Think of state government like one of those old houses that’s survived generations, with a succession of add-ons through the years.
Look at it through a 2020 lens, and nobody can understand why the skewed plumbing lines run this way and that. The electrical outlets aren’t up to code in two rooms. There’s a musty old broom closet that could be better used as a functional study or maybe even a bathroom, but nobody ever got around to taking on the project: Grandma and Grandpa liked it the way it is.
And so it sits here — somewhere between functional and dysfunctional — always waiting for the next occupant to invest the time and capital to make it a showpiece. Or at the very least, something approaching modern.
That’s how Moe Maestas, a frustrated state representative from Albuquerque, looks at the Roundhouse he calls home for a month or two every year.
Maestas, a Democrat whose seat on Albuquerque’s west side is so safe it might as well have his name chiseled in stone, says he is determined to begin the slow, and I mean slooow, process of transforming different pieces of state government.
“It’s going to take years,” he admits.
Best of luck, Moe. It’s tough to mess with the pipes.
“It’s these kinds of things that just kill me,” he says. “When you broach the subject, when you suggest something, people look at you like you’re crazy.”
Full disclosure: I’ve known Maestas since he was kid. His father, the late Frank Maestas, was a longtime, legendary sportswriter in New Mexico — first at The New Mexican and later at the Albuquerque Journal. The elder Maestas, a stickler for facts, hard work and good times, used to bellow at me to get stories in on deadline before springing for beers after work. I worked with him for three years before he stopped calling me “Rookie,” but it was a worthwhile apprenticeship.
Moe, 52, looks a lot like his old man and loves stories about newspapers in the old days.
But he’s about the here and now. And maybe, the here and now 20 years into the future.
The problem, he says, is that regardless of whether it’s a 30- or 60-day session, the Legislature rarely if ever deals with the archaic systems and practices that have built up over time. Sure, bills are passed and bills are quashed, and bills sometimes become law, but major changes simply don’t happen, or happen soon enough.
Maestas has a half-dozen examples — boards and commissions that in some cases produce nothing tangible; liquor laws that haven’t been updated in decades; piles of state statutes that haven’t been recompiled since 1978 — but perhaps his biggest complaint is that of time: The Legislature doesn’t have enough of it, in its alternating 30- and 60-day format mandated by the state constitution. He favors a 90-day session, followed by a 60-day session that wouldn’t be required to concentrate solely on budget matters.
And so begins a very long climb. To change the length of a legislative session requires a ton of carpentry. You’d need both the House and Senate to pass a joint resolution that would result in a constitutional amendment that needs the support of the voters. And to make this work, you’d need to have paid legislators, with year-round staffs.
But that’s only part of it. For a constitutional amendment to work, it needs the political support of a governor, which is tricky, because some of this stuff reconfigures the role of the Legislature vis-a-vis the power of a governor.
“We need to reimagine state government,” he says. “And everything, in my opinion, should have an economic component. How do we utilize state government to grow our economy? To me, a functional government is the best ingredient to creating economic growth.”
Maestas is far from the first to think about these things. About 10 years ago, under Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration, the state commissioned a report on how agencies could be streamlined and government could work better. Naturally, it was written as Richardson was leaving, and his successor, Gov. Susana Martinez, wanted nothing to do with any baton Richardson had handled.
So the can, as they say, was kicked down the road a little longer.
Unfortunately for Maestas, New Mexico is going to get a can-kicking next year. The COVID-19 shadow looms large over the session, and regardless of whether legislators do their work inside the Capitol, at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center or online, restructuring the state wouldn’t get much of a hearing compared to concerns about the virus, the budget and progressive issues the leadership in both houses want to pass. Even Maestas is going to wait before introducing some of the legislation he thinks would help.
Still, he says there are plenty of younger members of the House who’ve voiced concerns similar to his. There may be enough of them who might someday be willing to look around at the leaky pipes and the mismatched rooms of New Mexico’s government and say, “Hey, we’ve gotta fix this.”
Well, we’ll see. Maestas may simply be tilting at windmills. But he’s not so sure.
Heading to the sports metaphors that come with his lineage, he says this:
“It’s like a boxer,” he says of his willingness to persevere and eventually find pieces of government that can be fixed and made sensible. “You go to the body. You don’t have knockout punches, but you win the round.”