Paying attention may be easiest from computer

By Steve Terrell: The Santa Fe New Mexican

So you’ve heard politicians pontificating about the need for citizens to participate in government and being the responsible, civic-minded citizen you are, you’ve decided to take them up for it and go to the state Legislature this week to push for new laws you support or try to stop some bad bill you don’t like.

The first thing you’re going to learn is that here in New Mexico they don’t make it easy for average people to observe the Legislature firsthand. You might even wonder if they really want you there at all.

The parking is next to impossible, the meetings rarely start on time, and the agendas frequently are obsolete before they even are printed.

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.

Parking is always a problem while the Legislature is in session because almost everyone but legislators loses his or her assigned underground-parking space. And don’t even think of trying to sneak in and grab a lawmaker’s space. Security is friendly, but firm.

Most parking spaces in the modest surface lot on the east side of the Capitol are assigned to legislative staff members during the session. There is the massive PERA Building parking lot across Old Santa Fe Trail, but even that lot frequently fills up during sessions.

To the state’s credit, workers broke ground last year on a long-promised new parking garage off Paseo de Peralta west of the Roundhouse. However, currently the structure is nothing but a large hole in the ground. It won’t help you with parking during the upcoming session.

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, with the state financial crunch, there’s been little if any serious discussion about the proposal in recent months. Even in better economic times, some legislators admitted it would be hard to sell such an expensive plan to the public.

To make it easier for citizens to follow the state Senate, senators voted overwhelmingly last year to purchase and install equipment for webcasting Senate floor sessions. But even though the state spent thousands of dollars on such equipment and the cameras have been mounted in the Senate chambers, at this writing, it looks as if there will be no webcasting this year. Last month, Senate leaders — most of whom voted against the webcasting in the first place — quietly killed the funding for the service.

One sliver of good news for home computer users: The Legislative Council Service has updated its Web site, making it more user-friendly. And this year, lawmakers were allowed to submit some bills in advance, many of which already are posted. You can find bills, committee schedules and lists of members at:

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 house decides to meet in caucus to plan strategy, even more delays can be expected.

• Just because a bill you’re following is sixth on the agenda, don’t expect it to be heard after the fifth item. Items 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 perform interpretive dances.

• 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: 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. Don’t get stranded.

Contact lawmakers by calling the legislative switchboard: 986-4300.