Ringside Seat: Welcome To The Real March Madness

In civilized America, nothing is quite so frenetic as the last week of a 60-day session of the New Mexico Legislature.
Hundreds of bills — some critical, some so stupid they appear to have been introduced as a joke — are still in play. Even some of the worst ones have a chance to receive approval before the session ends at noon Saturday.
The 42 senators and 70 members of the House of Representatives are sleep deprived and under pressure. Some are irritable. A few appear enraged.
What’s it like to be a freshman in this storm of human emotion?
“This is the best time — total controlled chaos,” Rep. Abbas Akhil, D-Albuquerque, said Sunday morning. “It reminds me of an Indian wedding. Everybody’s running around helter-skelter.”
Akhil, one of 19 new members in the House, has not lost any of the optimism he displayed during his campaign last year, when he upset Republican Rep. Jim Dines.
“This is such a lovely place. We can do so much,” Akhil said.
Asked what the worst part is, he hesitated a minute before answering.
“I think just the rush,” he said. “There’s just not enough time.”
Legislators introduced 1,370 bills this session. Then they added 242 memorials, which have no force of law. But many of the memorials still receive hearings and are debated by legislators, killing valuable time.
On top of this were 32 proposed amendments to the state constitution. Voters ultimately would have to approve any constitutional changes, but legislators rarely place a proposed amendment on the ballot.
Akhil, an engineer who prides himself on being thorough, said New Mexico legislators can immerse themselves only in a small portion of the bills. The ones that are controversial or of personal interest receive heavy attention. Others are skimmed.
Several are a waste of the paper they are printed on.
For instance, Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, has proposed a law to make “Chile Verde Rock” the state chile song.
New Mexico no more needs an official song about chile than it does higher unemployment.
Campos, a senator for 29 years, ought to know better than to clog the agenda with useless proposals.
Incredibly, the Senate Rules Committee took time to hear Senate Bill 469, his proposal for a chile song, and then advance it.
Perhaps Campos was trying to match the meanderings of Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque. Ortiz y Pino introduced Senate Bill 386 to make “La Marcha de los Novios” the state dance.
Demonstrating its regard for legislative priorities, the Senate courageously approved the bill on a 37-0 vote. It has since advanced through the House and is on the agenda for a vote that would send it to the governor’s desk.
Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, introduced another time-wasting measure with Senate Bill 449. It would require candidates for president and vice president to release a copy of their federal income tax returns for the last five years to qualify for New Mexico’s general election ballot.
Candelaria, like most people in the state, didn’t vote for President Donald Trump, who broke with a long tradition by withholding his tax returns.
But even if Candelaria’s bill were approved, a court would throw it out as illegal.
The U.S. Constitution established the qualifications to run for president. A state lawmaker who wants to add another layer to the requirements is on a fool’s errand.
A bright young attorney, Candelaria is as good as any state legislator at dissecting and improving bills. Yet he’s not above bogging down the Legislature with a measure that will change nothing in the realm of presidential politics.
Even with all the clutter, the last two months haven’t dampened Akhil’s enthusiasm. He has kind words for most everyone, including his Republican colleagues.
In the House, Republicans hold only 24 of the 70 seats. They take a beating every day, and their frustration level has boiled over more than once.
Still, Akhil said, he admires the efforts and tenacity of the Republicans. He finds admirable qualities in their floor leader, James Townsend of Artesia, and outspoken Republican Reps. Jason Harper of Rio Rancho and Candy Spence Ezzell of Roswell.
Akhil has frustrations of his own. Committed to thrift, he’s brought his own printer to the session so as not to add to the state’s sizable expenses.
One bill on taxes covered 696 pages, said Akhil, chairman of the Enrolling and Engrossing Committee.
“Then, if there’s just one amendment, it has to be reprinted,” he said, still surprised at the inefficient process.
There’s a bright side. The madness ends in five days, only to be resumed in 2020.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505.986.3080.