Civility still greases the wheels in legislative debates

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Here’s a word legislative Democrats and Republicans use for each other quite often, one you won’t see often in the press: collegial.
You might think a legislative session is only one step above Jello wrestling, but you’d be wrong. The language is civil, even courtly: “Gentle lady from Chavez … Gentleman from Cibola …”

Bringing their collective experiences and loyalties to the process, lawmakers understand that they will disagree, and they do it respectfully, for the most part. As hearings stretch into the wee hours, and floor agendas grow longer, there is the occasional blowup, but they soldier on. Everyone is heard.
With all the party-line votes, I had wondered if legislators think for themselves any more. They do. The parties seem to marshal their votes for certain issues, but otherwise individuals vote their conscience and their constituencies. We’ve seen some dramatic crossovers, some shows of independence. And collegiality.
Last week, when Rep. Larry Larrañaga, an Albuquerque Republican, presented his bill making it a crime to kill or injure the unborn child of a pregnant woman, he met resistance from Santa Fe’s Rep. Brian Egolf, a Democrat. None other than House Majority Leader Ken Martinez rose to Larrañaga’s defense, noting that his bill reflected the latest thinking in case law and showed a lot of hard work. (Martinez, I’ve noticed, often tries to soothe, bridge and compromise). The bill passed.
Then there was the matter of old oil and gas wells.
Rep. Thomas Garcia, a Mora County school superintendent, is one of the Democrats’ most adroit debaters. (The scribe sitting to my left calls him “the closer.” The one on my right thinks he’s a bully).
Garcia usually saves his ammunition for Republicans, so it was surprising to see him sponsor and defend a bill that would require new rules to keep a well that might be productive in the future from being prematurely plugged and abandoned.
Rep. Mimi Stewart’s girlish voice doesn’t serve her well in a debate, but she made up for it in tenacity, grilling Garcia about the genesis of his bill and its impact on groundwater protection. For a change, Garcia seemed to be cornered.
Rep. Don Bratton, an engineer, was next to speak.
“I’ve spent a career in oil and gas,” said the Hobbs Republican. “As economic circumstances change for a well, it may be necessary to stop production, but if you require all the tubulars to be pulled out and a plug set to temporarily or permanently abandon a well, that costs thousands of dollars.”
As technology provides new ways to remove hydrocarbons or prices improve, an unproductive well can become productive. “Any time you have to go in and re-equip a well or drill out plugs, it adds to the cost and creates an economic decision by the operator,” Bratton said. “If you drive up costs, the decision is to not go in.”
That decision, in turn, reduces tax revenues. Lawmakers may not know what a tubular is, but they understand reduced tax revenues.
As for groundwater protection, there are safeguards to assure the stability of a well bore, and if an operator disappears into the night, an orphan well fund maintained by the industry will be used for remediation.
“Decisions have to be made every day about whether it’s economical to operate a particular well,” Bratton said. “This merely allows more time before we’re required to go in and remove equipment and plug a well.”
Despite lawyerly arguments from Egolf, the House passed the bill 48 to 20.
In both cases a reasonable, informed response seemed to pivot the outcome. Somebody was listening.
Maybe you disagree with a vote or still suspect politics behind every decision, but our noisy democracy often works. And respectful debate, formality, and collegiality oils the gears.

© New Mexico News Services 2011