How to get involved at the Roundhouse

By Jody Benson, Pajarito Group chair

Democracy doesn’t end with the vote; it begins with the vote. If America is truly a representative democracy, our vote means that we have hired people to represent our values. Our responsibility is to learn how to communicate these values to our representatives. It’s tedious, seemingly futile work, but without our participation, our country will devolve into a plutocracy where the only squeaky wheels are owned by those who can afford to buy a network on which to squeak them.

Whether your candidate got elected or not, your responsibility is to stay informed – and keep your representatives informed – as to your issues. The NM 30-day Legislative Session is underway, so here’s your opportunity to exercise that patriotism.

At the League of Women Voters NM 2017 annual workshop, “Effective Citizen Advocacy at the Legislature,” Senator Peter Wirth, Representative Jimmie Hall, and lobbyist Minda McGonagle gave participants from multiple organizations some tips on how to stay involved and communicate our values.

These are Senator Peter Wirth’s Top 10 Tips for Citizen Advocacy at the New Mexico Legislature.

  1. Don’t be scared of the RoundHouse – it’s your building.
  2. Understand what it takes for a bill to become law.
    Google how a NM bill becomes law; it’s pretty complicated. Don’t get discouraged if your bill doesn’t pass in the first or even tenth session, or if it gets compromisedly tweaked. Keep working on ensuring your values are represented.
  3. Use the tools on the Legislature’s web page: www.nmlegis.gov.
  4. E-mail is a great way to communicate with most Legislators – but learn your Legislator’s preference. Some Legislators prefer a phone call; some actually like paper letters. Set up a meeting if you can, either prior to or during the Legislative session. Our Legislators have other jobs, so be courteous of their time and preferences.
  5. A Legislator’s constituents are generally the most effective advocates. That means, go to your Legislator first. Many Legislators won’t talk to anyone out of his/her district.
    But, if your representative isn’t responsive to your concern, go to another supportive representative – even one who is out-of-district – and ask him/her to advocate to your representative for you.
  6. Be courteous and remember that your bill is one of hundreds that are being considered. Most don’t even make it to the docket.
    An important reminder from GOP Representative Jimmie Hall is, “Don’t be rude.” The anecdote he told was that someone called him “heartless;” another called him “cold.” Hall was absolutely serious when he said he will neither deal with detractors nor do anything for anyone who is rude.
  7. Bills usually take more than one to legislative session to pass. This is important to remember. Some bills have been brought up for over a decade.
    Note: In answer to the idea that term limits would solve big-money control of politics, Jimmy Hall pointed out that having the memory as well as the understanding of the evolution of these long-term bills, is critical to maintaining the issue year after year. A Governor might veto legislation during her/his entire term for political preferences. Legislators will remember that the citizens want the issue addressed, and therefore continue to propose the bill. Term limits erase the memory. In addition, term limits hand the running of the government over to professional lobbyists whose paid career is to create legislation for their employers.
  8. A great place to meet Legislators is on the chamber floor before or after session.
    NOTE to those used to County Council meetings with public comment periods: You can’t speak during sessions when the questions are on the floor; the only place you can publicly speak is at the committee meetings.
  9. Speak up at committee meetings.
    Recommendation, and this is stated over and over: Be SUCCINCT! Make the comment directly and clearly.
  10. Count your votes and be targeted.
    Recommendation: Don’t waste your time on those who don’t support you. Get your Legislator or someone who supports your issue to talk to those who don’t support it. And be succinct!

A very important takeaway is: Legislators are our Legislators 365 days/year. Introduce yourself before the session. Lobby your issue all year long. If you have an issue that is of critical importance, you need to communicate that issue to your Legislator long before the session so that s/he will be able to formulate a bill that can be addressed in the next session. An example of working for months with a Legislator is Karen Armstrong partnering with Stephanie Garcia Richard to develop the “Bear Bill,” requiring NM Game and Fish to determine whether a mother bear with cubs is being defensive or predatory before a warden kills her.

And finally, New Mexico has a citizen Legislature. That means that the only remuneration our representatives get is $163.00 per diem and only during the session. Even though we don’t pay these people, we hired them to advocate for us. It’s our responsibility to learn how to stay involved in our democratic government.

You can find information at https://www.nmlegis.gov. To look at the actual bills for 2018, go directly to https://www.nmlegis.gov/Legislation/Legislation_List. Know who your legislators are and how to contact them.

Remember, the Roundhouse is our House. Let’s go down and visit.

How to get involved at the Roundhouse
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