Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Roundhouse Roundup: Avenging Bob

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 26, 2009

Bob Johnson, thou art avenged!

That’s what I wrote on this very blog last week shortly after the state Senate voted 33-8 to pass House Bill 393, which would open conference committees to the public.
The late Bob Johnson of FOG
The late Johnson was director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and fought for years to get the Legislature to open those meetings, where Senate and House members work out differences in the budget and other bills passed by each chamber. Conference committees are the last major areas not covered by the Open Meetings Act. Johnson, a retired Associated Press executive, died in 2007.

Like I said, Johnson fought hard to open the meetings. And sometimes he got kicked in the teeth for his efforts. During his last session, some senators, in defending secret meetings, bashed Johnson, pointing out that FOG was funded by (gasp) newspapers, using a tone of voice as if they were revealing the organization was a front for the Communist Party or something nefarious.

As I’ve noted before, lawmakers never do this to lobbyists for drug companies, oil companies or developers.

But Johnson might not be completely avenged yet. There’s still an opportunity to kick him in the teeth. And the person in the position to do that is Gov. Bill Richardson.

Richardson for years has given lip service to open conference committees. A few years ago, he even chided newspaper editors at a legislative breakfast to push harder for such a bill. And as recently as Saturday afternoon, Richardson said at a post-session news conference that he would sign HB393.

But sometime, apparently between then and Monday, the governor started backpedaling. His press office began telling bloggers and newspapers that there might be some problems with the bill.

“While the governor is supportive of the concept of opening conference committees to the public, he is taking the time to scrutinize the final bill passed by the Legislature,” spokesman Gilbert Gallegos told my colleague Kate Nash. “The governor also wants to hear all sides of the issue, including the rationale for allowing the Legislature to close committee meetings without changing the law.”

Gallegos was referring to a section of the law that would allow the Legislature to change its rules to re-close the conference committees.

But as another longtime fighter for open conference committees pointed out (Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, who has fought for years to open the committees), it would take a two-thirds vote to change the rule.

I don’t know what led Richardson to his current stance on the bill. And I don’t really think it’s worth speculating. I just can’t envision the governor vetoing this bill after telling so many people he’d sign it. I just don’t think Bill Richardson wants to be remembered as the man who killed open conference committees.

But let’s wait until the governor does sign that bill until we officially proclaim, “Bob Johnson, thou art avenged!”

Hung up in Taos: Bill Richardson will be remembered as the man who ended the death penalty in New Mexico. And even though he admitted he struggled with the decision, the governor now seems comfortable with signing the bill to abolish capital punishment and replace it with the sentence of life in prison without parole.

He appeared Monday on The Rachel Maddow Show to discuss the move, basically telling the MSNBC audience the same thing he told us — that even though he’d always supported the death penalty, the system isn’t perfect, so there’s a chance for wrongful executions and that the prisons here are so bad that spending the rest of your life there might be worse than death. (He didn’t mention that the governor is responsible for prison conditions here.)

But the most notable thing about the Maddow appearance is a clever headline that appeared on a backdrop behind Maddow as well as in a headline superimposed on the screen during the Richardson interview: “Taos Shalt Not Kill.”

I guess in the minds of some MSNBC employees, Taos is synonymous with the entire state.

But to be a literal stick-in-the-mud, all nine legal executions in New Mexico since 1933 were carried out here in Santa Fe County.

The last person legally executed in Taos County, when executions were the responsibilities of counties, was John Conley, who was hanged in 1906.

In his book Myth of the Hanging Tree, former state historian Robert J. Torrez said Conley had tried to slash his throat with a dull blade shortly before the execution and in fact was unconscious at the time he was hanged.

Torrez lists two other legal Territorial period Taos hangings (one of which, in 1857, he says was “probable” though not fully documented.) However, between 1867 and 1881, according to Torrez, there were three lynchings performed in Taos.

UPDATE: The original version said Sen. Feldman carried the confrence committee bill on the Senate floor. She did speak strongly for it and she did have similar bills that didn't make it to the Senate floor. But it actually was Sen. Linda Lopez who carried HB393.

Blog bonus: Here's Richardson on Rachel

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