Simonich: Aint No Sunshine In New Mexico’s ‘Dummy Bills’

Rep. Mimi Stewart


It should be clear by now what word in politics is the most overused and overrated.

“Transparent” laps the field of insincere clichés by seven furlongs.

Even when those in power are larding the agenda with vague, dense or surprise proposals, they will brag about how transparent they are.

You say you want hard evidence? Look no further than your fenced-in state Capitol. It’s a place where all 112 legislators will look you in the eye and say they stand for transparent government.

Then review their proposals. A total of 78 bills this session all carry an identical title that tells you nothing — “Public peace, health, safety & welfare.”

Never trust that title or the ampersand that goes inside it.

Forty-one proposals for “public peace, health, safety & welfare” have been introduced this winter in the House of Representatives. Another 37 have been filed in the Senate.

Political reporters call these measures “dummy bills”. This terminology usually isn’t a swipe at the sponsoring legislator.

The proposals are called dummy bills because they start as blank pages carrying the boilerplate title.

But these bills can be dangerous placeholders. Legislators can write anything into a dummy bill and then let an unsuspecting public try to catch up with the details.

The worst dummy bill of modern times in New Mexico sprang from a backroom deal and filled hundreds of pages with arcane or impenetrable verbiage.

It happened in 2013, when legislators from both political parties concocted a dummy bill to cut corporate taxes and reduce state financial assistance to cities and counties. They threw together the proposal with only a few hours remaining in the 60-day legislative session.

The dummy bill cleared the Senate and arrived in the House of Representatives with only 17 minutes remaining in the session.

House Speaker Kenny Martinez, (D-Grants), consorted with Republicans to prohibit any debate on the mind-numbing bill. Martinez knew if he allowed discussion, a few of his own members would talk the dummy bill to death.

Rep. Mimi Stewart, (D-Albuquerque), complained that Martinez held the vote on the dummy bill after the session deadline elapsed. Martinez dismissed her grievance.

He said all was transparent and on the level. The corporate tax cuts became law.

“It was the royal screw-job bill,” Stewart said, now a state senator.

As president pro tem of the Senate, Stewart doesn’t use the term “dummy bill”. She and most legislators prefer to call these measures “emergency bills”.

Stewart herself has introduced three dummy, er, emergency bills this session.

The League of Women Voters and other good-government groups for years have condemned lawmakers for embracing a secretive system in which dummy bills can and do blindside the public.

But legislative leaders of both parties still stack the agenda with a series of dummy bills that can be converted to their pet projects with little or no notice.

Lawmakers tell me they must have emergency bills close at hand, just in case they have to be nimble in creating a proposal after the deadline for filing bills.

This, no doubt, explains why a staggering 78 dummy bills are in the legislative hopper.

Dummy bills aren’t the only example of government being less than straightforward.

Governors of New Mexico have always had the power of the pocket veto, another way of eclipsing sunlight.

A pocket veto occurs when the governor ignores legislation for 20 days after the session ends.

State Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, has tried off and on for eight years to eliminate the pocket veto. He says it makes government mysterious instead of open.

Candelaria now is sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 2, which calls for a vote of the people on ending the pocket veto.

The catch is a majority of the Legislature has to agree to put his proposal on the ballot.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham opposes Candelaria’s resolution. A legislative analysis of the proposal states that Grisham sees elimination of the pocket veto as “a significant intrusion into the governor’s executive authority”.

Candelaria has a different view. “No governor, he says, “should be able to veto a bill approved by the people’s elected representatives without explaining her decision”.

I asked Candelaria if his proposal to eliminate the pocket veto has any chance this session.

“Seems dead,” he wrote in a message.

His proposal cleared one committee, but has since languished. There’s no sign it will receive a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I’ll be back next year and the year after,” Candelaria wrote in the message.

And so will the dummy bills, pocket vetoes and claims that government has never been more transparent.