Visiting New Mexico’s state capitol during a legislative session can be daunting, especially for the uninitiated. But since making one’s voice heard is an essential part of democracy, here’s our idiot’s guide to navigating the Roundhouse like you own it.
1. Get lost. The capitol building is round (hence the “Roundhouse” nickname), so you will get lost. Luckily, there’s a large collection of great art to keep you occupied while you figure out which way is east and which is west. But remember: Since it’s a circle, you’ll always find your way back.
2. Think (read: park) ahead. There’s free parking in the garage to the east of the Roundhouse—but if you get there after 9 am, don’t expect to find a spot. If you miss out on the parking garage, you’ll have to park on a side street. Watch out for no-parking zones: Even the most well-intentioned citizen lobbyist can get a ticket.
3. Photographic memories > cameras. While you’re allowed to have a camera in the Roundhouse, you can’t bring it into the gallery, the viewing area above the semicircular chambers where the House and Senate hold their formal debates. If you do, you will be asked to leave—so save your photos for the art on the walls instead of the legislators voting on bills.
4. Hats off! Gentlemen, leave your hats at home. Whether it’s a fedora, a cowboy hat or a baseball cap, if you try to enter either the House or Senate chambers with a hat on, you will be asked to remove it. This goes for committee rooms as well.
5. Eat cheap. If you happen to forget your lunch at home, don’t go out into the highly-priced restaurants in Santa Fe—the capitol cafeteria’s food is much cheaper. And they even serve decent green chile.
6. Commit to a committee. Committees are where the magic happens: The first stop for proposed legislation, they have the ability to stop a bill in its tracks, make amendments or send it onto the House or Senate floor for debate. The floor is where the bills actually get the up-or-down vote that lets them become laws, but through their power to amend, committees have the ability to significantly alter a bill. They’re also the only opportunity regular folks have to formally voice their opinions on a bill. For committee meeting times and agendas, visit nmlegis.gov or call the Legislative Council Service at 986-4000.
7. Find yourself. If a committee says it starts at 1 pm, expect it to start at 1:30. At the earliest. OK, this is an exaggeration. But the later in the day a hearing is scheduled, the more likely something along the way will delay it. Committee hearings can also change locations at the last minute, so it’s worth checking with the friendly Legislative Council Service staffers on the fourth floor, who know almost everything that’s happening at any given moment. Even when you do successfully arrive, you might see a roomful of vacant seats—but don’t worry. Many state lawmakers have to shuffle from committee to committee, testifying and voting on various bills. And since our sessions happen in winter, others may still be battling La Bajada on their way up to the capitol.
Matthew Reichbach writes the daily New Mexico news update “Morning Word,” which appears every morning at SFReporter.com and on his website, the New Mexico Telegram (nmtelegram.com).