Thursday, January 25, 2007

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: GASSING UP FOR THE SESSION

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 25, 2007


Driving down Cerrillos Road and watching gasoline prices fall in recent weeks — I’ve seen it as low as $2.05 a gallon — reminded me of one of my favorite state-government conspiracy theories.

The Legislature comes to town every year at this time, pump prices drop and some Santa Feans inevitably connect the dots.

Some even call newspapers and suggest we launch investigations into the obvious connection.

I’m not sure why gas station owners in Santa Fe would lower their prices for a legislative session.

Could they be trying to fool legislators into thinking that prices are actually low in Santa Fe so the Legislature won’t try to impose price controls?

If so, they’d better worry about all those legislators who come to Santa Fe throughout the year for interim committee meetings and other business. Not to mention the lawmakers who live here.

Could the station owners be trying to do a big favor for lawmakers by keeping prices low for them, thus winning influence?

If so, there’s surely a more direct, efficient and far less costly method to win friends among legislators. It’s called “campaign contributions.”

As with most conspiracy theories, I’m skeptical.

And yet, once again, the session starts and gasoline prices fall.

I talked Wednesday with Ruben Baca, lobbyist and executive of the New Mexico Petroleum Marketers Association.

Now granted, if there was a conspiracy, Baca would be in on it and thus deny any connection between Santa Fe pump prices and the legislative session.

But what he said makes sense.

He explained that it’s not the arrival of the Legislature that causes prices to slide, it’s the arrival of winter.

“Usually this time of year the price is down everywhere,” Baca said. “Consumption is down, so prices get more competitive. And right now the price of oil is the cheapest it’s been in over a year.”

Said Baca: “If they had the Legislature in June, people would be complaining that prices were higher because of the Legislature. If it was up to me, we’d give it away. We’d have a lot less problems.”

Dueling conference committees: Once again there’s an effort in the Roundhouse to breach the last bastion of secrecy in the Legislature.

Actually there are several efforts. Rep. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, and Sen. Joe Carraro, R-Albuquerque, all have introduced bills to open conference committees to the public.

Conference committees are small groups of lawmakers from each chamber appointed to hammer out the final language in bills after the Senate and House pass differing versions of the same legislation. It’s the only kind of committee that the Legislature routinely allows to meet behind closed doors, exempt from the open-meetings requirements it decreed for other government decision-making bodies in New Mexico.

But House Republican Whip Dan Foley of Roswell said Wednesday there needs to be a new approach to the issue.

“Every year we do the same thing,” he said. “The House passes a bill to open conference committees, it goes there and it dies. So that lets us say, ‘Let’s blame the Senate.’ ”

And so on Wednesday he introduced House Resolution 2, which indeed has a new approach.
It reads “Members of the House shall not participate in a meeting of a conference committee that is closed to the public.”

This, he said, would force the Senate to go along. Without House members present, there couldn’t be a conference committee.

The entire House Republican Caucus backs the resolution, Foley said. However, he said, no Democrats have signed on. That doesn’t bode well for the measure, which needs a two-thirds majority to become reality.

One nonpartisan source who likes Foley’s resolution is Bob Johnson, executive director of New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. He has fought since 1994 to open conference committees. “It’s a good tactic,” said Johnson, who backs the other bills as well. “It’s creative and a good tool.”

Secret identity: Comedian Jon Stewart on Tuesday night’s Daily Show had some fun with Gov. Bill Richardson’s presidential announcement. The program showed rapid-fire clips of Richardson’s interview with George Stephanopoulos in which our governor touts his attributes: “I’m a westerner” ... “I’m a governor” ... “I’ve cut taxes” ... “I’ve rescued hostages.”

Cut to Stewart: “Oh my God! Bill Richardson is Batman!” Then the comic recites lyrics from the old Frank Sinatra song, “That’s Life”: “I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king.”

Sing it Roberto: It’s true that Lt. Gov. Diane Denish was part of a group of women who sang the old Dixie Cups hit “Chapel of Love” at a dinner in Boston during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But we haven’t had a real singing lieutenant governor since Roberto Mondragón.

Mondragón, currently a liaison for the State Engineer’s Office, will be the first guest at a new “Cultural Dinner Series” next week at El Farol, the Canyon Road restaurant and bar. (Owner David Salazar says “the disappearing aspects of our local culture” is something frequently discussed informally in the bar area.)

Mondragón has been an author, a radio personality and a recording artist. (The first time I ever interviewed him, about 27 years ago, he gave me one of his albums.) That’s him singing “De Colores” at the end of The Milagro Beanfield War movie.

While Mondragón is advertised as speaker for the Feb. 1 dinner, a flier shows him strumming his guitar.

The cost is $60. For reservations call El Farol at 983-9912.

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