Monday, March 25, 2013

Roundhouse Roundup: On Last Minute Decisions

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican March, 24 2013

One of the winners in the recently adjourned Legislature was Think New Mexico, the think tank across the street from the Capitol. The organization was successful in convincing the Legislature to pass three bills aimed at reforming the scandal-blasted Public Regulation Commission.

Of course, those bills didn’t only have Think New Mexico behind them. State voters in the last election passed constitutional amendments mandating the general ideas behind the legislation. The bills basically filled in the details.

The three bills include Senate Bill 8, which would require new qualifications for commission candidates; House Bill 46, which would move the Corporations Bureau from the Public Regulation Commission to the Secretary of State’s Office; and HB 45, which would create an independent Office of the Insurance Superintendent and remove that division from the commission.

They still must be signed by Gov. Susana Martinez. It might be presumptuous to say that’s a sure bet, but I haven’t heard any rumblings about possible vetoes.

The passing of the PRC bills made me think back to the October 2011 report by Think New Mexico that launched the effort to reform the commission. The report included the history of how the commission came to be in the first place.

“Those present at the birth of the Public Regulation Commission in 1996 still shudder when thinking about how it came into being,” the introduction to the report began. “There was surprisingly little deliberation about the formation of what is likely the most powerful state regulatory body in the nation …”

Surprisingly little deliberation? In the state Legislature? As recently as 1996? How could that be?

The narrative explains how the PRC began as a proposed constitutional amendment, House Joint Resolution 16, sponsored by Rep. Bob Perls, D-Corrales. Then House Speaker Raymond Sanchez, D-Albuquerque didn’t like the proposed amendment, so he assigned it four committees. That’s normally a kiss of death, especially in a 30-day session.

But then something weird happened. The darned thing started passing out of its committees. “The odds of its passage, however, were still stacked against it as it came up for a vote on the House Floor around 11 p.m., the night before the session’s adjournment at noon the next day,” the report said.

It went over to the Senate, where it was assigned to the Rules Committee. “However, with only about an hour remaining until adjournment of the session, [Senate President Pro-tem Manny] Aragon made a rare parliamentary procedural maneuver,” the report said. “He removed HJR 16 from the Senate Rules Committee — without a hearing — and brought it directly to the Senate Floor as the next order of business. The Senate passed HJR 16 with only a few minutes remaining in the session.”

The constitutional amendment went on to squeak by the voters in November 1996.

Now some of you gentle readers might want to draw comparisons between the frantic, last-minute wheeling and dealing that got the PRC legislation passed to the frantic, last-minute wheeling and dealing that got the controversial tax bill passed in the final seconds (some say beyond the final seconds) of the 2013 session.

Don’t be silly. There are major differences in the passing of these two pieces of legislation.

The PRC legislation went through four House committees, while the tax bill, in anything resembling its final form, didn’t get heard by any committee. The fiscal impact report for the PRC resolution was available long before any floor vote, while the fiscal impact report for the tax bill didn’t get released until several days after the session ended. And the voters got the final say with the PRC legislation. That won’t happen with the tax bill.

House Speaker Kenny Martinez and others have said that if there are any unforeseen problems with the tax bill, the Legislature can just come back and fix it next year.

After all, the Legislature finally got around to fixing problems with the monster created in 1996 by the PRC legislation.