Statue in front of the Roundhouse in Santa Fe in December 2021. (Original photo by Austin Fisher with crop and edit by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)
Last week’s frustrating end to this year’s legislative session left election reformers, voting rights advocates and others wondering: how could this happen?
How could one senator filibuster for over two hours, killing arguably one of the most important bills of the session: the New Mexico Voting Rights Act? And how, days earlier, could Republicans — the minority in the Legislature today — issue a “call of the Senate,” blocking all discussion of the same issue?
How a call works
A call of the Senate or the House requires the presence of all unexcused members of either chamber. It can be issued by any member but requires the votes of six other members.
The sergeant-at-arms,sometimes backed up by the State Police, is then charged by the presiding officer to round up the missing members — from their offices, nearby restaurants or homes. The doors are locked, and the remaining members are not permitted off the floor. The call is “complete” only after all are present.
It’s easy to see how a handful of legislators in either chamber can stop debate indefinitely on any bill. The logjam is usually cleared by an agreement to remove the call — in return for something else. Or not.
At a time of deep partisan divide, either political party could theoretically put a call on every bill if they had the votes of a mere seven members. That has not yet happened, but the mechanism has been misused in the past, revealing not just run-of-the-mill political maneuverings but some seedy behavior as well.
One call of the House that I remember in 2004 involved renegade Rep. Bengie Regensberg, the black-hatted cowboy from Wagon Mound who promoted cock-fighting and had a reputation for feisty confrontations. Regensberg was absent from a late-night call of the House, and Speaker Ben Luján sent the State Police to find him.
Officers finally found him at his motel. The lawmaker proceeded to get into a fist fight with the State Police, according to reports. He came back with a black eye.
Months later, he got a surprise challenge in his Democratic primary — newcomer Hector Balderas, who today is New Mexico’s attorney general.
During the 1990s, Sen. Tom Benavides from the South Valley of Albuquerque was notorious for eluding capture during calls of the Senate. Benavides was best known for his black eye patch — a distinguishing feature you might think would make him easy to find when looking for errant senators.
Not so. During one call, Benavides successfully hid under his desk. During another he donned a black wig and sunglasses and disguised himself as a woman. As police mounted a manhunt, “Mrs. Benavides” sat quietly (accounts vary as to whether she was on the dais or in the gallery) while senators fumed, only to erupt in laughter when Benavides shed his wig and sunglasses and they realized he had been there the whole time.
Benavides was so slippery that in 1995 Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley had him followed by two burly State Police officers the last two days of the session. President Pro Tem Manny Aragon even presented him with a gag gift of handcuffs, to make sure that policemen could keep him locked to his Senate chair.
He was defeated by Sen. Linda Lopez in 1996.
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Republican filibusters also have a long history in the N.M. Legislature. Mostly reserved for the final days of unreasonably short sessions, they are effective for Republicans who believe that their main job is to thwart the majority and prevent new laws, government regulations or taxes.
Republicans introduce far fewer bills and have less to lose in any delay, and so the filibuster is not just reserved for the final days but, as observers know, rolls on cumulatively during committee hearings, and even during announcements and miscellaneous — a nebulous time on the floor when in the Senate, the two-hour limit on debate does not apply.
In 1997, my first year in the Senate, I was stunned by the last-day filibuster of Sen. Bill Davis, which brought down the capital outlay bill, as well as a private prison deal. Later I became more callous, if no less resentful, when in 2011 a $240 million capital outlay bill languished as Sen. Rod Adair and Sen. John Ryan engaged in what was called a “Laurel and Hardy” routine by then-Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez.
At the turn of this millennia in the Senate, other fun and games included demands from either Davis (R-Albuquerque) or Sen. Ramsay Gorham (R-Albuquerque) that the entirety of a bill actually be read on “the third reading of legislation,” a parliamentary term for the time when debate begins on each bill. The tactic was particularly effective when facing debate on, say, a 560-page bill.
For years, defenders of these time-wasters have said these games are a way to prevent the majority from trampling on the rights of the minority. It’s true, but the damages can’t be denied.
At the national level, Senate filibusters have historically allowed the denial of voting rights, prolonging the Jim Crow era. It’s why there is now a national movement to end Senate filibusters, especially as applied to essential components of our democratic system — like voting rights.
It’s time to revise the rules here in New Mexico, too. Elections and voting rights are not a game to be played by obstructionists donning black wigs or telling folksy tales.
Filibusters would be far less effective in longer sessions.
Calls of the Senate or House should take into account Zoom and other technologies to allow members to participate remotely, as COVID has already taught us.
And maybe, a professional paid Legislature, with regular hours, and fewer reasons for citizen legislators to be absent from their main job — lawmaking — would cut down on the fun and games.
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