Life of a bill

How a bill is created, and the process it undertakes to become law (Freedom Newspapers Illustration: Ryn Gargulinski)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Eleven days remained Thursday until the onset of the 48th legislative session. The sun had set, night was near; but calm eluded Rep. Anna Crook.

“My stomach is churning,” said Crook, R-Clovis.

Constituent e-mails, letters and phone calls bounced in her head. Suggested laws. Suggested funding. Requests she finds reasonable, such as handicap parking for motorcyclists. Requests she doesn’t, such as automatic registration in an organ donor program.

“(Being a lawmaker) really and truly is an awful lot of work, especially when it’s something your body and soul is into it,” said Crook.

For many area residents, a curtain is drawn across the legislative process, and it never opens.

“I can tell, just from the questions people ask me, that many don’t know a lot about what we do,” she said.

Passing laws is not simple, legislators explained. In the building in Santa Fe at the corner of Old Santa Fe Trail and Paseo de Peralta, defeat comes often.

An example among many — the death of Senate Bill 195, sponsored by Sen. Clint Harden, R.-Clovis, in the 47th Legislature.

A string of phone conversations and meetings with 9th Judicial District Attorney Matt Chandler led Harden to sponsor a bill that would have sentenced those caught manufacturing illegal methamphetamine to at least five years in prison.

“Law enforcement has found that methamphetamine is our number-one battle,” said Chandler, who travels to Santa Fe during legislative sessions about once a week.

“If we want to eliminate methamphetamine,” Chandler said, “we have to start at the top, with manufacturers.

“If manufacturers know that at the bare minimum they will spend the next five years in prison, you can send a strong message that manufacturing meth will not be tolerated,” Chandler said.

Despite its good intentions, the bill did not survive.

“The bill ultimately received a ‘do not pass,’ which is the kiss of death,” Harden said.

Harden introduced the bill to the Senate, and drummed up some support for it among colleagues. Yet, it was buried in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where members voted to postpone it indefinitely, according to the New Mexico Legislature Web site.

Before proposed legislation is debated on the Senate or House floor, it must be debated in committees. The Senate president or House speaker dictates the number and nature of the committees to which it is sent.

“The majority of senators are opposed to mandatory sentencing,” said Harden of why the meth manufactoring bill failed.

Many believe judges should decide sentencing case by case, Harden said.

Currently, judges have wide sentencing possibilities for illegal meth manufacturers, which range from probation to nine years in prison, according to Chandler.

Harden said he plans to introduce a similar meth sentencing bill in the 48th Legislature. This time he may suggest slightly more lenient sentencing, he said.

Ironically, his faith in the legislative process doesn’t waver when a bill he sponsors dies.

“Typically, it takes a while for an idea or an issue to get majority support,” Harden said.

Lawmakers who will assemble at the state capitol in January and February find many intermingled moments of triumph.

“If you can help your community, your fellow man, your state, it’s worth the effort,” Crook said from her home.

“It’s really a neat process,” said Harden of lawmaking.

“It relates to checks and balances. It protects the minority while ensuring the democratic process is majority rule,” he said.

Chandler echoed, “It’s a beautiful process.”