Writing a Bill (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Tue, 23 Mar 2021

Writing a Bill

I've been super busy this month. The New Mexico Legislature was in session, and in addition to other projects, I've had a chance to be involved in the process of writing a new bill and helping it move through the legislature. It's been interesting, educational, and sometimes frustrating.

The bill is SB304: Voting District Geographic Data. It's an "open data" bill: it mandates that election district boundary data for all voting districts, down to the county and municipal level, be publicly available at no charge on the Secretary of State's website.

(You might think that election districts would already be public data. Nope. The state House and Senate districts are available on the legislative website, and the US Congressional districts are widely available; but for anything else, like judicial, county, municipal, school board or utility board districts, you need to go hunting and hope for a bit of luck.)

When the New Mexico League of Women Voters put together our nonpartisan online voter guide for last year's election, the goal was to show any voter in the state a customized ballot with the right candidates on it. To accomplish that, we spent many hours searching for district data, contacting county clerks and other county officials. Many counties said they didn't have district data, or had some data but thought it was probably wrong. A few wanted to charge us for it.

Even elected officials can't get voting district data. I've talked to at least three officeholders who told me they weren't sure where their district boundaries were. Which makes for a challenge come campaign season.

Let's Make That Information Public

The first thing you need to know about the New Mexico legislature is that it's hardly ever in session. It meets for 60 days in odd-numbered years, like 2021, and only 30 days in even numbered years. I think that's less than any other state.

How do you get a bill through the legislature in such a short time? Fortunately, I was working with veterans in the LWVNM (thank you, Judy, Diane and Dick!)

First, we wrote up a description of what we wanted in in the bill. My representative, Christine Chandler, agreed to sponsor it, and hooked us up with someone in the Legislative Council Service who translated the bill into the specific language needed. We went back and forth a few times making sure everything was clear and the bill included everything we wanted.

But then we hit a snag. About a week before the start of early bill-filing, the House made a new rule: Representatives could sponsor no more than three bills.

I knew Rep. Chandler was sponsoring some important bills for COVID relief, like the Paid Family & Medical Leave Act and the Broadband Development Division. I knew our bill would never stack up against those.

Rep. Chandler suggested that I try to find a sponsor in the Senate, since Senators had no limit on the number of bills they could sponsor. We found a Senator willing to sponsor our bill: Brenda McKenna, from Bernalillo.

This all happened before the legislative session started. Once the session gets started, legislators are incredibly busy from dawn til late into the evening. You don't want to have to try to get their attention then.

Once the session starts, we waited for the bill to get introduced, at which point it got a number -- SB 304 -- and committee assignments.

Speaking for the Bill

A bill has to go through several committees, and they all have to vote for it before it can go before the full Senate. Our bill got assigned two committees. At committee meetings, I would be on the hook to speak as a "Subject Matter Expert", or SME, to help explain the bill.

Committe meetings, in this Year of COVID, are held on Zoom. For the House, Zoom links are published (though you have to do quite a bit of clicking around to find them). For the Senate, you have to register the day before the meeting to get a Zoom link to speak. (Without a Zoom link, there's a webcast the public can watch without participating.)

Our first committee, Senate Rules, went pretty well. Senator McKenna explained the bill in general terms, then called on me as Subject Matter Expert to explain the details ... in two minutes. (I'm grateful for all that Table Topic practice in Toastmasters.)

We had several factors in our favor. For one, the Secretary of State, Maggie Toulouse Oliver, was there to help. We'd met with her while drafting the bill and she supported it. In fact, she had already been planning to collect and release the data we were asking for -- but she agreed it made sense to have that in statute, so the data would stay public no matter who the Secretary of State was. In the committee hearing, was able to field questions I couldn't, like how the SoS office would be funding the data collection (they have a federal grant).

Another lucky break for us: the chair of the committee, Senator Ivey-Soto, had read the bill, understood it, and had some amendments to suggest. Some of them were things I'd wanted from the beginning, but thought it would be asking too much, like specifying a preference for open source formats. I was very happy to indicate to Senator McKenna that the amendments were improvements and we should accept them. The amended bill passed unanimously. Whew!

Our second committee, Senate Health and Public Affairs, wasn't so smooth. It took nearly two weeks before the bill even worked its way onto their schedule. The committee was supposed to meet at 1:30 Monday afternoon, or 30 minutes after the Senate floor session ended. On that Monday,, the floor session was scheduled to start at 11 am, with no hint on how long it might run. In reality, the floor session didn't start til noon, and it ran til five. The Rules Committee started their meeting around 5:30. Our bill was listed last on a long schedule. The committee meeting went til almost 10 pm and still hadn't gotten to our bill.

So we had to come back on Wednesday. Again, we were last on the schedule. But this time, the Senate let out around 2:30, the committee got going around 3:30, and the list of bills was shorter. They finally got to our bill around 5:30.

A couple of the Senators in SHPAC weren't sure what the bill was about even after our explanation, and asked questions about all kinds of unrelated topics. The Secretary of State wasn't at the meeting, but fortunately Kari Fresquez, a very sharp techie from her office, was there to help, patiently helping to explain that the data only represented the boundaries of voting districts, didn't contain any voter personal information, wasn't used for the upcoming redistricting, and so on.

The final vote was a party line vote: five Democrats for it, three Republicans against. None of us could figure that out: it didn't seem like a partisan issue. But at least it passed.

Once a bill gets through all its committees, it goes to the Senate floor. The floor calendar lists bills in their "Third Reading", meaning bills that are up for discussion (no one has been able to tell me why it's called that).. Subject Matter Experts and members of the public can only watch the webcast; we aren't allowed to connect to floor sessions by Zoom. But the bill's sponsor can contact one or two SMEs by text or phone call, to help answer detailed questions. Fortunately, we didn't need that. Senator McKenna explained the bill, a few Senators spoke for or against, and they voted: 31 - 6 in favor. Whew!

Vigil in the House

Next the bill moves over to the House and the process starts all over again. We were lucky: SB304 only got assigned one committee, the House State Government, Elections & Indian Affairs Committee. A few of the committee members had some pointed questions, but that resulted in a good discussion of what GIS data was and wasn't good for. The bill passed unanimously.

Then the bill moves to the House floor. That seemed like a mere formality -- it would probably breeze right through, without even any debate, right? Nope. This phase was the most difficult, especially since time was getting short with only a week and a half left in the session.

It took a few days before the bill showed up on the House "Third Reading" calendar, as #25 of 47. But it turned out that schedule has virtually nothing to do with reality. The bills the Speaker calls up might come from anywhere on the schedule, or from any of several unpublished supplemental lists of bills.

Those of us who'd worked on the bill spent most of the next week in a nightmare of webcast-watching. The floor session starts at a different time every day, often several hours later than the published start time (which isn't published until that morning). Once they get past the introductory 30-40 minutes of prayers and Messages and Committee Reports and such, the House Speaker starts calling bills, in an order known only to him.

Nearly all the bills called up were highly contentious ones. But, then, anything can be contentious: there was a cadre of Republican representatives intent on blocking Democrat-led legislation, who would give rambling 40-minute bloviations only vaguely related to the bill under discussion, each trying to outdo the others in a game of ruraler-than-thou. It's not called filibustering when it's in the House ("grandstanding" seems to be the most popular term), but it's the same thing, and they spent the entire week doing that. It took two or three hours to get through even a simple bill, and the House was only getting through three to five bills in a day. The Third Reading list swelled into the 50s and 60s. I spent a cumulative 54 hours over eight days with the House webcast playing on my computer (though after a while I found that keeping the sound turned down helped my mood considerably), just in case our bill might come up and I might get called to answer questions.

(This also gave me a new appreciation for our legislators. They do this just about every day throughout the session, for no pay beyond expenses like per-diems. Granted, it might be a little less frustrating if you're privy to information like the actual meeting times and the actual contents of the bill being voted on ... but it's still an impressive feat of endurance.)

On Friday, the last full day of the session and the eighth day of our vigil, we were despondent. Our bill was #2 on the calendar, but we knew that didn't matter since they'd gone the last three days without calling any bills in the top ten. It looked like after sailing through committees, our bill was going to wither on the vine because the Speaker refused to call it up.

Back-room Deals

Then at 4:45 pm, a little over eight hours into Friday's session, I got email from a state League legislative expert who'd been concentrating on fair redistricting legislation this session. "Our redistricting bill is going to be merged with our GIS bill. It will be heard."

I knew there were two competing redistricting bills which had been merged into one, a complicated process that had involved a lot of outside-of-session negotiating. It wasn't too much of a stretch to imagine a few clauses about public GIS data being added to the combined bill; redistricting, after all, is inherently about GIS info for voting districts, even if the bills never mentioned that explicitly.

But then over the next couple hours, things got stranger. Instead of appending our little GIS bill to the redistricting bill that was already a merger of two different bills, the word was they were going to take some variant of the 19-page combined bill and append it to our tiny 2-pager as a huge amendment.

Wha-wha-what?? Seriously?

Seriously. Around 11 pm our sponsor (of the original GIS bill) got a copy of the amended version, and I got to see it. Sure enough, there was our original GIS language ... with 16 pages of Redistricting Act tacked on.

What a bizarre development! But no one involved with our GIS bill had any objection. We all supported fair redistricting. If it got our bill heard, we were all for it.

Hitting the Afterburner

A little after 10 pm, the House recessed, and when they came back at 10:30, it was like we were watching a completely different meeting.

For the past fourteen hours, the session had consisted mostly of 20- to 30-minute discursive folksy discursions on assorted aspects of rural life, intended to delay one bill after another.

But when they came back from recess at 10:30 Friday night, they were all business, and suddenly in a mood to pass bills. The Speaker quickly read a list of the next ten or fifteen bills he would call, asked their sponsors to be ready, and said that after that, he would call SB304 (our bill!) which now included redistricting. He also shortened the time allowed for voting to 30 seconds instead of 90.

There were 68 bills on the third-reading agenda, and no third-reading bills at all had been called in the 14 hours so far that day. In the ensuing half hour, they got through about half those bills. Meanwhile, someone passed out the amended SB304, and finally, they were ready to vote.

Around 12:30 am, the Frankenbill SB304 was introduced, they voted, and it passed, 64-2!

Back to the Senate

Since the bill had been amended (oh, just a little bit), it had to go back to the Senate for concurrence. The legislative session would end Saturday at noon, and any bill that didn't pass by then was dead. Our bill wasn't listed anywhere on the Senate's published schedule, but by now I knew that the published schedules have nothing to do with reality. Sure enough, the Senate President announced at the beginning that they had nine concurrence calendars (that's nine lists of bills, not nine bills) in addition to the published third-reading calendar. None of those concurrence calendars were publicly available; but it seemed likely, with all the back-room dealing going on, that our bill was somewhere on one of those calendars.

The bill was called up around 10 am, an hour after the Senate got going, and it passed with unanimous consent.

Whew! So now SB304 goes to the governor for her signature ... and then our little open data bill (along with a very good fair redistricting bill tacked on) will become law!

What a Ride

It was an interesting process, and I learned a lot about how the legislature works. There are a few more steps than that old Schoolhouse Rock "I'm Just a Bill" song talked about.

A lot of the process was frustrating. It's unbelievable how much time is just wasted, either reading long lists of bill numbers and committee reports, or filibustering and grandstanding on topics that had nothing to do with the bill being discussed.

It's also frustrating trying to keep up with what's going on as a member of the public. They start two hours after the published start time, or don't publish a start time at all, then they completely ignore the published schedules and bring up items from unpublished addenda. Much of the discussion on bills relates to floor amendments that also aren't published anywhere. I'll write more about that at some point.

On the other hand, I was awfully glad my introduction to bill writing happened in the year of COVID. There's no way I could have followed this process if every committee meeting and the eight days of House deliberation required driving to Santa Fe and fighting for a seat at the Roundhouse. How did people manage to do that?

It'll be interesting to see whether they continue allowing people to testify via Zoom once everybody is vaccinated and we're allowed to congregate indoors again. I've heard a lot of speculation about that.

For now, I'm just happy our bill passed. I'm looking forward to having that voting district data, so I can expand the LWVNM's District Maps page to include all districts, not just the statewide ones, and our next Voter Guide can show custom ballots for everyone in the state.

Update April 4, 2021: The Governor has signed SB304! Hooray!

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[ 13:28 Mar 23, 2021    More politics | permalink to this entry | ]

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