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Not-So-Special Sessions Become All Too Common

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Special sessions of the state Legislature aren’t so special anymore; they have become almost an annual event. And special sessions are being expanded well beyond dealing with critical issues.

Both Democrats and Republicans are behind the trend of more government in Santa Fe.

Special sessions are the times when the governor convenes the Legislature outside its annual regular sessions. The governor sets the agenda, often after reaching agreement with legislative leaders but not always.

The special session that began Sept. 6 is the 12th special session in the past 14 years, according to data compiled by the Legislative Council Service. We’ve also had one so-called extraordinary session; that’s when legislators convene outside regular sessions at their own request.

Of those 13 sessions, two — including the current special session — were called because of the need to redraw district boundaries for seats in Congress and the Legislature and other elected state offices.

Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, who left office at the end of the year, and the governor before him, Republican Gary Johnson, each convened six special sessions in eight years as chief executive.

The increase in the number of special sessions is part of a trend of lawmakers spending more time in Santa Fe. Until the mid-1960s, the Legislature met in regular session only once every two years. Today, it meets in regular session every year — 60 days in odd-numbered years and 30 days in even-numbered years.

Special sessions have fulfilled their design of providing a mechanism for the governor and Legislature to deal with critical matters between regular sessions.

The first special session, in 1917, resulted from the outbreak of World War I, according to the Legislative Council Service, a staffing arm of the Legislature. More recently, in 1986 and 2009, special sessions were called because of the impacts of national economic downturns.

Budget matters, including disputes between the executive and legislative branches, have been a major reason for special sessions. We’ve also had special sessions so lawmakers can focus on a single big issue, like compensation for injured workers.

Because the world is more complex today and the regular sessions of the Legislature are relatively short, there probably is a need for more special sessions to deal with critical issues. But we’ve moved well beyond special sessions being limited to the essential.

For a special session convened in 2007, Richardson asked lawmakers to approve public financing for judicial elections, create a state ethics commission and pass domestic partnership legislation. Johnson, in 1999, added a school voucher proposal to a special session to deal with a budget impasse with the Legislature.

The lengths of regular sessions are set by the state Constitution, and an amendment would be needed to lengthen them.

Broader agenda

The current special session had been long-planned because of the need to redistrict congressional and state offices.

Redistricting is dealt with in a special session because census data weren’t available until after the last regular session and because the new boundaries need to be in place well before the primary election next June.

Gov. Susana Martinez significantly upped the ante for the redistricting special session, calling on lawmakers to enact legislation dealing with about a dozen other issues.

For the most part, Martinez’s agenda is a list of leftovers from the regular session that ended in March.

Some of the proposed legislation is largely minor and noncontroversial; other bills are far from that. They include repealing driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, reorganizing government, shoring up the unemployment compensation fund and doing away with so-called social promotion of third-grade students.

No previous governor in the past 50 years has added other items to the agenda of a redistricting session.

Some Democratic legislators have objected to the number of issues on the governor’s agenda, but Martinez has said lawmakers can do the job and she is ready to help. At least two other states expanded their special sessions beyond redistricting.

As of Friday, the Legislature had largely ignored Martinez’s most controversial proposals. It was possible lawmakers could adjourn this weekend without giving much to the governor.

Legislators could remain in special session longer to deal with all the items on Martinez’s agenda, but do we really want them to?

Special sessions are expensive — about $50,000 per day.

More importantly, do we want a governor using a special session to try to get noncritical legislation that he or she couldn’t get from the Legislature in regular session or to make a political point?

Government is essential to our lives, but there are times when we can get by with less.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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