Republican protest asked tedious questions for more than 50 minutes regarding a bill that ended up passing unanimously.

All the while, House members waited for a final vote on big-ticket issues, such as a bill to raise the state minimum wage and another to cut taxes, and watched the noon deadline for adjournment creep closer and closer.

Meanwhile in the Senate, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who serves as president of the Senate, told senators to be quiet during the last-minute commotion on the floor. "Do me a favor here; just cool it," she admonished.

This was following a morning of bitter Senate debate over a payday-loan bill that never got a final vote and nearly an hour of debate on a $762 million capital-outlay bill, which went on to pass unanimously.

Everyone was tired. Nerves were frayed. Eyes were bloodshot.

The Senate, like the House, had worked past 3 a.m. Thursday in the session that started Wednesday morning. At times senators seemed grouchy and quick to bicker.

At a post-session news conference in the governor's office, House Republican Leader Ted Hobbs of Albuquerque was overheard saying he wanted to reach over and strangle the next person who talked on the House floor. It wasn't clear whom he was talking about.

Some Roundhouse observers were asking Thursday, "Is this the best way to make laws?"

In the House on Thursday, some Republicans purposely engaged in a slowdown. First it was Rep. Dan Foley of Roswell -- who did the same thing during last year's regular session. Then it was Fox-Young's turn.

Her questions periodically were interrupted by sharp exchanges with House Majority Leader Kenny Martinez, D-Grants. Martinez made occasional pleas to Fox-Young to relinquish the floor so other bills could be discussed.

During one of those instances, Fox-Young asked Martinez what time was on the official House clock.

"11:32 a.m.," Martinez replied. "How much more time do you need?"

"About 25 minutes," Fox-Young replied.

And she took it.

With Fox-Young giving up the floor with only about two minutes left, Democrats rushed to get final votes on the minimum-wage bill, the tax-cut bill and others.

Just like last year, the medical-marijuana bill -- passed by the House Judiciary Committee in a meeting that took place shortly before 4 a.m. -- died on the House floor awaiting a floor hearing.

Asked about the annual Republican last-day slowdown, House Speaker Ben Luján, D-Nambé, told reporters: "Unfortunately, we have some rules we try to abide by. We do have rules to protect the minority party. But some members take advantage of this fact, and it's not something that's of benefit to the citizens of New Mexico."

Luján didn't have any suggested remedies except to say: "The constituents they represent, they need to know their actions here in the Legislature and how they conduct themselves."

Fox-Young said the slowdown was a response to Gov. Bill Richardson. "We've seen a governor who is totally out of control, spending that is totally out of control," Fox-Young said.

Interviewed immediately after the session, Foley said the slowdown was a response to the tremendous number of bills the House is left to deal with in the last day -- many of which are decided in closed-door conference committees -- and the way Republicans are treated. "Until we have fair hearings in open meetings, this will happen every year."

But it wasn't the Foley/Fox-Young slowdown that killed the minimum-wage and tax-cut bills. It was the Senate, which never concurred with the House on final versions of those and other bills.

Senate President Pro Tem Ben Altamirano, D-Silver City, gave a familiar excuse for legislation not passing: Senators simply ran out of time.

"We had allocated time to take care of those things, and then we got long debates on some bills, we got roll-call votes and explaining of votes," Altamirano said.

Some would argue the slowdown in the Senate started much earlier than in the House.

The Senate spent hours Wednesday voting on nonbinding memorials and resolutions. For some time Wednesday, the Senate wasn't hearing House bills and vice versa.

While some of Thursday's floor debates in the Senate were predictably along party lines, not all the barbs were partisan.

The payday-loan fight was largely Democrat vs. Democrat. And so was some of the debate on the proposed spaceport in Southern New Mexico.

Sen. John Grubesic, D-Santa Fe, unsuccessfully tried to strip out $33 million for the spaceport from the main capital-outlay bill.

But Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, said Grubesic's proposed amendment was just a jab at Richardson, who fought for the spaceport money. "It's all geared just toward attacking our governor," Richard Martinez said.

But the final Senate floor session did include some lighter moments. While debating a bill to prohibit felons from serving on juries, Sen. Shannon Robinson, D-Albuquerque, joked, "This bill could ruin my career as a lawyer."

Senators unanimously approved the measure.

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