Logic rarely rules Legislature

March 04, 2006

Walt Rubel (OpEd), Carlsbad Current-Argus

Speaker of the House Ben Lujan got Rep. Joe Stell of Carlsbad to do his dirty work for him this past session and ensure that a medical marijuana bill that passed early on in the Senate would never be heard in the House.

It was Stell, and not Lujan, who had to sit by stonefaced as frail, 61-year-old AIDS patient Essie DeBonet wailed repeatedly, "Why are you trying to kill us?" through heavy sobs after he had cast the deciding vote in denying DeBonet the only medication she says will allow her to deal with the nausea caused by her disease and keep the food down that she needs to say healthy.

It was by far the most dramatic and heart-wrenching moment in a legislative session that otherwise sputtered to an inconclusive finish.

In truth, the bill never should have been in Stell's committee.

Lujan had made his displeasure with the bill known shortly after it was passed by the Senate, telling New Mexican reporter Steve Terrell, "I would have hoped that the first bills passed would have addressed issues that are more at the forefront of what the general public really wants."

He vowed that he would not keep the bill from being heard, and then did just that by referring it to Stell's Agriculture and Water Resources Committee -- a conservative committee made up entirely of rural legislators.

Rep. Joseph Cervantes, who serves on that committee, pointed out the obvious when he noted that the bill had nothing to do with water resources or agriculture. Whatever agricultural expertise that would have been required to carry out the bill, if it had passed, is pretty much common knowledge on the Internet.

"This bill is here for a reason. It's been sent here to kill it," Cervantes told his fellow committee members before they voted to make that prediction a reality.

It happens all the time in the Legislature. Leaders that don't want to be bothered with controversial bills send them off to a hostile committee, never to be heard from again.

It is why New Mexico is one of only two states that still allows cockfighting. Sen. Mary Jane Garcia's bill to ban cockfighting died last year in the Senate Conservation Committee following a full afternoon of testimony, including that of a man who said it was more cruel to spay and neuter a cat. That is the logic that won the day.

The medical marijuana bill dealt primarily with two issues -- medicine and law. Cervantes, an attorney who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, is the only member of the Ag Committee with any expertise in either of those two areas, and the only member who supported the bill.

The only other lawmakers taking part in the discussion with specific expertise in either of those two areas were Sens. Cisco McSorley, an attorney, and Steve Komadina, a physician. And they were both there to support the bill. Sadly for people like Essie, they didn't have a vote.

Stell is the Legislature's unquestioned expert on all matters dealing with water. Nobody in the House or Senate comes close to his expertise on that issue. He surely knows all too well the feeling of having a bill killed in committee by lawmakers who lack his full understanding and grasp of the issue.

I'm afraid that's probably what happened here as well.

Rubel is the Current-Argus Santa Fe Bureau chief. He may be reached at wrubel@lcsun-news.com.

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