“There ought to be a law” is a common refrain said in both jest and seriousness.
Whether it’s reforming the tax code, creating new criminal penalties or refining voting laws, the New Mexico Legislature is the body responsible for bring forward new laws — new legislation — for consideration and possible adoption.
“The first thing that happens is you have to have an idea,” said Rep. Kelly Fajardo, a member of the House of Representatives since 2013.
Those ideas can come from a number of sources, such as the legislators themselves and the public.
“Ideas come from constituents, absolutely. That happens all the time,” she said. “The majority of what we do is fixing things. There’s something in existing law that needs to be improved or changed, we need to update the language of a bill because it effects something we didn’t anticipate. Mostly there is bipartisan support.”
Fajardo said it’s typically when someone is crafting entirely new legislation that things can become controversial, and certain topics, such as taxes or gun laws, can get heated.
Whether it’s a revision or new, most legislators turn to the Legislative Council Services to draft the bill. The LCS members are state employees, not elected legislators, with various backgrounds in areas such as taxes, children’s law and infrastructure, Fajardo said.
The LCS also decides where in state statute the idea should be placed.
“They do a lot of research to see what is already out there in other states,” she said. “Other states have maybe done 80 percent of the research. The marijuana bill is a perfect example; they were able to research what had already been done in a lot of other states.”
Once a bill is drafted, it is assigned a number and to committees. The House of Representatives and Senate have numerous standing committees made up of members of the individual chambers.
These committees are formed to review legislation in specific areas, such as education, energy, natural resources and the judiciary.
Bills are assigned to committees by the speaker of the house, Fajardo said.
“Two is standard. If it gets only one, that usually means it will be fast-tracked. If there are three or more committees, that’s pretty much a signal it’s dead,” she said.
Each committee has six to 15 members, and the legislator sponsoring the bill comes to the committee and makes their argument in support of the proposed legislation.
The committee hearings are also the place where members of the public can come and testify about the bill, offering both concerns and support of the proposed law.
“Usually what happens, is this is where the bill is changed. Conversations happen, issues come up, and you try to resolve them,” the representative said.
A frequent presenter at school career days, Fajardo has an example bill she uses for elementary schools — no homework on Fridays and ice cream for every teacher on Thursday.
“Let’s say in the committee hearing, you find out that half your teachers are lactose intolerant. Well, now you change the bill and make it sorbet,” she said.
When he was elected to the New Mexico House of Representatives in 2011 and started really learning about the committee process, Rep. Alonzo Baldonado had his doubts.
“It’s a slow grind some times. I thought, ‘If my business ran this way, I’d never make money.’ The point of this process is to vet things and pick apart legislation before it becomes law,” Baldonado said. “Most good bills take three to five years to pass. What you tend to find is, over the years a bill gets more and more refined, and gets to a better point.”
Before a bill goes on to the full House and all 70 members discuss and vote on the legislation, it takes a trip to the appropriations committee, which handles the money aspect.
“You can have a great idea but do you have the money?” Fajardo said.
Once a bill goes to the floor, any debate is strictly among the legislators. Members of the public can contact their individual legislators and petition for changes or to vote a certain way on a bill, Fajardo said, but there won’t be more public input.
Not only does the committee process of discussing bills help craft better legislation but there is a time factor to consider, Baldonado said.
“In the House, we have a three-hour limit on debate, so if we had bills come to the entire body we probably get through 10 bills in a whole session,” he said.
If a bill is passed by a majority of the members of the House, it then goes on to the governor for consideration.
“The Senate goes through the same process,” Fajardo said. “And even if we get things passed, it’s up to the governor to sign them. Sometimes the governor doesn’t sign.”