You can call them state senators, you can call them committee chairmen, but you can also call Phil Griego and Linda Lopez the Energizer bunnies of the 2013 Legislature.
Lopez, a single mom from Albuquerque who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, is sponsoring 46 bills and memorials — the most in either chamber. Looking at legislative measures alone, Lopez has filed 40 bills, just ahead of Sen. Phil Griego’s 39.
“I’m having a busy session” said Griego, a Democrat whose rural district stretches almost 200 miles from San Miguel County to Ruidoso.
Lopez’s agenda is partly motivated by her interim work with the Legislative Education Study Committee, which “reignited my thought process and brought in some new ideas,” on issues such as early learning, reading intervention and mandatory physical education, said the 17-year lawmaker.
In the House, Rep. Roberto “Bobby” J. Gonzales, a Taos Democrat who says he gives three live radio interviews each morning to broadcasts throughout Northern New Mexico, has sponsored 29 bills — just three ahead of Albuquerque’s Mimi Stewart, chairwoman of the Education Committee.
“Yesterday I had four bills,” Gonzales said on Feb. 14. “You can’t come here without full enthusiasm about your bills.” Stewart was in meetings and could not be reached for this story.
Juggling dozens of bills might seem like a challenge, but the veteran lawmakers who do it credit organization, a strong clerical and bill-drafting staff — and their cellphones. And they truly believe in the philosophy of a citizen legislature, they say, as New Mexico remains the only state that does not pay its House and Senate members a salary, aside from a per diem.
“They sent me up here to legislate,” said Rep. William “Bill” Rehm, a Republican from Bernalillo County and retired law enforcement officer. Rehm leads Republicans in the House with 24 bill sponsorships. He credits his secretary and a paper-filing system for keeping him on task. Each bill under his sponsorship has its own file folder with pages color-highlighted and wrapped by a rubber band with related documents.
“I like to deal with paper because I can write on it,” he said, waving one stack in each hand during an office interview.
The top Senate Republican is Sander Rue of Bernalillo, who has sponsored 24 bills. He was unavailable Friday as he had three measures scheduled for full Senate debate in the afternoon. That was in addition to his morning schedule — one bill in the Senate Public Affairs Committee, another in Judiciary.
“He’s very busy today,” said Rue’s administrative aide. “He won’t be back in the office.”
Roman Maes, a former state senator who represented Santa Fe for 10 years and is now a registered lobbyist, said there are no firm guidelines for how much legislation is too much — it depends on your staff, and how things flow each session.
Maes used to carry between 30 and 40 bills, and that is probably easier now with laptops and cellphones. He recalled one year carrying a bill for one constituent — and three others around the state — who had a specific disability that was not covered by Medicaid. “Your constituents are your responsibility,” Maes said. “It’s very hard to say no because this is very important to people.”
Griego says he goes by instinct about how many bills to carry. ”You get that feeling in your heart,” he said. “I’ll get them all done this session,” he added.
Lopez agrees that today’s technology makes for easier coordination. On Wednesday, she was chairing the Senate Rules Committee and one of her bills was up before the Education Committee, so she sent that chairman a text message. “I left my vice-chair in charge and went over there and presented my bill. I’m going to be doing that dance the next couple of weeks, but I’m going to be there.”
Northern New Mexico’s Gonzales represents a diverse district with pueblos, state parks and trust land, water, and education issues. A retired school administrator, he served on an interim task force that looked at school-bus transportation. Nine of his bills came out of that collaboration.
When he gets a request for a bill, “the first question I asks them is ‘how much they are willing to help.’ ”
Being the sponsor means not only working with constituents, interest groups and legislative bill drafters, it means going to committee and sub-committee hearings — and having help from those who can testify and attend hearings is essential.
For instance, if each of Lopez’s measures goes before two committees, that means some 80 hearings in the Senate alone. Appropriations measures, which get wrapped into the general fund budget, do not get full hearings, and so those bills are less time consuming.
And some lawmakers said the large number of new members this session — 33 in both chambers — has given the chairpersons even more responsibility as they are the ones who have built up relationships with constituents, nonprofits, and industry groups.
Rehm said the learning curve for freshman lawmakers is steep and the legislative process for them is “like learning to drink water from a fire hose.”
There are protocols and procedures for bill drafting, introductions, committee hearings, floor votes, and passage — and then the measure goes to the other chamber, where a new lawmaker may not even know anyone. And for a bill to pass the Legislature and go to Gov. Susana Martinez for signature, if she is inclined, requires the exact same language in both the House and the Senate versions.
“You don’t learn how to do it in college, you don’t learn it until you come here. They say if you want a Ph.D. in politics, come here and work,” said Lopez.
One strategy for Lopez this session was to co-sponsor some bills with House allies so they can do the maneuvering in that chamber.
Griego said a great many of his bills this session are business or regulatory related and involve his chairmanship of the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee. Likewise, Lopez, Gonzales and Stewart have a great many sponsorships because the issue is related to their committee — and having a chairperson shepherding a bill can make all the difference.
In fact, according to an analysis by The New Mexican, one-third of all introduced legislation comes from committee chairpersons. “You have to work with the chairs,” Griego said.
Most new members are carrying a half dozen bills, according to the Legislature’s website. Of the new members in the Santa Fe delegation, Carl Trujillo sponsored 7 bills; Stephen Easley, 6; and Stephanie Garcia Richard, 7, not counting memorials.
So experience matters, but Gonzales said that doesn’t replace diligence and a part-time Legislature does not mean a part-time job. “I give my full concentration, be it a 30-day or a 60-day session,” he said. And in between there are constituent visits and lobbyist appointments. Like other lawmakers, Gonzales often plays host to students and families from his district. He is still surprised during those visits that many parents had never before been to the state Capitol. It is those people that he keeps front and center when carrying legislation, he said.
“This is their opportunity,” he said. “I tell them this place belongs to you, it doesn’t belong to us.”
Contact Bruce Krasnow at firstname.lastname@example.org.