Long day, night at Roundhouse

By Kate Nash: The New Mexican

In any other year, three days out from the Legislature’s adjournment, the Roundhouse hallways by 9:30 a.m. can be frenetic with lawmakers and lobbyists pondering the fate of their bills.

Instead, the halls are mostly quiet, and the coffee maker of the Society of Association Executives is just rumbling to a start Wednesday morning, sending a welcome caffeine waft through an east side corridor.

Neither the Senate nor the House is in session yet, but are scheduled to start their floor sessions by 10 a.m.

On the third floor, committees are wrapping up some of their last meetings in a session that observers have called lackluster and just plain strange, due in large part to the state’s budget crisis.

Somewhere else, House and Senate leaders are huddling, working through allegations that House bills are being held hostage in the Senate and that Senate bills are purposefully bottled up in the House.

The clock in the media room ticks to 10 a.m.

Like others in the building, arriving reporters are checking e-mail and reading the day’s calendars. One e-mail from Gov. Bill Richardson’s office catches eyes at 10:04 a.m., waking up the scribes who only read the first few words.

The message is about the governor signing a bill … in Albuquerque on Thursday. It’s not the bill many are wondering about, the measure that would repeal the death penalty that is pending on Richardson’s desk. He has until midnight to take action.

The clock moves to 10:15 a.m., and then almost 10:30 a.m.

Nothing in the House or Senate.

A woman on the loudspeaker announces that the Senate will meet at 10:45 a.m. A few minutes later, she announces that the chamber will meet “at the call of the chair” — essentially whenever Senate leaders say so.

The announcement is symbolic of the difficult-to-predict and somewhat chaotic schedule of the Legislature, even in a slow session. In fact, it could be considered just part of a day in the life of the Roundhouse: in other words, just a slice of the scheduled craziness.

On the House side, things are running almost as late as the Senate. Nearly as soon as that chamber kicks off its meeting, Democrats are told they will be heading into a closed-door caucus and everyone leaves the chamber.

11:02 a.m.: Lt. Gov. Diane Denish sends a news release urging Richardson to sign the Legislature-approved measure (HB285) to eliminate capital punishment. A New Mexican reporter sends out a message on Twitter with that news.

11:20 a.m.: Good-government lobbyist, New Mexico’s Steve Allen, sits on a chair outside the Senate, squinting into his laptop, waiting. No one sits in the seat next to him — usually prime real estate for lobbyists, tourists and staffers, but empty at the moment.

11:30 a.m.: The Senate, which was gaveled to order about an hour late, is on concurrence calendar number 5. That’s a calendar that isn’t online or passed out anywhere, making it difficult to know what measure the lawmakers are considering.

12:15 p.m.: The Senate is considering the confirmations of people including appointees to the New Mexico State University Board of Regents. One nominee in particular, Javier Gonzales, draws praise from several lawmakers for nearly 15 minutes.

12:45 p.m.: Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, announces that the impasse between the House and Senate about whose bills will be heard when is still being worked out. But it appears that the Senate will consider House bills, and the House will do the opposite. The dustup happens nearly every year.

1:13 p.m.: Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, is questioning Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, on what the word “suitability” means in a measure Griego is carrying about gaming.

1:16 p.m.: A female voice on the loudspeaker announces free chair massages for legislative staff.

1:32 p.m.: The House straggles back into session. It immediately starts considering measures out of order, having already decided to skip a controversial motor vehicle fee increase and two development measures, which are numbers 1 to 3 on their calendar.

1:45 p.m.: The Senate zips through a memorial on biodegradable wood chips.

1:49 p.m.: House Speaker Ben Lujan is presenting a measure he’s carrying, which would give a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest of the women whose bodies have been found on Albuquerque’s West Mesa. It passes unanimously.

2:31 p.m.: In a third-floor lobby, children’s advocate Bill Jordan is sitting with his laptop.

“I got your Twitter,” he tells a reporter. “But any news?”

Jordan, with the group New Mexico Voices for Children, wants to know about what Richardson will do with the death penalty.

2:41 p.m.: After a quick debate, the Senate votes 25-12 for a measure (SM30), which orders a study of the commercialization of industrial hemp.

2:50 p.m.: Sanchez announces that the House Judiciary Committee has scheduled Senate bills for consideration — a big step in the House-Senate bill standoff.

Sanchez said he’s still waiting on the House Business and Industry to schedule Senate bills.

Sanchez emphasizes that House bills won’t be introduced in his chamber until those Senate bills are scheduled.

“If they don’t believe me, all they have to do is try me because we will not intro that legislation until there’s a committee schedule that is put out,” he said.

2:52 p.m.: The Senate reads a memorial recognizing the accomplishments of Patty Jennings, the wife of Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, who died earlier this session after battling breast cancer.

Senators honor her and her work against cancer and for health care for low income residents until 3:20.

Over in the House, Speaker Lujan announces that the chamber will go to committee and come back at 7 p.m.

Some members boo that idea and start packing up their laptops and briefcases.

3:24 p.m.: Back in the Senate, Sanchez announces that the chamber will come back at “7, 7:30 … 8, subject to call of chair.”

3:55 p.m.: Inside the Senate Judiciary Committee, chairman Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, tells the crowded room that the panel is considering a measure known as the Truth in Music Act sponsored by Rep. Al Park, D-Albuquerque.

Heads turn. Park isn’t in the room.

Instead, Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, starts presenting the bill, which prohibits impostors from using the names of actual famous groups.

The panel considers a few questions before setting aside the measure out of courtesy to Park.

McSorley calls next for Rep. Rhonda King, D-Stanley, to present a bill. She’s out of the room, but a woman from the Attorney General’s Office said she just received a text message that King is on her way.

In the meantime, Park runs in. He presents his bill, which passes 20 minutes later. Three people in the rear of the committee room read messages on their BlackBerrys for most of Park’s presentation.

Four committee members are missing, likely trying to follow their bills and keep quorums in other committees — a common balancing act in the waning days of a session.

4:17 p.m.: Two men from Dee’s catering are setting up buffet tables outside the Senate chambers. Chorizo, chicken, salmon, saffron rice and other goodies are on the menu for the soon-to-be late-nighting senators. A host of lobbyists paid for the meal, including Dan Weaks and Marla Shoats, according to a sign on the table. The gourmet-looking chocolate cake tempts those walking by.

4:19 p.m.: Someone in the House Majority Office is passing time by belting out a tune in Spanish, which reaches passersby in the basement hallway.

“No me digas que no,” comes the refrain. Don’t tell me no.

4:20 p.m.: House Minority Tom Taylor, R-Farmington, sits in the lobby of his basement office, holding hands with his wife. He hasn’t seen her for a month, he says.

4:50 p.m.: Back in the media room, the phone call comes from Richardson’s office. He’ll announce his decision on the death penalty bill at 6 p.m.

The news ricochets around the Roundhouse.

5:30 p.m.: Down in the basement, Senate staffer Richard Kennedy strolls down the hall and predicts the session will go until 1 a.m.

5:35 p.m.: On the couches inside the Senate president’s office, Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Ricardo Ramirez wait.

The pair are a handful of people in the Roundhouse who at this point know whether Richardson will sign or veto the death penalty measure. When asked, Sanchez remains tight-lipped, smiling when asked what will happen.

5:45 p.m.: Members of the media from every outlet are camped outside Richardson’s Cabinet room, waiting to be let in.

5:51 p.m.: Richardson’s media coordinator, Caitlin Kelleher, peaks out to update reporters.

“It’s gonna be just a few more minutes,” she says.

6:05 p.m.: A member of Richardson’s security detail talks into his sleeve, a sign the governor is about to enter the room.

6:07 p.m.: Richardson announces he’ll sign the measure to repeal the death penalty, calling it “the most difficult decision in my political life.” The governor talks to reporters until 6:35 p.m.

7:16 p.m.: The woman on the loudspeaker announces to senators and representatives that dinner is now being served outside the Senate lounge. The 7 p.m. floor sessions — surely to go on for hours — still seem at least an hour from starting.

The agenda, like the night, is long.

Contact Kate Nash at 986-3036 or knash@sfnewmexican.com. Read her blog at www.greenchilechatter.com.