Oh, the germaneity!

Senator Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque) talks with Sen. Benny Shendo, Jr.,(D-Jemez Pueblo), center, Sen. Katy Duhigg, (D-Albuquerque), second from right, Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, (D-Silver City), and other members of the Senate Committees’ Committee as they look over a list of bills that have been ruled germane at the State Capitol on Thursday, January 18, 2024. (Photo by Eddie Moore / Albuquerque Journal)

By: Danielle Prokop and Patrick Lohmann/ Source New Mexico

In the early days of this short and jam-packed 30-day legislative session, hundreds of aspiring laws are culled to dozens through a simple but obscure question – “Is it germane?”

The quality of being “germane” – which lawmakers and seasoned staff members alike refer to as “germaneity” or “germaneness” or, if they give up, “relevance” – refers to the constitutional requirements placed on bills in even numbered year sessions that last no longer than a month. 

Article 4, Section 5 of the Constitution of the State of New Mexico limits short sessions to only review bills relating to state agency budgets, appropriation and revenue bills, proposals that receive special messages from the governor’s office, and legislation from the previous regular session “vetoed by the governor.”

By Wednesday, the second day lawmakers got to work, House Speaker Javier Martínez (D-Albuquerque) deemed half of about 100 House bills introduced not germane. Say goodbye to proposals seeking to legalize the death penalty, cap medical malpractice payouts, put Smokey Bear on license plates and more.

Deemed not to be germane, they were sent to the House Rules Committee, where they will likely die. It’s a similar bloodbath in the Senate.

Questions of germaneness have already stalled at least several bills this session and there’s been a recent spike in confusion about the process among lawmakers and staff. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham drew criticism last spring for a rash of 35 vetoes, many of them without explanation, so some lawmakers are especially interested in whether they can resurrect their bills this session.

Amid the confusion and interest, this week the nonpartisan Legislative Council Service circulated to lawmakers and others a 2017 memo on the issue, and were called to the Senate Committees’ Committee meeting on Jan. 22 to clarify the matter. 

How does it work?

Determining if a bill is germane or not dictates whether it moves forward on an already-tight timeline. Germane bills go to relevant committees, where they can be heard, voted on and passed.

Some House bills deemed germane already include creating a cyber security fund, recruitment incentives for firefighters and allocating liquor excise tax revenues. 

The “germanity” of a bill is only determined once. If one chamber deems a bill relevant, it’s general practice for the other chamber not to question that decision.

Often, bills are deemed germane because their primary purpose is to authorize spending of a specific amount of public money or impose taxes. 

“Most bills only increase revenue or spend that revenue,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque), who serves as the Senate President Pro Tempore.

The governor can also make bills germane with the stroke of a pen. Lujan Grisham has the constitutional power to deem bills germane by sending what’s called an “executive message.” Stewart said the governor has more power to set the agenda on legislation brought during the shorter sessions.

But even that has its limits. 

“If she would give a message to everything, we would need a 60-day, not a 30-day,” Stewart said. “So we have to rein in because we literally only have 30 days. It’s so much work.”

Stewart said the number of bills under consideration is typical, but that lawmakers are “getting many more messages than we usually do.”

In the first three days of the session, the governor’s office sent a total of 52 messages to both chambers – it took her at least a week to send that many messages in the 2022 session, according to a review of prior messages. 

Often the governor’s messages reference a specific bill. But if it is vague and the governor asks for bills on topics, it can renew discussions on whether a bill is germane. For example, her Jan. 17 message seeking “legislation requesting certain employers to provide paid family medical leave.”

Some of the messages Lujan Grisham issued this week included a student loan bill of rightsbanning firearms within 100 feet of a polling place, and increasing the penalty for second-degree murder.

One of the only ways someone whose bill is deemed not germane can fix that is by convincing a House Rules Committee or Senate Committees’ Committee that their bill actually falls under one of the governor’s general executive messages. Otherwise, those committees are where bills go to die. 

Stewart chairs the Senate Committees’ Committee. There’s a mirroring (but always slightly different) committee for the other chamber: the House Rules and Order of Business Committee.

These committees are unique bodies. 

“It’s not a standing committee, we don’t take testimony, we don’t vote on bills, we vote only on whether it’s germane or not,” Stewart said. “It’s tricky, most people don’t understand.”

The Veto Question

One source of friction among lawmakers seeking their bills’ resurrection is how much they need to resemble their past selves. So far, the answer is completely.  

After the 35 vetoes last session, more lawmakers are asking questions about bringing bills back in 2024. Some of those were pocket vetoed, in which Lujan Grisham nixed bills simply by not signing them within 20 days of when the legislature sent the bills to her desk. 

Sen. Joe Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) brought back his proposal to raise judicial salaries, submitting a word-for-word copy of Senate Bill 2 that was vetoed in 2023.

While Cervantes received a governor’s message for his 2024 proposal – guaranteeing its germaneness – he asked for more clarity on whether a vetoed bill would have to have the exact same language, or just have the same purpose and subject under the constitution.

“The question that is gonna get asked and discussed is, how close does the bill that’s introduced this session have to be to the bill that was vetoed by the governor?” Cervantes told Source NM.

The memo sent by the legislative staff offers little guidance, noting that, “There does not appear to be any attorney general opinion or New Mexico case law that addresses” whether the bills must be identical.

Two minor typographical differences between a bill Rep. Matthew McQueen (D-Galisteo) introduced last session, which was pocket vetoed, and his 2024 version meant the bill was deemed not germane. The bill sought to reform the State Game Commission.

By the time that bill was made identical to the vetoed one from last year, what was House Bill 23 became House Bill 178. That means its hearing at the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee – a committee McQueen chairs – could miss its chance at a hearing to move it forward.

“I could have potentially heard the bill this Saturday,” he told Source NM. “But now I can’t. So it’s a delay in the process.”

McQueen thinks the vexing problem of whether bills can be considered in 30-day sessions – he went with “germane-ness” – could be done away with altogether by having 45-day sessions instead. 

“In 45-day sessions, there’s no germane-ness rules,” he said. “Each session is like the last.”

Among his other bills, he’s sponsored and introduced House Joint Resolution 1, a petition that calls for 45-day sessions. 

“There are plenty of things in New Mexico we need to work on, and we should be working on them every year until they’re done,” he said. “At the end of a 60-day session, you’re basically done for two years. That’s crazy.”

The resolution is still pending, and it’s not clear whether the Legislature will change its “crazy” ways. But the resolution has one thing going for it, according to the memo – unlike bills, resolutions are not required to be “germane.”