Attending legislative session presents challenges

By Steve Terrell: The New Mexican

For years people trying to attend a session of the state Legislature have complained about the parking situation at the Capitol. There’s finally some good news on that front.

Last year the state opened a new $13 million parking structure just west of the Roundhouse with 580 spaces. (Entrance on Galisteo Street north of Paseo de Peralta.)

True, nearly half of those spaces are assigned to state employees, but even so, this alleviates some of the parking pressure in the Capitol area. There’s 580-plus fewer vehicles competing for parking, freeing up spaces in the PERA parking lot and the streets in the surrounding areas.

But still, despite high-minded talk from politicians about the need for citizens to participate in government, they don’t make it easy for average people to observe the Legislature firsthand. You still might even wonder if they really want you there at all.

And if you do manage to make it to the Capitol in time for a committee meeting, if the bill you’re following is controversial, there’s a good chance the tiny committee rooms will fill up and you’ll be left standing in the hall.

Some lawmakers apparently have become sensitive to complaints about the small committee rooms. In late 2007, legislative leaders discussed a $30 million proposal for an addition to the Capitol. However, all such discussion evaporated by the next year as the state budget crunch became a reality.

For those who want to follow the session from the comfort of your own home or office, there’s the magic of Webcasting.

Senate floor sessions are Webcast by the state — although camera-shy lawmakers decreed that only one camera from the gallery be used, so the only picture you’ll see is the back of the heads of senators who sit in the middle of the chamber.

In addition to the Senate video Webcast, the state audiocasts floor sessions of both the Senate and the House. Also, House Republicans will be Webcasting certain House committee meetings.

You can find bills, committee schedules and lists of members at: www.nmlegis.gov.

Here are a few basic rules for those who want to try to follow the New Mexico Legislature at close range:

• Don’t expect the House or Senate or any of their committees to start anywhere near the scheduled time, especially in the hectic final days of the session. There’s no one to blame. If a floor session in the House or Senate goes into overtime, the committees of that body will start later. And if either political party in either chamber decides to meet in caucus to plan strategy, even more delays can be expected. During October’s special session, when the Democratic leadership in either chamber was having a hard time convincing the rank and file to get behind budget-cutting measures, the Legislature seemed to spend more time than ever in caucus.

• Just because a bill you’re following is third on the agenda, don’t expect it to be heard after the fourth item. Bills can be moved up or down at the pleasure of the committee. Sometimes a committee will hear a bill out of order as a courtesy to the sponsor, who might have to rush to another committee meeting. Don’t expect them to hear your bill out of order as a courtesy to you.

• Finally, at floor sessions and committee meetings, please observe decorum. This isn’t the City Council. The public is not allowed to applaud, heckle or read poetry to the committee.

• In an effort to ease the parking shortage, the state Transportation Department each year runs free shuttle buses between the Capitol and other spots around Santa Fe. The schedule for the three routes can be found by linking to the Legislative Shuttle Schedule at the department’s Web site: http://www.nmshtd.state.nm.us/upload/images/LegislativeShuttleFinalSchedule2010.pdf. Service for persons with disabilities is available from Santa Fe Trails. Call 473-4444, 24 hours in advance.

But be forewarned: As the session gets rolling, many committee meetings and floor sessions will go long beyond the last bus out in the early evening, especially in the final days of the session. Depending on the route, the last buses leave the Capitol at 6:50 p.m. and 7 p.m. Don’t get stranded.