State lawmakers proposed 32 changes to the New Mexico Constitution during this year’s 60-day legislative session. Only two passed – they’ll likely be approved by voters in 2018. But the state constitution is already 4.5 times longer than the federal one. So, what does it mean when a constitution looks more like a user’s manual than a clear, concise list of fundamental rights?
State Historian Rick Hendricks slipped on white cotton gloves as he entered the cavernous archives vault in Santa Fe. It was chilly and he pulled out New Mexico’s original constitution.
"It looks like a library book, right? It has a library industrial spine, it's gray. You would never take it for the original," said Hendricks. "But, of course you open it up and see the signatures."
It's the very same constitution that was ratified in 1912. It’s been amended over 100 times now and lawmakers aren’t afraid of trying to add more to it, including things like legalizing recreational cannabis, creating an independent ethics commission and enshrining the right to hunt and fish. Hendricks said when the state constitution is constantly amended during the legislative session the document becomes unwieldy.
New Mexico has never held another constitutional convention where lawmakers could rewrite, trim the fat, and end up with a newer, sleeker state constitution more akin to the federal one.
"There doesn’t seem to be any will either in the legislature or on the part of people of New Mexico to have a new convention and revise the dadgum thing, which really is what needs to happen," said Hendricks.
For now, the original is just being edited over and over and over again.
There are a handful of reasons why lawmakers choose to do that instead of pass new laws. Senators Jerry Ortiz y Pino, William Sharer, and Mimi Stewart each sponsored constitutional amendments this year.
Sen. Ortiz y Pino said one of the reasons he sponsored senate joint resolution, Possession and Personal Use of Marijuana is because Governor Susana Martinez cannot veto a constitutional amendment like other legislation. Sen. Sharer explained the only way he could change the Public Regulation Commission was through the constitutional amendment process. And, Senator Stewart sponsored a constitutional amendment that needed voter review.
Brenda Erickson with the National Conference of State Legislatures said it’s normal for state constitutions to be constantly growing.
"So sometimes, the constitution isn't necessarily looked at in its totality," she said. People may not often think about the constitution as whole, Erickson said, but voters are comfortable knowing it can’t be changed without their input.
"It’s a living and breathing document," said Erickson. "It can be changed. You can take things out of it. You can do a proposal to remove a section."
But, making improvements to the constitution can be a lengthy and tedious process. Just ask Senator Sharer.
"For example, we don’t have a right to drink a beer in our constitution," Sharer explained. "So we can build law and regulate things that make sense for this generation. They might not make sense for the next generation, and so the next generation can change it. But once it’s in the constitution it is very difficult to fix it. Which is part of the problem with the PRC today."
Sharer wants to reduce the number of commissioners on the state Public Regulation Commission. That’s something that’s determined by the constitution, so he has to pass an amendment. Sharer said he wonders if he is going down the wrong path and ought to move the Public Regulation Commission out of the New Mexico Constitution.
Steven Robert Allen is a policy expert with the ACLU-New Mexico. He says people may debate what deserves to be in the constitution, but when you're talking about foundational rights and basic civil liberties, he said, that's when it might be the right time to talk about amending the constitution.
The People, Power and Democracy project examines ethics, transparency and accountability in state government. The project is funded by the Thornburg Foundation and by contributions from KUNM listeners.